On 15 February 2021, we mark 50 years of decimal currency in the UK.
The Royal Mint is issuing new coins to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Decimal Day. Decimal Day was also known as D-Day. You can find details about the new Royal Mint coins at https://www.royalmint.com/decimal-day. D-Day took place on 15 February 1971 when the new decimal currency was introduced.
There were many years of planning for the decimalisation of British currency.
The Decimal Association was founded in 1841 to push for decimalisation of the UK’s currency. It took 130 years to achieve its aims. The first British decimal coin, the florin, worth one tenth of a pound, was introduced in 1849.
Inspired by the success of decimalisation in South Africa and in response to various reports, the UK government set up the Halsbury Committee in 1961 to look into decimalisation. This committee reported in 1963. Its detailed report examined 25 separate systems over 2 years and favoured the maintenance of the pound as the basic currency unit. This meant that the pound kept its old value and name but the sub-units that made up the pound changed. The big advantages of keeping the pound as the basic unit were familiarity, international recognition and reputation. Its proposals were adopted in 1966 and the Decimal Currency Board was created to manage the transition to the new decimal currency. Parliament passed the Decimal Currency Act in 1969, which paved the way for decimalisation in 1971.
The use of a decimal currency had the following major advantages:
- Counting in shops and banks becomes much easier and faster.
- Machines that use the decimal counting process are easy to use and cheap.
- It would make elementary arithmetic in schools a lot easier.
On 1 March 1966, James Callaghan, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said:
“The cost of going decimal is heavy but you recover it within a year or two and, from then on, you get a bonus all the way through; a bonus in teaching time, ease of teaching, a bonus in terms of transactions in banks and commercial counting houses, a bonus in shops, everywhere around this is a much simpler, better system and I very much regret that we are the last major country to adopt it. However, we are and I am very glad we are.”
Before D-Day, there was a huge publicity campaign to explain the changes to the general public. Small booklets were made to explain the changes for several weeks before D-Day. The government ran a media campaign, including public information films about the new decimal currency, to inform the general public and familiarise the population about the new decimal currency.
The old pre-decimal currency of £sd or Lsd was used in the UK until 1971. It had its origins in the Roman Empire. Historically, this currency system was used across much of Western Europe. The letters in this system stood for Latin unit names:
- L = libra (plural: librae), English: pound
- s = solidus (plural: solidi), English: shilling
- d = denarius (plural: denarii), English: penny/pence
In the old £sd system, there were 12 pence to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound or 240 pence to a pound. There were 4 farthings to a penny and 1 pound + 1 shilling made a guinea. The coins that had been in circulation in the British Isles at some time in the past up until Decimal Day, from smallest to largest denomination, were:
- Farthing (quarter of an old penny)
- Halfpenny (half of an old penny)
- Penny (1 old penny)
- Half Groat (2 old pence)
- Brass Threepence (3 old pence)
- Silver Threepence (3 old pence)
- Groat (4 old pence)
- Sixpence (6 old pence)
- English Shilling (12 old pence)
- Scottish Shilling (12 old pence)
- Florin (2 shillings = 24 old pence)
- Half Crown (2 shillings and 6 old pence = 30 old pence)
- Crown (5 shillings = 60 old pence)
- Half Sovereign (10 shillings = 120 old pence)
- Half Guinea (10 shillings and 6 old pence = 126 old pence)
- Sovereign (1 pound = 20 shillings = 240 old pence)
- Guinea (1 pound and 1 shilling = 21 shillings = 252 old pence)
Of those coins that were not accepted as part of the decimal system, only the 1d and 3d coins were still in general circulation immediately before D-Day. In preparation for decimalisation, the halfpenny was demonetised in 1969 and half-crown was demonetised in 1970. The other coins were either not in general circulation or had already been demonetised. There was a ten shilling note but this was withdrawn before D-Day.
The old £sd pre-decimal currency was replaced by a new decimal currency system where £1 = 100 new pence. New pence was printed on the new decimal coins to distinguish the new pennies from the old pennies and avoid confusion. One new penny was equivalent to 2.4 old pennies. In the new decimal currency system, the pound remained unchanged but the coins that made up the pound changed.
In preparation for D-Day, the 5p and 10p coins were introduced in 1968 and the 50p coin was introduced in 1969. The only new decimal coins on D-Day were the 2p, 1p and ½p coins. The 20p decimal coin was introduced in 1982, 11 years after D-Day. When shoppers spent their old coins after D-Day, they were given change in new coins.
The old coins remained legal tender for some time after D-Day though shoppers were encouraged to use the new coins. All silver pre-decimal coins still in circulation on D-Day, remained in circulation for many years. The last remaining pre-decimal coin, the old 2s coin, was not demonetised until 1993. The only pre-decimal coins that were withdrawn from circulation immediately after D-Day were the 1d and 3d coins. Not all shops went decimal on 15 February 1971. Some shops remained as £sd shops for a few weeks while they updated cash registers and other equipment. 1d and 3d coins were only accepted in £p shops after D-Day in multiples of 6d (2.5p). Prices in shops were dual marked for a number of weeks both before and after D-Day.
In the next article on Metric Views we shall look at the lessons learned from the successful introduction of decimal currency and ask why they were not applied to the UK’s changeover to metric measures.