Exactly 50 years ago today the UK officially switched its currency to the decimal system. If it hadn’t, the coins and notes in your wallet would look very different.
Before Decimal Day (known as D-Day) on 15 February 1971, people in Britain used pounds, shillings and pence, a system that had been in place for centuries. To those of us who didn’t experience the old system, it seems very complicated. There were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings, or 240 pence, in a pound. That’s a lot of complex arithmetic during your big shop.
The coins had much better names back then though. There was the crown and the florin; the halfpenny, or ha-penny; the sixpence, AKA the tanner; and the threepence, also called the thruppence or thruppenny bit.
Nowadays, and for the last 50 years, we use decimal currency based on a factor of ten where a pound is made up of 100 pence. It’s much easier to use, but the switch must have been a huge undertaking at the time for both ordinary people and for banks and businesses. The Royal Mint, who produces the UK’s coinage, had to mint hundreds of millions of new coins. A brand new Royal Mint had to be built to meet the demand, which is located in Llantrisant in South Wales.
When decimalisation was introduced the new coins were issued gradually. The first new coins, the 5p and 10p, were released in 1968 and they were the same size as the shillings and florins, so they could easily be in circulation together. But some of the new currency was completely unfamiliar. The new 50p, released in 1969, was the world’s first seven-sided coin. Some businesses introduced decimal pricing before they had to, to try to ease customers in.
There were publicity and information campaigns aimed at making the transition as smooth as possible. Leaflets and posters were distributed in the years leading up to D-Day, and there were television programmes such as ‘Decimal Five’ on the BBC. Max Bygraves even released a song called – you guessed it – ‘Decimalisation’.
Despite Max’s best efforts, not everyone was happy with the change. A passionate public campaign to “Save Our Sixpence” showed how emotionally attached many people were to the coin. The sixpence was the last of the old coins to stay in circulation, finally being withdrawn in 1980.
Some people thought we were losing touch with our heritage by getting rid of the old coins. To honour this heritage, the current 12-sided £1 coin takes inspiration from the old ‘thruppence’, the first 12-sided coin in the UK.
Objects relating to decimalisation will be on display in Leeds City Museum as part of an exhibition called “Money Talks”, opening February 2022.
By Kat Baxter, Curator of Archaeology & Numismatics