News and views from the heart of England - Issue 3    © David Smith 2018

david.plugpress@btinternet.com

Decimalisation of British currency

On Monday 15 February, 1971, the United Kingdom converted to a decimal system of currency. The old system, with three essential components, was known as pounds, shillings, and pence, or £sd, and comprised the pound (£, originally from the Latin libra), shilling (originally from the Latin solidus), and the penny (originally from the Latin denarius). The new currency became £p. The £ sign and name was retained. The penny initially became New Pence, but later became pence , or just pee. Under the new system, there were 100 pence to the pound. The shilling dropped out of use.

Some old coins, like the halfpenny and the half crown were withdrawn well before Decimalisation Day. Some of the new coins retained the shape and size of their old currency counterparts, and were actually introduced into circulation two or three years before Decimalisation Day. This act of preparation reduced the number of new coins that had to be introduced on Decimalisation Day itself, and allowed the public to become familiar with them. A fifty pence coin was introduced in October 1969, and the old ten shilling note was withdrawn a year later. Great publicity was given in advance of Decimalisation Day, with TV and music stars enlisted to perform in public service films and TV programmes to ease the introduction of the new coins and currency.

Banks were allocated stocks of the new coins in advance, and they were issued to shops and businesses to allow change to be given immediately after the changeover. Banks closed on the Wednesday before Decimalisation Day to allow all outstanding cheques and transactions to be completed in the old money, and customer accounts to be converted – manually, there were no computers then – into the new currency. They remained closed until Decimalisation Day morning.

Decimalisation Day itself went remarkably smoothly. I was at Art College at that time, and I clearly remember going to get my morning coffee in the canteen, handing over my cash, and receiving this strange change in return. Everybody was very self-conscious, and stood around making silly, embarrassed jokes about new pee. There were inevitably criticisms around the country. Many traders were suspected of profiteering by instantly raising prices to round numbers in the new currency. Vending machines got jammed when people tried to use new pennies instead of old sixpences. Older people were very confused by the whole business, and of course, with the arrogance of youth, we were all very scathing about their difficulties with such a simple conversion between old and new.

The new system very quickly became familiar, and everybody soon realised how much easier it was to handle the new currency compared with the old system. Here’s what we had to contend with in the years before decimalisation:

 

½ penny

Written as ½d. Usually called a ha’penny

1 penny

1d, often called a copper

3 pennies

A thruppeny bit, 3d. Issued in the form of a thick, yellowish, 12 sided coin

6 pennies

6d, sixpence, often called a tanner

12 pennies

1 shilling, known as a bob

2 shillings

24 pennies, written as 2/-, and called a florin, or a two bob bit

2½ shillings

30 pennies, called half a crown, written as 2/6d

10 shillings

120 pennies, often called ten bob, written as 10/-, issued as a note

1 pound

240 pennies, 20 shillings, written as £1, and often called a quid, nicker, or oncer

1 pound 10 shillings

Not a denomination as such, but a common amount, referred to as thirty bob

In writing, compound prices were written using all three units, so that you might buy a new coat for five pounds, seven shillings and elevenpence, written as £5-7s-11d. The shop assistant would say, “Thank you, sir, [that’s how they spoke in those days] that will be five pounds, seven and eleven.”

As you can imagine, working out change from £6 would require a PhD in mathematics. There were no electronic calculators or automatic cash tills then. As a matter of interest, the value of £1 in 1971 is equivalent to £13-30 in 2017. Prices are 1229.5% higher now.