The decimalisation of British coinage is completed on Decimal Day.
On 15 February 1971, known as Decimal Day, the United Kingdom and Ireland decimalised their currencies.
Under the old currency of pounds, shillings and pence, the pound was made up of 240 pence denoted by the letter d for Latin denarius and now referred to as “old pence”, with 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound.
The loss of value of the currency meant that the “old” penny, with the same diameter as the US half-dollar, had become of relatively low value.
The Coinage Act of 1792 had officially authorized the United States as the first English-speaking nation to have decimalised currency, although Tsar Peter the Great used the concept for the Russian ruble close to a century earlier, in 1704, while China has used such a decimal system for at least 2000 years. The United Kingdom’s Parliament rejected Sir John Wrottesley’s proposals to decimalise sterling in 1824, which was prompted by the introduction in 1795 of the decimal French franc. After this defeat, little practical progress towards decimalisation was made for over a century, with the exception of the two-shilling silver florin worth 1/10 of a pound first issued in 1849. A double florin or four-shilling piece was a further step in that direction but failed to gain acceptance and was struck only from 1887 to 1890.
The Decimal Association was founded in 1841 to promote decimalisation and metrication, both causes that were boosted by a realisation of the importance of international trade following the 1851 Great Exhibition. It was as a result of the growing interest in decimalisation that the florin was issued.
In their preliminary report, the Royal Commission on Decimal Coinage considered the benefits and problems of decimalisation but did not draw any conclusion about the adoption of any such scheme. A final report in 1859 from the two remaining commissioners, Lord Overstone and Governor of the Bank of England John Hubbard came out against the idea, claiming it had “few merits”.
In 1862, the Select Committee on Weights and Measures favoured the introduction of decimalisation to accompany the introduction of metric weights and measures.
The decimalisation movement even entered fiction. In Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, Plantagenet Palliser is a passionate advocate of decimalisation, a cause the other characters seem to find intensely boring. Palliser’s scheme would have divided the shilling into ten presumably revalued pennies. This would have changed the threepence into 2 1/2
new pence, the sixpence into fivepence and the half crown into a two shilling, five pence piece. It would also have required the withdrawal and reissuance of the existing copper coinage. At the end of the fifth book in the series, The Prime Minister, Palliser muses that the reform will not be accomplished, since it can only be done by a Chancellor of the Exchequer sitting in the House of Commons, and the Duke now sits in the House of Lords.
The Royal Commission on Decimal Coinage, chaired by Lord Emmott, reported in 1920 that the only feasible scheme was to divide the pound into 1,000 mills but that this would be too inconvenient. A minority of four members disagreed, saying that the disruption would be worthwhile. A further three members recommended that the pound should be replaced by the Royal, consisting of 100 halfpennies.
In 1960, a report prepared jointly by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, followed by the success of decimalisation in South Africa, prompted the Government to set up the Committee of the Inquiry on Decimal Currency in 1961, which reported in 1963. The adoption of the changes suggested in the report was announced on 1 March 1966. The Decimal Currency Board was created to manage the transition, although the plans were not approved by Parliament until the Decimal Currency Act in May 1969. Former Greater London Council leader Bill Fiske was named as the Chairman of the Decimal Currency Board.
Consideration was given to introducing a new major unit of currency worth ten shillings in the old currency: suggested names included the new pound, the royal and the noble. This would have resulted in the “decimal penny” being worth only slightly more than the old penny this approach was adopted, for example, when South Africa, Australia and New Zealand decimalised in the 1960s, adopting respectively the South African rand, Australian dollar and New Zealand dollar equal in value to 10 shillings. But Halsbury decided, in view of the pound sterling’s importance as a reserve currency, that the pound should remain unchanged.
Under the new system, the pound was retained but was divided into 100 new pence, denoted by the symbol p. New coinage was issued alongside the old coins. The 5p and 10p coins were introduced in April 1968 and were the same size, composition, and value as the shilling and two shillings coins in circulation with them. In October 1969 the 50p coin was introduced, with the 10s note withdrawn on 20 November 1970. This reduced the number of new coins that had to be introduced on Decimal Day and meant that the public was already familiar with three of the six new coins. Small booklets were made available containing some or all of the new denominations.
The old halfpenny was withdrawn from circulation on 31 July 1969, and the half-crown followed on 31 December to ease the transition.
There was a substantial publicity campaign in the weeks before Decimalisation Day, including a song by Max Bygraves called “Decimalisation”. The BBC broadcast a series of five-minute programmes, “Decimal Five”, to which The Scaffold contributed some specially written tunes. ITV repeatedly broadcast a short drama called Granny Gets The Point, starring Doris Hare, the actress in On The Buses, where an elderly woman who does not understand the new system is taught to use it by her grandson. At 10 am on 15 February itself BBC1 broadcast ‘New Money Day’, a ‘Merry-go-Round’ schools’ programme in which puppet maker Peter Firmin and his small friend Muskit encountered different prices and new coins when they went to the shops.
Banks received stocks of the new coins in advance and these were issued to retailers shortly before Decimalisation Day to enable them to give change immediately after the changeover. Banks were closed from 3:30 pm on Wednesday 10 February 1971 to 10:00 am on Monday 15 February, to enable all outstanding cheques and credits in the clearing system to be processed and customers’ account balances to be converted from £sd to decimal. In many banks the conversion was done manually, as most bank branches were not yet computerised. February had been chosen for Decimal Day because it was the quietest time of the year for the banks, shops, and transport organisations.
Many items were priced in both currencies for some time before and after. Prior to Decimal Day the double pricing was displayed as e.g. 1s; from Decimal Day the order was switched to 5p . For example, this order was used on most football programmes during the 1970–71 season. High denomination 10p, 20p, and 50p stamps were issued on 17 June 1970. Post offices were issued with very simple training stamps in the same colours as the upcoming decimal stamps.
Exceptions to the 15 February introduction were British Rail and London Transport, which went decimal one day early, the former urging customers, if they chose to use pennies or threepenny pieces, to pay them in multiples of 6d. Bus companies at that time many state-owned by the National Bus Company were another exception, going decimal on Sunday 21 February.