FIFTY years ago today, the British Government launched a new decimal currency that despite the inordinate scale of the transition, managed to go off without a hitch – although it did spark the enduring phrase, ‘What’s that in old money?’
February 15, 1971 was indeed ‘decimalisation’ D-Day – an event that impacted the entire nation, as Britain changed over from the centuries-old system of pounds, shilling and pence to the new currency we know today based on 100 pennies to a pound.
So prior to 1971?
There were 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound; there were guineas, half crowns, threepenny bits, sixpences and florins. The old system dated back to Roman times when a pound of silver was divided into 240 pence – or denarius.
Banks were closed?
Banks, which, of course, were not computerised and had to manually make the switch, closed for four days to prepare. The Royal Mint even had to find a new, larger site away from its historical headquarters at Tower Hill in London to manufacture enough currency for the whole country.
Mass marketing helped?
Two years prior, the newly-formed Decimal Currency Board (DCB) launched a public information blitz to raise public awareness. Posters and leaflets were mass produced, with slogans including, “On D Day, the £ stays the same…but the same £ will be made up of 100 new pence”; “15th February 1971 is D Day” and “On D Day there will be 100 new pence in the £.”
But the new coins took some getting used to?
The first decimal coins – the 5p and 10p- were introduced in 1968 to familiarise the public with the new system, but some traders operated a dual-pricing system initially on many items to ease the transition and anxieties people had that shopkeepers could use the conversion to hike prices. Many older shoppers carried “decimal adders” – clunky contraptions to help them work out the difference between old and new money, and often said: “Whats that in old money?”
The UK’s estimated 610,000 cash registers all had to be made decimal-ready. Teams of technicians worked sixty-hour weeks from January to October 1971.
It all went fairly smoothly?
For a short period, the old and new currencies operated in unison, with consumers paying in pounds, shillings and pence and receiving new money as change. It had originally been planned that old money would be phased out of circulation over an 18-month period, but the old penny, halfpenny and threepenny coins were officially taken out of circulation within six months.
A new coin marks the jubilee?
The Royal Mint has created a special 50p coin to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of Decimal Day. It says the coin “brings the old to mind, carefully selected pre-decimal coins, and sets that bring a sense of nostalgia to the occasion”. The coin has “1971 Decimal Day” embossed in the centre, surrounded by overlapping designs of old UK coins, including shillings and halfpennies.