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Decimal Day 1971: How Great Britain Transitioned to Decimalized Money

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An assortment of the last British decimal coins issued in 1970. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions, www.HA.com. Click image to enlarge.

When the United States government has attempted replacing the Dollar bill with a Dollar coin or hinted at removing the One Cent coin due to its greatly diminished value due to inflation, hysteria invariably ensues. It’s nearly as if many among the public believe that the Dollar bill and “penny” are somehow eternally written in the stars of the United States monetary system, never to be eliminated. So, imagine how Britons felt decades ago when, after hundreds of years of the £sd system – that is, “Pounds, Shillings, and Pence” system.

In retrospect, one could say pre-decimal British currency required some extra memorization to get down pat: 12 Pence equal a Shilling, and 20 Shillings (or 240 Pence) was the unitary denomination of a Pound. Cumbersome? Maybe. But it worked – for about 1,000 years! However, monetary decimalization in Great Britain, made official in 1971, was hardly a lightning bolt from the blue. The topic had been considered from time to time by British Parliament since the 1800s, but it wasn’t until after World War II in the mid-20th century when the movement gathered steam.

Many of the former British colonies converted from the £sd basis soon after gaining independence; the United States, formerly a British realm, adopted its decimal monetary system of 100 Cents equaling one dollar in 1792. Canada, meanwhile, which still is subject to the British monarchy, has been using a similar Dollar-based decimal system since 1858. In Europe, decimal systems were established as early as 1704 with Russia’s use of the Ruble, and in China the decimal system stretches back some two millennia.

Back in Britain, the move to decimalized money was launched with a 1960 report by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of the British Chambers of Commerce. Citing the success of decimalized currency in South Africa, the findings compelled the British government to establish the Committee of the Inquiry on Decimal Currency the following year. After a few years of research and debate, the Decimal Currency Board was created in 1966, which helped facilitate the necessary preparations to convert the British monetary system to a decimal basis.

The Decimal Currency Act was finally approved by 1969, by which time the decimal transition was well underway. And while many considerations for new currency names were bandied about, the iconic “Pound” was retained as the basis of the new decimal system. While the Pound stayed on with its name and value intact, several other denominations long culturally associated with Britain would see curtains in the years ahead as the nation’s new monetary system came into use.

After years of anticipation, Decimal Day arrived in Great Britain on February 15, 1971. By this time, Britons had already introduced to several elements of the new monetary system. The Farthing, worth a quarter of a Penny, had already been discontinued in 1956 and demonetized in 1961 due to the unrelated issue of inflation. In 1968, the 5 and 10 Pence coins were introduced, while a 50 Pence coin came along in 1969. The following year, the 10 Shilling note was pulled from circulation. Booklets containing samples of the new coins as well as information on their values were also widely distributed. Decimal Day brought the arrival of three new denominations: Halfpenny, Penny, and 2 Pence.

Widespread publicity campaigns helped familiarize Britons with the new monetary system, and many retailers offered dual pricing on their items to help ease customers into paying for merchandise with the new decimal coinage. Transportation companies, postal services, and players in other sectors spent several days – even many weeks both before and after Decimal Day – formally converting their operations on the new decimal basis to ensure a smooth transition.

In the weeks after Decimal Day, many of the old coins became increasingly scarce as new coins were introduced and the former circulating pieces were withdrawn from circulation upon being deposited at banks or spent at retail outlets. The bulk of the formal conversion process was wrapped up within seven months after Decimal Day, with the old Penny (1d) and Threepence (3d) coins being demonetized on August 31, 1971. However, the world-famous Sixpence coin, long tied to lore and still integral in pop culture, was demonetized on June 30, 1980 – nearly a decade after Decimal Day.

While the old British monetary system is now nothing but a memory, vestiges of the old ways still abound. The Crowns, Sovereigns, and Double Florins of pre-decimal origin have been minted since, with pre-decimal Crowns still legal tender and worth 25 Pence. Shilling and Florins, which were the same size of the 5 and 10 Pence coins introduced in 1968, were still in use as recently as the 1990s though have since been demonetized. Meanwhile, Maundy Money, which has been issued in small quantities during special royal ceremonies on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday, a high holy Christian holiday during the Easter season) for centuries, contain silver and are struck under the decimal currency system in 1, 2, 3, and 4 Pence coinage.

The transition to decimalization took a long time. And it certainly wasn’t easy… How many Britons inadvertently used the wrong coins – even demonetized coins – in vending machines months, even years after Decimal Day? Old habits die hard, and old currencies sometimes even harder still. Yet, Great Britain has long since adopted the convenient and widely embraced decimal system, something that should prove as an example that any United States monetary initiatives proposed in the past or yet to cross the halls of Congress in the future can be successful when the will of the government – and will of the people – work together for a common cause.

Sources

British