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Decimalisation Day

50 years ago, Britain took a decision that would
change our money for good.
We look back to D-Day on 15th February 1971, when the
old pounds, shilling and pence were replaced by new money.

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In Decimal Day, the 15th February 1971, the currency of the UK completely changed. For centuries people in Britain used a system of coins based on pounds, shillings and pence. There were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings, or 240 pence, in a pound. There was a range of different coins, such as the crown, sixpence and halfpenny (or ha-penny). Some of the coins were known by different names too - the sixpence was a tanner and the threepence was known as a thruppence or thruppenny bit. People using this system had to work out complex arithmetic in daily life, and to those under 60 it can be difficult to imagine how everyone did it.
 

Although decimal currency was supposed to make life easier, not everyone was happy with the change

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D- Day ‘On Decimal Day (or ‘D-Day’ as it was known), the currency officially changed over and the old system became history. The new system was based on a factor of ten, where a pound was made up of 100 pennies. Many Commonwealth countries had already switched to a decimal system; it was supposed to be easier to use, particularly when dealing with trade and tourism in the modernising world. But it meant that every single person in the country had to use coins which looked different and represented new values and denominations.


As well as being a big change for people in everyday life, decimalisation was a huge undertaking for the country. 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. It was also a big challenge for banks, who had to change their entire system. The Bank of England, as well as some other banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland, had to start printing new decimal banknotes.

The new coins were issued gradually. The first new coins, the 5p and 10p, were released in April 1968. They were the same size as the shillings and florins, so they could easily be in circulation alongside each other. But some of the new currency was completely unfamiliar. The new 50p, released in 1969, was the world’s first seven-sided coin and replaced the ten shilling (or ‘ten bob’) banknote.

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​As well as running the old and new currencies alongside each other, there were also publicity andinformation 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 and ‘Granny Gets the Point’ on ITV. There were also songs such as Wilfrid Brambell’s ‘Decimal Song’ and Max Bygraves’ ‘Decimalisation’, which included the lyrics “They’ve made it easy for every citizen ‘cos all we have to do is count from one to ten”.

 

Although decimal currency was supposed to make life easier, 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.

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Part of the Leeds museum collection from 'D' -Day

We asked some of our readers to share their memories of the historic day and to reflect on how they felt when the currency changed fifty years ago and what the changes meant for them.

Maureen Kershaw remembers the effect it had on her place of work: 

"At that time, I was working in the Typing Pool of 'General Accident Insurance' in Leeds. A training company was brought in to guide us through the big switchover from pounds, shillings and pence to decimalisation. It was like being at school again, but now being told to forget the 12 pence to a shilling and 240 to the pound. The new pound would have only 100 pence - confusing! We were assured it was all going to be so much easier in our calculations but even at the age of 23, I didn't want to let the side down. After the basic lesson from our tutor, it was 'back to primary school', playing shops with plastic coins - replicas of our new legal tender. I distinctly remember we girls calculating which and how many coins we would need to purchase our daily cream slices from Craven Dairies on East Parade. We knew our priorities!"
 
Of course, it was the older generations who did worry about the changeover, even to feeling convinced they would be 'diddled' out of the correct change! For a while after decimalisation came into being, many were confused after a lifetime of old coinage and notes, with some even handing over purses or a handful of change for the shop assistant to take the correct amount. As with so many things though, everyone adapted with time and, save for perhaps a few loose coins kept as mementos, we had all moved with the times".
 

For Jane Abramson, working as a trainee at her local bank was quite the challenge:

"In 1971 I was a graduate trainee with NatWest Bank, working at the Beckett branch on Park Row. I remember that the banks closed for two days on the Thursday and Friday, in  preparation for D-Day on the Monday. We had an awful lot of big handwritten ledgers in those days. I was in the Security Department at the time so there were Safe Custody items that had been lodged for safe-keeping by the bank. And securities against loans and that sort of thing. They all had nominal values against them.

We had to go through them all by hand, cross out the old pounds, shillings and pence and write in the new decimalised currency. We didn’t quite finish on the Friday so we had to work Saturday morning too. It was quite a big thing, everyone was involved for a time beforehand to prepare.

I was living in Harehills at the time. I remember very clearly getting the bus into town on D-Day, for work. The bus fare wasn’t that much, but I had a handful of pennies to pay. I noticed that amongst the coins was a very old, very worn Victorian Penny. The money had been around for that long. So, I gave the  driver my fare and he gave me my change, which was these amazing, gleaming new coins. It was all called “new pence” and we all calculated it back to the old money: it was hard to get your head around. A bit like when you go abroad, dealing with a new currency.

I also remember going into Lewis’s at lunchtime on D-Day. They had a café downstairs and up on a board they had all the items that were for sale, with the old money and how much it was in new pence. It was a bit ridiculous though. There was so much sentiment about it. “Oh, we don’t want to lose our old pounds, shillings and pence.” They kept the sixpence (2-and -a-half pence) and the shilling (five pence) to placate people, but they eventually phased out the sixpence.

I probably had a slightly more professional attitude to it because I was an economics graduate. I wasn’t very sentimental. I could see the sense of moving forward into decimalisation. A lot of people felt much more strongly. A bit like the metric martyrs, refusing to use kilograms in the market! My husband is a numismatist (coin collector) and from their point of view the old coins such as the half-crown piece (25 new pence) were much loved. They were lovely old coins. This new money looked like toy money. I remember my late grandfather looking at one of the new 50p pieces and saying, “how can this be worth ten shillings?” The older people were more resistant. And there was a tendency for people in shops to round up to the nearest new pence.

Nowadays we barely even use cash! It’s a shame in a way. I know a couple of older people who don’t have cards. But I find it so easy. And we can transfer money using electronic payments.

I left the bank and decided I wanted to qualify as a teacher or lecturer. So, I studied for a teaching qualification and ended up at Park Lane College in Leeds. They had a big banking education section and they grabbed me with both hands!"
 

Thanks Maureen and Jane for sharing your memories of D-Day.

Let us know at Shine if you have any memories of the change to a decimal system in 1971.

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