The day Britain went Decimal
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. This old system of currency, known as pounds, shillings and pence or lsd, dated back to Roman times when a pound of silver was divided into 240 pence, or denarius, which is where the ‘d’ in ‘lsd’ comes from. (lsd: librum, solidus, denarius).
To prepare the nation for the changeover in currency systems, the Decimal Currency Board was set up, running a public information campaign in the two years prior to the switchover on the 15 February 1971, also known as Decimal Day.
Three years before changeover, new 5p and 10p coins were introduced; these were the same size and worth the same amount as the one and two shilling coins. In 1969 a new 50p coin was introduced to replace the old 10 bob (shilling) note.
The banks were closed for four days before changeover to prepare. Currency converters were available for everyone, and prices in the shops were shown in both currencies. This went some way to alleviate the feeling many people had, that shopkeepers might use the conversion from old money to new to increase prices!
Today (15 February 2023) marks 52 years since this momentous event – most of us are far too young to remember this event so here’s a quick history lesson along with a few vintage videos.
Tanners and bobs, ha’pennies and threepenny bits
In the early 1960s Britain still used a currency system of twelve pennies to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound. It was a system whose origins stretched back to Anglo-Saxon times and beyond, and which besides its enduring practical function of oiling the wheels of daily commerce had enriched the very language and literature of the nation. Tanners and bobs, ha’pennies and threepenny bits, were instantly recognisable descriptions, and the romance of the coinage was enhanced by the presence of coins of Queen Victoria, some of them 100 years old. Long familiarity had inevitably generated a deep-rooted affection: a beautiful and venerable currency, certainly; cherished, too; but undoubtedly baffling to those not born to its complexities.
The Royal Mint
The day Britain went Decimal
It may have taken 300 years after the first campaign for the decimalisation of our currency but 52 years ago today (15 February 1971) it happened – the UK celebrated a currency change called D-Day (or Decimalisation Day).
Decimalisation Day occurred in the middle of a seven week postal strike, when the average house cost £4,265 and a pint of bitter would set you back 14p (new pence) – a lot has changed since Decimalisation Day.
Oh, and the banks shut for three days to prepare for D-Day.
In a stroke, the importance of the 12 times table reduced, the ease of adding up sums of money vastly improved overnight, the use of coins from Victorian times finally ceased and, together with the ‘threepenny bit’, the ‘half crown’, ‘florin, ‘shilling’ and ‘tanner’ all fell victim of decimalisation.
Some coins survived for a little while – the shilling and two shilling, albeit with a value of their decimal equivalents, could be used until 1980 and for a number of years you could spend an (old) six pence for a (decimal equivalent) of 2 1/2p.
In 1971 our language, songs and rhymes also changed – for example it no longer made sense to sing:
You owe me five farthings, said the bells of St Martins
Sing a song of six pence
The UK wasn’t at the forefront of this change Russia went decimal on 1704, the USA and France at the end of the 18 Century and by the 1960’s Australia, South Africa and New Zealand all joined suit.
On the 15 February 1968 the Labour chancellor announced that the UK would adopt a decimal currency – in exactly three years both the shape and value of the UK’s coins would change (overnight)!
Every man who looked at his 10 fingers saw an argument for its use, and an evidence of its practicability.
MP Sir John Bowring told the House of Commons: “
D-Day – Decimalisation Day
Until decimalisation in 1971, a pound was made up of 20 shillings – with each shilling worth 12 pence.
On the 15 February 1971 referred to as “D-Day” or “Decimalisation Day” the system was simplified, so that 100 “new pence” made up one pound.
Six coins were introduced to reflect the “new pence”.
Two silver coins were in circulation prior to the 15 February 1971:
- 10 (new) pence – equal to 2 Shillings.
- 5 (new) pence – equals to 1 Shilling.
A 50 (new) pence – equal to 10 Shillings – would be introduced a year later would be the world’s first seven sided coin.
Three bronze coins entered into circulation on the 15 February 1971:
- 2 (new) pence.
- 1 (new) pence.
- 1/2 (new) pence.
The (old) penny and the threepence bit ceased to be legal tender on Valentines Day (the day before D-Day).
The pound note was unaffected by this change and was retained.
Decimal Five: BBC Television’s public information film
Decimal Five was BBC Television’s five minute public information film series, shown during the prime time slot on BBC1 during the run up to D-Day or Decimalisation Day – the official day on which decimal currency.
Supermarket Decimal Training Film
Produced in 1970 for Tesco this informational film was to help Tesco’s staff with ‘Decimal Day’ (D-Day) which took place on Monday 15th February 1971.
A day of chaos or a smooth transfer?
It is widely reported that D-Day was a success however there was a cry that shops had used the changeover to increase prices.
A perspective of the first day of decimalisation (and life in the UK at the start of the 1970’s) is provided with this video – including some great voxpops.
I’ve got no sentimental feelings about LSD.
Even granny gets the point
It seems that there were plenty of “public information” films produced to support adoption and helping deal with the challenges – in this one Granny gets the point.
Use your old coppers in sixpenny lots
This catchy tune was designed to help shoppers find the right coins.
How much have you spent?
BBC South Today tests local residents understanding of how much money they are spending.
The whole of Europe has a decimal system, why not us? I think we’re well behind the times.
A Londoner in 1963
Perhaps the confused shoppers should have checked their ‘shoppers table’.
No wonder a ‘shoppers table’ was necessary – look at these decimal / pre-decimal conversion table:
Not everyone was happy
Alice Robinson, closed her general store because of decimalisation:
I can’t be bothered with this new money.
Six robberies in five years couldn’t close me, but this new money has.
I know the old system and I’m not going to fiddle about with any new one.
Don’t delay – prepare today
- The Royal Mint: Decimalisation.
- BBC Archive: The story of Decimal Day.
- Cash: A quick history lesson.
- Pound in your pocket.