Decimal Day – 50 Years On!

The old half-crown coin (2/6)

People of a certain age will remember that fifty years ago today, on 15th February 1971, it was Decimal Day. That was the day that the United Kingdom finally switched completely to the “new money”. Ireland made a similar switch on the same day. Out went old shillings and pennies and in came “new pence”. Old pennies were always abbreviated as `d’ but the new ones were `p’.

In the old system there were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. The pound was therefore 240 old pennies while in the new money it became 100 new pence.

It was not only shillings that disappeared in the process of decimalization. The old ten-bob note (10 shillings) made way for what is now the 50p piece. The shilling coin became 5p. The sixpence was no longer minted after 1970 but stayed in circulation until 1980, worth 2½p.

The crown (5 shillings) and half-crown (two shillings and sixpence, written 2s 6d or 2/6) disappeared, as did the threepenny bit. For a personal story about the latter, see here.

The old penny was a very large and heavy coin, whereas the new one was much smaller despite being worth more. If you had an old penny in your pocket you felt you had something substantial where as one new “pee” seemed insignificant. Even the ha’penny was quite a big piece.

At first, to echo the old ha’penny, there was a ½p coin but that was discontinued in 1984. The old farthing (a quarter of an old penny) had long since ceased to be legal tender (in 1960) although we still had some in the house for some reason.

I was just 7 on Decimal Day but I remember some things about it rather well. There were jingles on the radio announcing Decimal Day and at Junior School we played “Decimal Bingo” to get used to the new money. I remember taking our elderly neighbour’s ten-bob notes to the Post Office to change them into the new coins, though this would have been before Decimal Day as the ten-bob note was phased out in 1970. I remember my Grandad being convinced that the Government had stolen 140 pennies out of every pound he owned…

Youngsters probably find the old system incredibly cumbersome and archaic, which in some ways it was, but at least it got us doing arithmetic in different bases (i.e. base 12 and based 20). The advantage of base 12 is that it has prime factors 2, 3, 4, and 6 so is relatively easier to divide into equal shares; base 10 only has 2 and 5.

Imperial weights and measures also included base 3 (feet in a yard), 8 (pints in a gallon), 14 (pounds in a stone) and 16 (ounces in a pound). I have to admit that to this day when I follow a cookery recipe if it says “100 g” of something, I have to convert that to ounces before I can visualize what it is!

12 Responses to “Decimal Day – 50 Years On!”

  1. One of the many endearing features of the old system was that there was a half-crown but there wasn’t a crown, at least not in general circulation. And to this day that interesting relic the guinea is still used in some circles.

    For some reason I always (wrongly) associate the currency decimalisation with the devaluation a few years earlier, and Harold Wilson’s claim at the time that the “pound in your pocket” had not lost its value. He was right, of course, it was still worth exactly one £.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think special commemorative crowns were minted from time to time but I’m not sure they were ever legal tender.

      • Maybe not. Somebody gave me a QE2 coronation crown when I was a child, which I would probably have spent there and then if that had been possible.

        Also during the 1960s somebody told me there was a gambling club in Cardiff that as a gimmick used Churchill crowns as tokens, which I remember thinking was funny.

  2. I always liked chains and links; the length of a a cricket pitch is 1 chain and an acre is 10 square chains… Bring back groats (4d) and marks (13s4d =£2/3) I say.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Do you remember young Sebastian explaining it on BBC radio?

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