It was forty years ago today

Something happened 40 years ago that some people still haven’t recovered from!

On the 15th February 1971  a monetary system that had lasted for centuries came to an end. The old system had to give way to a new modern system that was based on the decimal counting system of units tens, hundreds etc. Old money, as it became known, was originally based on the value of gold hence the name pound. A pound was subdivided into 20 shillings and each shilling was divided into 12 pennies (symbolised with a d) so One pound seven shilling and six pence (~£1.37) could be written £1 7s 6d or more usually £1/7/6.

The penny was then subdivided into a half penny or ha’penny and even that was subdivided into a farthing (although these were phased out before I was born I would occasionally come across them when I was young. In much older times even the farthing was subdivided into smaller denominations such as the half farthing and quarter farthing but these  had ceased to be used in the 19th century (presumably due to inflation).

Before you even got as far as a shilling there were a number of coins, all of which have passed into history but still linger on in our language. There was a three pence coin known as a thrupp’ny bit and a six pence coin or tanner – the former was bronze coloured and had multiple edges (like a 50p piece), the latter was round and silver. The thrupp’ny bit was a quarter shilling and the tanner a half shilling, there had been up until the mid 19th century a third of a shilling coin too called a groat – in case you ever wondered what one was!

One of my earliest memories was lying awake just before I started school worrying in case they tested me when I got there (I was that sort of kid) – I could count up to 11d but didn’t know what came next! I knew I had never heard anyone say twelvepence and anyway it just didn’t sound right! I didn’t know that the next stage was a shilling. Chances are I’d never had as much as a shilling (5p) in my life!

Obviously there was a shilling (also referred to as a bob) 1/- and then of course a two shilling coin (or a florin) – these became the 5p and 10p pieces in 1971 and were still around for many years to come before being finally pulled from circulation in 1990. Then there was the coins so beloved by children’s storytellers the  half a crown! The half a crown was worth 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence) and was essentially an eighth of a pound. These had disappeared in 1969, two years before decimalisation and a few years after the coin which was double it’s value the crown (5 Shillings) – although again I don’t remember ever seeing a crown.

1953 half crown reverse

The half a crown (12.5p) was a standard gift or treat – say for a Birthday or Easter (in lieu of eggs) and was invariably spent buying an Airfix model! These were the last of the coins after that the next piece of currency was paper. The piece of paper in question was the much lamented Ten Bob note!

The value of this was ten shillings or half a pound (ie 50p in today’s money). The replacement of the note by the rather vulgar coin caused probably the most outrage at the time! the pound and five pound notes survived unchanged into the decimal era. The expression Guinea was still in use although again i don’t think I ever saw one – the Guinea was equivalent to 21/- or a pound and a shilling!

As I said the change wasn’t popular, about as popular as the thought of introducing the euro would be today. People saw it as an erosion of our national identity and traditions (and most likely a nasty alignment with Johnny Foreigner!). The change of a currency is not something that happens overnight so there had been lots of preparation for the big day in the months leading up to it. In those pre-computer, pre-internet days the Government still relied on printed matter to spread the message and we were all given a card with a currency conversion table on it.

Shoppers' Guide

One of the things that confused me, I was only 10, was how could 1 new pence (which I recall we wrote as 1np for a while) be equal to both 2 old pence and 3 old pence at the same time? The same was true for 9 old pence and 10 old pence which were both equal to 4np! I never really got a satisfactory answer to that one but I guess it was the only way they could make 12 go into 5!

The more observant among you would notice that there is a half pence shown on the list above. This was one of the original coins that was introduced in 1971 and was used until it was withdrawn from circulation in 1984 and ceased to be part of the currency of the uk. The only two coins that were introduced that day that still remain unchaged are the 1p and 2p coins – all the rest have been changed in some way. The 5p, 10p and 50p coins have all shrunk since they were introduced. The 20p coin along with the £1 and £2 coins have all been introduced in the years following decimalisation . The £1 note has also followed the 10/- note into the history books.

The other thing I remember about the introduction of the new decimal coinage was that a new set of stamps had to be issued and being a keen stamp collector (told you I was that sort of kid) we wanted to get the historic first day cover. The only problem was that in that typically British way back then the Post Office staff were on Strike! I can’t remember if the post office opened just for the day but we bought the first day cover and posted it in the special box and it was then delivered to us after the strike has ended so the special piece of history has a little stamp on it explaining that it was delayed due to a strike!

The change was inevitable I guess – the system was outdated and as the world was opening up we needed to have a currency that worked alongside the other currencies of the world. Given the increase in prices over the years I think that even if we still had the old system most of the coins that people still mourn the loss of would have gone the way of the groat by now anyway. I’m old enough to remember it, just, my brother who was a year younger than me doesn’t. My wife was born into a decimalised world three years later.  My children would probably wonder what the hell I’m going on about! So why, after 40 years, does it still raise such passion?

Well I guess you can’t erase centuries of history overnight (or even in 40 years) but I suspect it goes deeper than that. The old money had become entrenched in our language, “Bob a Job Week”, “Sing a song of sixpence”, “If you haven’t got a penny then a ha’penny will do” etc – the names of the old coins gave them character – how often do you hear someone waxing lyrical about a 50 pence piece? (Mind you we used to say Vic Halom had a head like a tenbob bit! but that was in 1974 and as you can see the new coin was still known by the old demomination!) Do we still give things alternative names?

Then there’s the argument that the decimal system was all too clinical, it fitted nicely in a box, something we as a nation have never been too good at. It could be that it was the beginning of the dumbing down of our national psyche – making it easier but not necessarily better! Maybe decimal coinage was demonized as being the event that heralded the modern era and the huge amount of change in our society in the last 40 years.

Who knows given another 500 years or so the new currency will have integrated itself into our culture (although whether the decimal system will remain the Pound or become the Euro remains to be seen) and when we finally adopt the Martian hexadecimal dollar we will wax lyrical about the good old days of pounds and pence – that may well be the case but somehow I doubt it!

For those who are interested there is a list of British Coins on Wikipedia

Interesting view by Stephen Bayley in the Telegraph