UK and Ireland celebrate 50 years since ‘Decimal Day’

On the day of the official change to Decimal Currency on 15 February 1971, Lord Fiske, Chairman of the Decimal Currency Board, made a purchase at a Woolworths store in London.

George W. Hales / Getty Images


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On the day of the official change to Decimal Currency on 15 February 1971, Lord Fiske, Chairman of the Decimal Currency Board, made a purchase at a Woolworths store in London.

George W. Hales / Getty Images

Fifty years ago on Monday, Britain and Ireland ended a currency system that had been used for hundreds of years and switched to decimalisation – the system in which the currency is based on multiples of 10 and 100.

Before 15 February 1971, Britain’s currency was 12 cents to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound – or 240 pence to a pound.

But that’s not all. There were also two quarters in a ha’penny, three cents in a bit, two bits in a sixpence, two sixpences in a shilling, five shillings in a penny, and four crowns in a pound. There were also two shillings in a florin and 10 florins made a pound. (Here is a chart.)

The system was confusing to foreigners, but loved by many Britons, according to to the English author Anthony Burgess: “Tanneries and bobs, ha’pennies and threepenny bits, were instantly recognizable descriptions, and the romance of the coins was enhanced by the presence of Queen Victoria, some of them 100 years old. Long intimacy had inevitably created a deeply rooted devotion: a beautiful and venerable currency, certainly; also valued; but undoubtedly confusing to those not born of its complexity. “

The decimalized system is far more streamlined: 100 cents to the pound.

USA established decimal coins in 1792. The United Kingdom had since discussed a change to a decimal currency at least 1824, but the project got steam in the 1960s.

Such a change was an important task. The country minted new coins over the years. Stores started sending signs with prices in both the old system and the new one. Some new coins came into circulation before D-Day – Decimal Day – while some coins came into use on the day itself. New stamps were printed, reflecting prices in the new currency.

To complete the transition, the banks closed for a Thursday and Friday in addition to the then typical weekend closure. The stock exchange was closed, like post offices for a day.

Cashiers in a Fine Danger supermarket studying decimal conversion cards during a 1968 course

George W. Hales / Getty Images


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Cashiers in a Fine Danger supermarket studying decimal conversion cards during a 1968 course

George W. Hales / Getty Images

And an entire population trained in the old system needed to learn another – a matter of both currency and arithmetic.

“I would not go over to decimals,” a Londoner had told the BBC in 1963. “First, I am too old and I will never understand them.”

At that time, Ireland’s currency was pegged to the United Kingdom’s, and the country also chose to go for decimalisation. Trinity College Dublin professor Brian Lucey remembers the excitement surrounding Decimal Day.

His mother ran a pharmacy and bookstore in Kerry (county), he told The Irish Times. “I remember for a long time that I would find removals, old pennies and the like. I would get a job at the end of the day sorting the contents of the box and I would have to calculate the old currency,” Lucey said.

“When you think about it, the old system of pounds, shillings and pence was so complicated – people do not easily divide by 2.4 in their minds to go from 240 old pence to 100 new pence – it is not an intuitive calculation, “Lucey noticed.

Ireland adopted the euro in January 1999 as a replacement for the Irish pound.

And how did the change happen in the UK?

Pretty easy by most accounts. Like a shopper told the BBC“Well, it’s not that bad. If I get confused, I’ll give them the two shillings and calculate it from there.”

The Guardian reported at least a few hiccups in 1971. Some people quickly figured out that they could use the new currency to exchange coin slots as at laundries using a new coin with an ear where an old piece of six pence had gone.

There were also other gripes, such as that stores had rounded the prices to the nearest pence. Bus drivers and taxi drivers who had to deal with both types of currency “seemed to find the arithmetic involved too much of a burden in an already crowded life, and in the Republic of Ireland some managers in Dublin and Cork refused to deal with the new coins until they were paid more to do so, “according to the newspaper.

Fifty years later, the memory of that day seems to have aroused nostalgia for both the old coins and the hoopla around the shift.

Royal Mint Museum sent boxes with the old coins to nursing homes, where they brought memories back to the residents, BBC reported. Even though it has been half a century, a resident immediately remembered the old system.

“It’s two and six,” she said.


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