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The long and confusing road to decimalisation

By Mark Andrews | In-depth | Published:

It wasn’t a simple switch when Britain updated its currency, with coins introduced, dropped, revalued or halved adding to shoppers’ worries

Lord Fiske, chairman of the Decimal Currency Board, shopping at Woolworths, London

It was part of an economic revolution 140 years in the making, but not everyone was thrilled with the newly minted coins in their purse.

Former fishmonger Geoff Brown was working at Brierley Hill Indoor Market when the first of the new decimal coins were finally brought into circulation – introduced 50 years ago today.

The then-18-year-old recalled having to place charts on the market walls displaying the conversion rates after bemused customers struggled with the new system.

He said: “I was serving older people, and they didn’t like the new system at all. I don’t think they were very impressed. I had to explain to them how it worked. I had charts up on the wall and it told you the old shilling and the new equivalent.

“I thought it was much easier to add up because we did not have calculators in those days.”

The first decimal coins, 5p and 10p pieces equivalent to the existing shillings and florins, were introduced on April 23, 1968, although it would be nearly three years before the switch-over was complete.

While most of the world was using decimal money by the late 60s, Britain had shown a distinct reluctance to embrace the new system.

In an attempt to ease the process, the British Government opted for a phased introduction with the new coins running alongside the existing notes and coins, with items still being priced in pounds, shillings and pence.

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For all the best efforts to make the transition as smooth as possible, there was inevitably some confusion, which was satirised in sitcoms such as On The Buses where conductor Jack Harper, played by Bob Grant, observed that retailers were able to put up prices because customers didn’t know what they were paying.

Posters put up to help shoppers get used to the changes

Indeed, it seems even the Express & Star was a little confused by the changeover, referring to the “new 5d and 10d coins” – they were actually 12d (1s) or 24d (2s).

To add to the confusion, the sixpence would remain in circulation until 1980, but was only valued at 2.5p after the switch-over was complete in 1971.

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Grandfather-of-five Mr Brown, 68, said: “I’m shocked it was 50 years ago. I had a till and I had to change it from shillings to pence and pounds.

“And the scales as well – the price used to come up on the scale and I had to make the changes.”

The decimalisation of Britain’s coins was first proposed in 1824 by Sir John Wrottesley, the Staffordshire MP who had been impressed by the simplicity of the French Franc.

However Sir John’s proposals were rejected by Parliament, and despite growing calls from international traders, there was little appetite from the general public to make the switch.

The Decimal Association was founded in 1841 to encourage the change, and the introduction of the silver florin in 1849 – worth one-tenth of a pound, or 24d – was the first tentative step towards decimalisation.

It was a 1960 report, prepared jointly by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, that finally set the ball rolling, also following on from the success of decimalisation in South Africa.

In 1961 Harold Macmillan’s government set up a committee, chaired by the respected academic Lord Halsbury, which looked at the different options for decimalisation.

However, when Halsbury presented his report in 1963, he decided that the pound’s value as a reserve currency on the international money markets was too important to tamper with.

Instead, he opted for a system which effectively retained the pound, florin and shilling in their existing form, but revalued the penny so that there were now 100p to a pound, 10p to a florin and 5p to a shilling.

By this time, rising inflation also meant that copper coins were becoming less important.

More radical change was to come in 1969, when the ten-bob note was replaced by the new seven-sided 50p piece, and the same year the old halfpenny was dropped. By February 15, 1971, which by this time had been dubbed Decimal Day, the new penny was introduced.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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