A Brief History of Decimalization Day in the UK

A Brief History of Decimalization Day in the UK

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..

Seemingly, a 20-second conversation was all it took to undo over 1,000 years of British numismatic tradition. In 1966, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jim Callaghan walked to Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s office for a short conversation, and when asked his opinion on decimalization the PM replied, “well why not” (Freeman, 2011). A short time later, on March 1, 1966, Callaghan announced to the public that Britain’s historic shillings and pence would be replaced by a new decimal currency, with a hundred pence per pound.

In reality, the process was much more drawn out and lasted for nearly 150 years.

It was in 1824 that Parliament began investigating the benefits of decimalization. Several years later, the Decimal Association was founded to promote both the metric system and a decimal coinage. The movement began gaining momentum when Sir John Bowring, a Member of Parliament, publicly announced his support in 1847. He stated that “every man who looks at his ten fingers, saw an argument of its use, and evidence of its practicability.” As a result, a Royal Commission on Decimal Coinage was established in 1856. Despite the Governor of the Bank of England rejecting the idea wholesale, The Royal Mint struck a series of pattern decimal coins based on the Florin, the Decade, and the Centum.

A Brief History of Decimalization Day in the UK
1848 Centum (Florin) pattern. Image: Heritage Auctions. Auction 3101. August 25, 2022. Lot 34234.

It was here that the decimalization movement lost steam, and it wouldn’t be until 1961 that the UK Government again began seriously looking into the benefits of conversion. Formed in 1961, the Committee of Inquiry was tasked with three main objectives: to look into the most useful and convenient units for the new currency; to issue recommendations as to the best timeframe to roll out the new currency at the least cost; and to estimate the costs of the process.

Chaired by Lord Fiske, the committee published a report in 1966 that estimated decimalization would cost upwards of £120 million, of which the Royal Treasury promised to cover half. When converted to USD and adjusted for inflation, this is about $3,072,860,600 at the time of writing. Shortly after the Committee of Inquiry fulfilled its mandate, the Parliament adopted the Decimal Currency Act of 1967, and The Royal Mint began planning for production. In August of that year, The Royal Mint began constructing a new facility at Llantrisant, Wales. Queen Elizabeth II inaugurated the facility in December 1968, by turning on a coining press and striking the first decimalized bronze coins. With plans for an early introduction of the 5 and 10 pence coins in 1968 and the 50 pence in 1969, the Llantrisant mint immediately began operating at full capacity. By 1969, the facility was striking over 50 million coins per week.

The old duodecimal system, while based on the pound, was quite inefficient and made accounting difficult. For hundreds of years, two farthings equaled a half penny; two half pennies made a penny; two threepence made one sixpence; two sixpence were a shilling; five shillings a crown; and four crowns made a pound. Basically, one pound was equal to 240 pennies and one shilling was equal to 12 pennies.

A Brief History of Decimalization Day in the UK
1970 Cu-Ni Proof Shilling. Image: Sovereign Rarities Ltd. Auction 6. June 28, 2022. Lot 103.
A Brief History of Decimalization Day in the UK
1953 Penny. Image: Tauler & Fau. Auction 112. June 6, 2022. Lot 7186.

Replacing these were the new 1 penny, 2 pence, 5 pence, 10 pence, and 50 pence coins, at 100 pence to the pound.

A Brief History of Decimalization Day in the UK
1971 New Penny 1 Probe. Image: Auktionshaus Christoph Gärtner. Auction 32. Lot 35166. October 24, 2015.
A Brief History of Decimalization Day in the UK
1969 Proof 50 New Pence. Auction 20. Lot 182. November 18, 2011.

In 1967, The Royal Mint released a series of fascinating prototypes for the trial Decimal Two Pence coin. This piece was most likely intended to demonstrate the required layout of the new coin’s legends for design contestants.

Trial decimal Two Pence. Image: Sovereign Rarities, Ltd. Auction 3. Lot 155. April 27, 2021.

These two pieces are part of a complete set of patterns struck by The Royal Mint in 1968 as part of the decimalization process. Intended to demonstrate the size, weight, and material of the new coins, only three or four of these sets were produced. On their obverses, the Mint placed Latin numerals (10, 5, 2, 1) to show which coin they were supposed to represent.

Image: Goldberg Auctioneers. Royal Mint Decimal Set. 10 pence and 1/2 pence. Auction 91. Lot 2981.

Learning from Australia’s three-year implementation plan, the UK Government decided that it would take five years to ensure the successful adoption of the new currency with minimal disruptions and the official “D-Day”, or Decimalization Day, was set for February 15, 1971. Over those years, a massive public awareness campaign was completed. This included a booklet being sent to every household by the Currency Board that explained the new system, over 3,000 corporate presentations by the National Westminster Bank, a number of television advertisements, and new lessons in all of the nation’s schools. The Board also mandated a series of six trainings for all cashiers.

The Government also estimated that over five million machines needed to be retrofitted to accept the new coinage. This included cash registers, parking meters, and pay phones at an estimated cost of 87 million pounds ($2,227,823,935.96 adjusted for inflation). Additionally, businesses that decided to buy new machines were entitled to an 85% tax write-off.

“D-Day” finally arrived, and the Government declared that all banks were to close on the prior Thursday to allow time for conversion. The London Stock Exchange and UK post offices also closed on Friday. By Monday, D-Day, reports show that the new Royal Mint had already struck two billion coins. When British Pathé News asked citizens for their feelings on the new coins, many thought that the penny and half penny were a little too small. One recorded incident shows that the new copper one penny coin was being used in laundry machines in place of the old cupronickel sixpence. While the new penny coin was worth 1/3 of the old sixpence, this was possible since it was only .89 mm larger.

A Brief History of Decimalization Day in the UK
Error half penny. Image: London Coins Ltd. Auction 151. Lot 1955. 5/12/15.

Before decimalization, a staggering 3/4th of people feared the change would force price increases. However, public opinion quickly turned around and an official government survey from after the change found that 69% of people believed prices were being properly converted; 12% thought they were not, and 20% were undecided. Overall, it seemed as if people were simply afraid of change.

In fact, it was estimated that the new decimal system would save schools over six months, just based on the difficult calculations and complex nature of the old denominations. Since England was one of the last countries to decimalize, there was a sense of inevitability to the change. Despite a few localized incidents, decimalization occurred without any major issues as Fiske had hoped, leading to it being known as the “Great Non-Event of 1971”.

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About the Author

Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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  1. Usage quibble: The word “pence” is plural, so references to “1 pence” coins should correctly be “1 penny”.

    The use of two different plural is strange to American ears: “pence” is the plural for amounts, but “pennies” refers to multiple individual coins. Thus five pennies are worth five pence (!)


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