February 15th 1971 saw the UK move its money to the decimal system.
The Old System
Before decimalisation the UK used the Empirical System, based on 3s, 12s and 20s. Within this system, there were five different types of unit: pounds (£), crowns, shillings (s), pennies (d), and farthings (1/4 d). However, crowns were rarely used.
Whilst those at the time would have known the system by heart, it was not designed for easy conversions. The basic points were:
£1 = 20 shillings (s)
1s = 12 pence (d)
1d = 4 farthings (1/4d)
(and the less common 1 crown = 1/4 pound)
In full, this meant:
£1 = 4 crowns = 20s = 240d = 960 1/4d
1 crown = 5s = 60d = 240 1/4d
1s = 12d = 48 1/4d
1d = 4 1/4d
Changing to a simpler system would make both everyday life and foreign trade easier.
A Long Time Coming
After France decimalised in 1795, the UK considered the option. In 1824 it was proposed to the government. However, the idea was rejected.
In 1841 the Decimal Association started. The Great Exhibition, problems for tourists, and the increase of Britain’s overseas trade all made the idea more appealing.
Several other ideas were put forward, including:
£1 = 1000 mills (proposed in 1824, and still considered in 1920)
£1 = 100 half pennies (and pound renamed ‘The Royal’)
When South Africa moved to the decimal system the UK’s belief that it could work was increased.
In 1963 a report was issued to the government suggesting introducing a decimal system in 1966. This date was rejected, but the process towards decimalisation was underway. The general feeling was that the new system would have 100 pence in a pound, and changes could be made bit by bit.
The first part of the transition was to do changes that would not be too confusing. Since there were 20 shillings in a pound, the shilling could be replaced by a 5 pence. As there were 10 two shillings in a pound, this could be replaced by a 10 pence. These new coins were introduced in 1968, working alongside the old money. The new money was called ‘new pence’ (p) so people did not confuse them with the old pence.
With the new coins in circulation, formal plans to complete decimalisation were made in 1969. The year for the change over was to be 1971, and February was chosen because it was a quiet month for shops, industries and transport systems. A public information campaign was started to tell the people how to get ready, which was run across newspapers and television.
On December 31st 1969, the old 1/2p coin (worth 1/480th of a pound) was withdrawn.
Decimal Day Arrives & The Transition
On February 15th 1971 three new coins, all ‘new pence’, were introduced: 1/2p, 1p, and 2p. They joined the 5p and 10p that had been introduced in 1968.
With two types of currency (old pence and new pence) now in circulation, and the possibility of confusing values (there were 100 new pence in a pound, but 240 old pence), a priority was removing the old pence. Two weeks after Decimal Day, the old pennies (1d and 3d) were taken out of circulation.
However, knowing it would take people a while to understand their new money – especially the older generation that had used the old system for years – shops continued to show prices in both old and new currency for the next two years. Thus, while people were paying in new money they were still able to easily judge whether things were cheap or expensive by looking at the old money values. Meanwhile, a new phrase entered the English language: ‘how much is that in old money?’.
It was not until 1982 that the word ‘new’ was removed from the ‘new pence’ (p). Then, in 1984, the 1/2p was removed, completing the full transition to the modern coin denominations (a £2 was introduced later, in 1998).