Decimal Day: when Britain said farewell to the shilling

The pounds, shillings and pence used in Britain for centuries were replaced by a new currency on Decimal Day, 15 February 1971

Lord Fiske, chairman of the Decimal Currency Board, makes a purchase at a Woolworths using the new currency on Decimal Day, 15 February 1971

For those who have only known British money after the overhaul of decimalisation in 1971, the old currency may seem a confusing array of arithmetic and colourfully named coins.

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There were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings to the pound, but within that were farthings, halfpennies, thrupenny bits, tanners, half-crowns, crowns and florins. This system was in use for over a millennium and had its origins in Roman times, when a pound of silver would be divided into 240 denarii.

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The idea of a decimal currency, based on units of 10 and 100, had been mooted long before Britain made the switch. Other nations did so much earlier: Russia made the transition in 1704, then France and the US in the 1790s. Yet it would not be until a number of Commonwealth nations made the change in the 1960s that momentum led Britain to join what the Evening Standard called “The Decimal Revolution”.

Chancellor of the Exchequer James Callaghan announced the decision on 1 March 1966 and the Decimal Currency Board (DCB) was created to make the transition, which would not take full effect for five years, as smooth as possible. Central to the campaign was a public information drive of posters, leaflets, BBC broadcasts, an instructional song by Max Bygraves and a 26-minute sitcom-style film for ITV called Granny Gets the Point.

To ease the change further, the new 5p and 10p coins were introduced in April 1968, then the 50p the following year. All coins had a portrait of the Queen on one side, while the reverse boasted the work of esteemed sculptor Christopher Ironside. He had started in 1962 on the instructions of a preempting Royal Mint, only for Callaghan to launch a public competition for the coin designs, causing Ironside to start again and work tirelessly in order to win the right to “get the tails”, as he put it.

Finally, the 1p, 2p and halfpenny went into circulation on Monday 15 February 1971 – Decimal Day, also referred to as D-Day.

The banks had closed for four days in preparation and shops had currency converters to display prices in both old and new money, but the DCB had done its job. Apart from some lamenting the loss of pounds, shillings and pence, everything went smoothly as two billion new coins filled the nation’s purses.

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This content first appeared in the July 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed