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British coins decimalisation

By The Royal Mint    |   Friday, 1 August 2008

The need for a decimal currency system had been discussed in Parliament in the early nineteenth century and as far back as 1849 a florin was introduced - inscribed one tenth of a pound with the intention that it should be the first step towards the adoption of a decimal system. Over a century later, on the 1 March 1966, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan announced that the old £sd system would be replaced by a decimal currency in which the pound was to be divided into one hundred units. Although fiercely challenged the change was confirmed by the Decimal Currency Act of 1967.

Recognising that the enormity of the change would affect every business and household in the country the Government proposed a five-year preparatory period before the changover in 1971. To supervise this change-over the Decimal Currency Board was established and one of the decisions of the Board was to calm fears, especially from older members of the community. It did this by providing information to the public in newspapers and magazines, and by producing millions of pamphlets. The Board kept in regular contact with the Royal Mint, the Bankers Association as well as a host of other organisations concerned.

To issue a new coinage was not easy. Not only had new dimensions to be found but the coins had to be distinguishable by sight and touch from each other and from those £sd coins already in existence. At the same time there was a desire to take advantage of the change to make the coinage smaller and lighter. For the obverse, a new portrait of the Queen by Arnold Machin had been prepared in readiness, and, in November 1966 a series of designs by Christopher Ironside was approved and unveiled in February 1968.


During the period between 1967 and 1971 certain £sd coins were withdrawn and certain new decimal coins were phased into circulation. The first of the new coins, the 5p and 10p were introduced in April 1968, corresponding exactly in size and value to the shillings and florins, and circulating alongside for some time. In October 1969 the 50p coin joined the 5p and 10p coins in circulation.

With the introduction of the 5p, 10p and 50p the public were becoming familiar with three of the six new coins. The remaining three coins to be introduced 1/2p, 1p and 2p were finally issued on the 15th February 1971. D-Day meaning in this instance Decimal Day.

The decision to introduce a new decimal currency meant striking hundreds of millions of coins in readiness for D-Day - a task that was beyond the capacity of the existing mint at Tower Hill. In accordance with Government policy of moving industry away from the capital, sites for a new Mint were considered and finally the Government announced in April 1967 that a new Royal Mint would be built in South Wales.

The march of progress

During the nineteenth century many national currencies were successfully reorganised on the decimal system and as a result decimal coinage had been adopted throughout Europe, Russia, and the Americas.

The decimal system of the United Kingdom, however is still relatively new. It was not until the 1960's that the decision was made to decimalise the currency. The Government announced its decision in 1966 and the British public bade farewell to the romantic £sd coinage. The official changeover took place on 15 February 1971.

Milestones in the evolution of the United Kingdom's decimal coinage system


The issue of the first British decimal coin, a two-shilling piece which bore the words one tenth of a pound.


A Halsbury Committee of Inquiry was appointed to discuss possible methods of implementing decimalisation.


The Report of the Committee of Inquiry was published.


The Government announced its decision to decimalise the United Kingdom currency.


Prior to decimalisation, 5p and 10p coins were issued to circulate alongside the shilling and two-shilling pieces.


First decimal coins struck at the new Royal Mint by Her Majesty the Queen.


Issue of 50p coin, the world's first coin to be struck in the shape of an equilateral curve heptagon.


Decimal coinage became the official currency of the United Kingdom on 15 February with the issue of the 1/2p, 1p and 2p pieces.


New 50p reverse design by David Wynne to commemorate Britain's entry into the European Economic Community (EEC).


The word New removed from decimal coins. The seven-sided 20p coin issued.


The new £1 coin issued on 23 April 1983, its reverse designed by former Royal Mint Chief Engraver, Eric Sewell. Four different portraits issued during Queen Elizabeth II's reign, see Royal Portrait.


1/2p coin withdrawn from circulation.


Arnold Machin's portrait of the Queen, approved for the new decimal currency, was replaced with a new effigy by Raphael Maklouf.


The first nickel-brass £2 coin issued to commemorate the Commonwealth Games, the first British coin to mark a sporting event.


The smaller 5p was issued on 27 June.


Copper-plated steel replaced bronze as the alloy for the 2p and 1p, except in 1998 when the 2p coin was made in both bronze and copper-plated steel.


The smaller 10p coin was issued on 30 September.


A smaller 50p coin was issued on 1 September.


The United Kingdoms first bi-colour £2 circulation coin was officially introduced on 15 June.


A new portrait of Her Majesty by Ian Rank-Broadley FRBS on all circulating coins of the United Kingdom.

Change process

It was all change to a decimal currency on 15 February 1971. But it wasn't just the younger generation who had to get used to new calculations and coins. It affected everyone. Because of the tremendous amount of careful planning which had gone on beforehand, the change-over from the pounds, shillings and pence system that had been in existence since Anglo-Saxon times to the new decimal coinage was almost the non-event of 1971. In some ways the old system might seem quite strange with twelve pennies in a shilling and twenty shillings in one pound but to those of us who grew up using £sd it was quite natural.

A change had been in prospect for over 100 years. But it was not until 1961 that the Government appointed Lord Halsbury to chair a Committee of Inquiry to advise on how the currency might be decimalised. By 1963 the Committee had reported and in 1966 the Government finally announced the decision to go ahead. So the suggestion of change was by no means sudden.

The Decimal Currency Board, formed to oversee decimalisation, did a marvellous job to allay any fear of confusion, helped by the fact that the change-over was mainly by evolution rather than by a sudden revolution.

The pound retained its value, the penny remained in name and the shilling and florin had been re-denominated as the new 5p and 10p coins. In fact on D-Day itself only three new coins entered circulation: the 2p, 1p and 1/2p joining the 5p and 10p pieces introduced in April 1968, followed by the 50p which was first seen in 1969.

The old coins

In the days before decimalisation, if you took a look at the change in your pocket, you could find coins that dated back nearly a century. If you were really lucky it was possible to find a coin dating back to the reign of William IV or George IV and certainly many of the delightful bun pennies issued during Queen Victoria's reign could be found. How different from today, when the oldest coins you would see are the 50p pieces introduced in October 1969.

The highest value and largest coin was the half-crown (it was worth two shillings and sixpence - the equivalent of 12-and-a-1/2p today). Its impressive size led to its popularity with children as for many it was far more that a week's pocket money! So if you were given a half-crown as a present you felt very special indeed.

People had taken such great care with the half-crown that when the coin was withdrawn from circulation the Mint was surprised to receive back more than were thought to be in circulation!

The florin was a comparatively new coin amongst its pre-decimal counterparts, having been introduced in 1849 as a concession to those who favoured a decimal system. Being a two-shilling piece it circulated alongside the 10p quite comfortably when the process of decimalisation took place.

The biggest disadvantage of the florin was its similarity in size to the half-crown and although their designs were very different they could be easily confused.

The shilling was a favourite coin with the popular nick-name of 'bob', which you can still hear used occasionally on the television. And of course it was the inspiration for the Boy Scouts Bob-a-Job Week, though can you imagine being paid just 5p for washing a car or cleaning windows?

During winter months shillings were often hard to come by as large numbers were locked up in electricity and gas meters. There were more sixpences in circulation in the 1960s than any of the other £sd coins, with the exception of the penny. So it was no surprise when a campaign to 'Save Our Sixpence' was launched and the sixpence allowed to remain legal tender for some years after decimalisation.

Affectionately known as a tanner it was a very useful coin and many chose to save it, for some reason using old whisky bottles for the purpose.

The nickel-brass threepence appeared in 1937, replacing the charming small silver coin. To avoid confusion the new coin was made unusually thick and had twelve sides, making it easily recognisable during the blackouts of the War years, when to protect the nation from airborne attacks no lights could be shown at night.

Of the coins in circulation the penny had the longest continuous history, tracing its origins to Anglo-Saxon times and beyond. With pennies from 1860 remaining legal tender many collectors tried to build up long runs of dates. The Mint often received letters from people desperately seeking dates they couldn't find, in particular the legendary penny of 1933.

During its last years in circulation a halfpenny could buy little other than a few sweets. Nevertheless, large numbers of halfpennies continued to be required for change-giving.

It is hardly surprising that many grown-ups and children were so fond of these coins with their fascinating histories that they took some out of circulation as souvenirs as D-Day approached. This sense of keeping a piece of history was certainly reflected in the sale of more than 700,000 Proof sets in 1970, minted deliberately to contain the last £sd coins.

The old system

  • £ = 20 shillings (sh)
  • sh = one shilling of 12 pennies (d)
  • d = one penny or two half-pennies or four farthings

So, in other words, there were 240 pennies in one pound. And every schoolchild in Britain could recite their twelve-times table without hesitation!

Very conveniently, for those such as banks who handled coins in bulk, the weight of the pre-decimal coins bore exact relationships with each other:

  • two sixpences weighed the same as one shilling;
  • four sixpences weighed the same as one florin (two shillings);
  • five sixpences weighed the same as one half-crown.

Bronze coins were useful measures of weight and length. The diameter of the halfpenny was almost exactly one inch, while five pennies placed side-by-side provided a reasonably accurate six-inch measure. Three pennies or five halfpennies weighed one ounce.

Publicity campaign: Getting ready for D-Day

You certainly couldn't fail to notice that something was happening to the currency as the massive publicity campaign swung into action as D-Day approached. The colourful posters and newspaper advertisements were simple and effective and most people carried a pocket-sized conversion chart. Everywhere you looked you could see some reminder that D-Day was on its way.

Of course the change-over to new coins and a new system affected everyone but it also had an enormous effect on business. Each shop till had to be replaced because they worked in the old system. Telephone boxes had to have new slots. So too did parking, gas and electricity meters. Business documents that itemised goods sold in £sd columns had to be reprinted. The list is endless.

A trip to the shops with the new decimal coins in your pocket was quite exciting, similar to shopping in a foreign country today, with the prospect of using unfamiliar coins. For a short while everything was marked-up in both systems and people could check to see if the shop-keeper had got it right.

To help avoid confusion with the old coins it had been decided that the new ones should look very different from those they were to replace. The Royal Mint Advisory Committee selected Arnold Machin's graceful portrait of the Queen for the obverse and Christopher Ironside's six reverse designs, traditional in subject but very modern in design.

Originally, the change-over period was to take a year but we became used to decimal coinage so quickly that the old coinage disappeared almost overnight. But for those of us who can remember pre-decimal days it is with great fondness for a system with a history spanning over one thousand years.

Fascinating facts

  • In preparation for the change-over the new Royal Mint in South Wales struck over 2,000 million decimal coins.
  • Banks were closed from 3.30pm on Wednesday, 10 February 1971 until 10.00am on 15 February, enabling them to stock up with the new coins.
  • February was chosen for D-Day because it was the most convenient for banks, shops and transport organisations, being the slackest time of the year.
  • Britain's first decimal transactions probably took place on a cross-channel ferry which left Dunkirk for Dover just after midnight on Saturday 13 February.
  • After D-Day cheques written in £sd were invalid.
  • The new 50p coin was the world's first seven-sided coin.
  • When first issued the decimal coins bore the word new.
  • One man wrote to a newspaper suggesting that a suitable nickname for the 10p would be a pod because it had 10ps (peas!) in it.
  • To familiarise the public with the new coins souvenir sets went on sale from 1968.
  • A pop song called Decimalisation was brought out - but didn't make the Top 20!

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