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Decimalisation, when referring to coins, is when a country changes its currency to a decimal system. This means coins and denominations are in a metric system of tens, hundreds, thousands etc. On February 15th, 1971, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland changed their currencies to a decimal system.
England, and later Britain, used the same non-decimal currency system for centuries. This pre-decimalisation system used Pounds, Shillings and Pence. The currency of the Irish Republic before decimalisation was the Irish Pound or Punt. This was abbreviated to IR£. Irish coinage broadly followed that of the UK, including the adoption of decimalisation until 1999, when the Decimal Punt was replaced by the Euro. The Euro coinage went into common circulation in the Republic of Ireland in 2002.
What was pounds, shillings and pence?
Pre-decimal UK currency was based on Pounds, Shillings and Pence. This is commonly called 'old money'.
It was denoted as ‘l’, ‘s’ and ‘d’: 'L' for pound sterling, 'S' for shillings and 'D' for pence. The initials come from the Latin – libra, solidus and denarius – which were ancient Roman coins. These are believed to be the basis of the British system.
The denomination of shilling disappeared with decimalisation, and ‘l, s, and d’ were replaced with pounds and pence (£ and p).
In 'old money', a pound was divided into twenty shillings, and a shilling was then subdivided into twelve pence. This means that there were 240 pence to one pound.
One shilling was denoted by 1/- and two shillings 2/-. One penny was denoted 1d, and two pence as 2d. One shilling and sixpence would be symbolised by 1/6d.
UK pre-decimal coins, commonly known now as ‘Old Money’.
When was decimalisation?
Calls for decimalisation had been made for centuries, but officially began in the 1960s. The planning for decimal coinage was made under Harold Wilson's Labour administration, and challenged by the Tory opposition. The move was closely linked to the UK’s attempts to join the European Common Market, which was to become the European Union. It was Sir Edward Heath’s Conservative government that finally implemented the currency change in 1971.
As part of £1m of government advertising and publicity, the day of decimalisation – Monday February 15th, 1971 – was christened 'D Day'. To clear cheques written in old money, all banks closed five days before at 3.30pm on Wednesday 10th, then reopened for ‘D Day’ at 10am.
Despite the government commissioning a 'Decimalisation' song by Max Bygraves, the changeover caused huge public outrage, with confused shoppers unhappy with the new, ‘complicated’ system.
Shop prices denoted in pre-decimal denominations.
The Royal Mint began striking new decimal coins in various face values with many new designs. Some were also introduced as legal tender before the changeover.
Many new decimal coins had values exactly equal to the shilling they replaced. Therefore, the new coins were struck to the same size and weight.
The one shilling was equal to five new pennies. A two shilling (or florin) coin equalled ten new pennies. Both new coins were introduced as legal tender in April 1968, three years before decimalisation.
The 50p coin had been introduced as legal tender two years before ‘D Day’. In 1969 it replaced the ten shilling note. The old sixpence coin, which was exactly two and half new pennies was also retained after the change. It and all the shilling coins that remained in circulation were gradually replaced with decimal currency.
The new decimal penny was smaller and more convenient than the old one-pence coin.
The old penny (1d) coin was replaced with a new, smaller and more convenient decimal 1 pence. New two penny and half penny coins were also introduced.
The decimal half penny was the smallest ever UK coin, and was never popular, being withdrawn in 1984. Both the florin and original 10p coins both circulated until 1993, far after decimalisation occurred, and were eventually replaced by a smaller 10p.
The pound coin, which replaced the one pound bank note, was not part of decimalisation: it was introduced in 1983.
UK decimal coins.
The long path to decimalisation
The programme that led to 'D Day' began with the 1963 report from the 'Committee of the Inquiry on Decimal Currency.’ This is also known as the Halsbury Committee. However, the aspirations for a UK decimal currency dated back much further than this.
A Decimal Association was founded in 1840, advocating a decimal and metric system for currency, weights and measures.
Earlier, in 1824, Sir John Wrottesley - the 8th Baronet of Wrottesley Hall and a Staffordshire MP - proposed a move to a decimal currency. Under his proposition, 100 farthings would make one double shilling, and ten double shillings would amount to a pound. This would have meant 1,000 farthings to one pound. Unsurprisingly, parliament rejected the idea.
In 1849, as a result of campaigning by Sir John Bowring MP, a new florin coin was introduced. This two shilling coin was denominated as a tenth of a pound. It was intended to pave the way decimalisation, but said change would not arrive for over a century.
These early calls for the UK currency changes followed decimalisation in many European nations. Russia had introduced the first decimal currency in 1704, with the Ruble equalling 100 Kopeks. France followed, in 1795, replacing the Livre Tournois with the Franc. The Netherlands decimalised in 1817, Sweden in 1855, the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1857, and Spain in 1868.
The United States also had decimal coinage since first minting its own currency in 1792. Today, however, the US, Myanmar, and Liberia are the only three countries not to officially use metric weights and measures.
Despite the early campaigns for change, Great Britain was one of the last major currencies not based on a decimal system. The old British currency also continued to be used in many of its former African colonies, including South Africa.
South Africa introduced its decimal currency, the Rand, in 1961 and the gold Krugerrand bullion coin in 1967.
On becoming a Republic in 1961, South Africa left the Commonwealth, and immediately introduced a decimal currency. The new currency was based on the Rand, which equalled one hundred cents. It also officially adopted metric weights and measures.
In 1967, to help its gold mining industry, South Africa introduced the gold Krugerrand. It is now one of the world’s best-selling bullion coins. The successful South African decimalisation, plus attempts to join the European Common Market, gave the final impetus for UK decimalisation in 1971.
Today, Mauritania and Madagascar operate the world's only remaining non-decimal currencies.