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THE DAY IT ALL CHANGED; Goodbye shillings, hello decimal cash.

Byline: Craig McQueen

IT was the day when the phrase "what's that in old money?" was on the lips of every shopper.

Banks braced themselves for a deluge of confused customers, while housewives checked their conversion charts to make sure prices hadn't gone up overnight.

Forty years ago today was "D-Day" as Britain's old system of pounds, shillings and pence gave way to decimalisation, ushering in a new era of metric money with shiny new coins to match.

On February 15, 1971, the country turned its back on florins, threepen-nies and shillings, and began getting to grips with a new system where a pound was worth 100 new pence rather than 240 of the old ones. The system was written pounds sd (from the Latin libra, solidus and denarius).

France and the US had used decimal currency since the 18th century, while Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa had also gone decimal.

But that didn't mean the British public would be happy to sweep away hundreds of years of history in adopting the new money.

Originally agreed to by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson at the request of Chancellor Jim Callaghan, the decision was announced to Parliament in 1966, with the Decimal Currency Board spending pounds 1.25 million - more than pounds 11 million now - on a marketing campaign to prepare people for the change.

Every household in Britain received a guidebook on the decimal currency switch.

Companies also spent heavily advertising in newspapers and on TV ahead of the change.

Coronation Street even included it in the episode shown that evening.

But D-Day itself only marked the completion of a process which had begun three years earlier with the introduction of the new 5p and 10p coins which were then of the same size and value as the one and two shilling coins they replaced.

The following year, the 50p coin was introduced to replace the 10 shilling note. The process was completed when the new halfpenny, 1p and 2p coins were introduced.

But despite their best efforts, the authorities were still wary about how the public would cope with the new system.

Banks closed for four days to allow them to prepare for the new system, and papers released 10 years ago revealed that the Decimal Currency Board fretted about what could go wrong.

There were worries that the Queen might die before the new coins could be issued, forcing the whole process to be delayed, or that workers could go on strike if the price of canteen food increased overnight.

There were even concerns that the Royal Mint in at Llantrisant in Wales could come under attack by Welsh Nationalists.

Polls showed that 60 per cent of people opposed decimalisation, with the board also being forced to admit that one in four people still didn't know how much a new penny was worth.

Introduction of the halfpenny piece was also expected to cause problems, with only the confectionary industry supporting the move.

Shoppers also worried that unscrupulous firms might use the new system as an excuse to bump up prices. The Daily Record ran a campaign helping readers to beat the "decimal diddlers" with a team of "decimal coppers" on hand to answer calls.

Among the first to complain were students of Edinburgh's College of Commerce who said that tea in the college canteen had gone from 3d in old money to 2p in new money.

The conversion chart issued by the Decimal Currency Board showed that new price should only be 1.5p, and the college promised the Record that the price would be reduced next day.

The Board itself also encouraged people to take shopkeepers to task who had increased their prices. A spokesman said: "Housewives who believe the table is not being followed should ask the manager of the store why, and if they do not get a satisfactory answer, make a fuss."

But despite the fears of widespread problems, D-Day passed largely without incident as people got used to the new system.

Department stores reported no major problems in the days after the switch, while relieved bank staff found that the chaos they feared had failed to materialise.

And when people did become confused about converting old money to new money, school kids were often able to help out, having spent months being taught about the new system in their class rooms.

Neither were concerns about rising prices borne out.

After decimalisation, inflation fell from 8.6 per cent to eight per cent, with the big rises which came later having more to do with the hike in oil prices than with the new coins.

That led Lord Fiske, chairman of the Decimal Currency Board, to describe the switch as "the non-event of the year".

He added: "The general picture is quite clear and the smooth and efficient changeover so many people have worked for is now in fact being achieved."

But in the end, it was a Glasgow pensioner who summed up the mood of the country with the words: "We've muddled through two world wars, I suppose we'll manage to muddle through this."


Box of matches: 4d or 1.5p

Pint of milk: 1/- or 5p

Tin of peas: 1/- or 5p

Half a pound of butter: 1/7 or 8p

Loaf of bread: 1/11 or 9.5p

Box of three dozen tea bags: 2/- or 10p

Half a dozen oranges: 2/6 or 12.5p

Pint of lager: 2/11 or 14.5p

20 Player's cigarettes: 3/7 or 18p

4oz jar of coffee: 4/11 or 24.5p


It's believed the shilling coin stretches as far back as the fifth or sixth century, but it wasn't until the 16th century that it became 12 pennies.

It was known as a "bob" and was written as "1/-".


The two shilling piece or florin can be thought of as the country's first decimal coin as it was worth a tenth of a pound (10p) when it came in in 1849.


Along with the ha'penny, the halfcrown was withdrawn from circulation in 1969, two years before decimalisation occurred. It was worth 12.5p.


The old penny coin was a good deal larger than the new penny which replaced it. There were 12 pennies in a shilling, and 240 pennies in the pound.


The oddly-shaped threepenny bit with 12 sides was first minted in 1937 and is thought to be the first non-circular British coin.


Also called a tanner, the sixpence remained a popular coin in the years after decimalisation, and its converted value of 2.5p made it useful.


After the demise of the farthing, the ha'penny became the smallest-value coin in circulation. It went in 1969, a full two years before D-Day.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Feb 15, 2011
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