Fifty years ago Monday, the U.K. and Ireland put an end to a system of currency that had been used for hundreds of years, and made a switch to decimalization — the system where currency is based on multiples of 10 and 100.
Before Feb. 15, 1971, Britain’s currency was 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound — or 240 pence to a pound.
But that’s not all. There were also two farthings in a ha’penny, three pennies in a bit, two bits in a sixpence, two sixpences in a shilling, five shillings in a crown, and four crowns in a pound. There were also two shillings in a florin and 10 florins made a pound. (Here’s a chart.)
The system was bewildering to foreigners but beloved by many Brits, according to the English writer Anthony Burgess: “Tanners and bobs, ha’pennies and threepenny bits, were instantly recognisable descriptions, and the romance of the coinage was enhanced by the presence of coins of Queen Victoria, some of them 100 years old. Long familiarity had inevitably generated a deep-rooted affection: a beautiful and venerable currency, certainly; cherished, too; but undoubtedly baffling to those not born to its complexities.”
The decimalized system is far more streamlined: 100 pennies to the pound.
Such a change was a major undertaking. The country minted new coins over the course of years. Shops began posting signs with prices in both the old system and the new. Some new coins came into circulation before D-Day — Decimal Day — while some coins entered usage on the day itself. New stamps were printed reflecting prices in the new currency.
To accomplish the changeover, the banks closed for a Thursday and Friday, in addition to the then-typical weekend closure. The Stock Exchange was closed, as were the post offices for a day.
And an entire population trained on the old system needed to learn a different one — a matter of both currency and arithmetic.
“I would not go over to the decimals,” one Londoner had told the BBC in 1963. “For one thing, I’m too old and I’d never get to understand ’em.”
At the time, Ireland’s currency was pegged to the U.K.’s, and the country also opted to move to decimalization. Trinity College Dublin professor Brian Lucey remembers excitement around Decimal Day.
His mother ran a pharmacy and bookshop in County Kerry, he told The Irish Times. “I remember for a long time I’d be finding farthings, old pennies and the like. I’d be given a job at the end of the day of sorting out the till contents and I’d have to calculate out the old currency,” Lucey said.
“When you think of it, the old system of pounds, shillings and pence was so complicated — people don’t easily divide by 2.4 in their mind to go from 240 old pence to 100 new pence — it is not an intuitive calculation,” Lucey noted.
Ireland adopted the euro in January 1999, replacing the Irish pound.
And how did the change go in the U.K.?
Quite smoothly by most accounts. As one shopper told the BBC, “Well, it’s not too bad. If I get confused, I give them the two shillings and work it out from there.”
The Guardian reported at least a few hiccups in 1971. Some people quickly figured out they could use the new currency to shortchange coin slots like those at laundromats, using a new one-penny coin where an old six-pence piece had gone.
There were other gripes, too, such as that shops had rounded up prices to the nearest pence. Bus conductors and taxi drivers who had to handle both forms of currency “seemed to find the arithmetic involved too much of a burden in an already crowded life, and in the Irish Republic, some conductors in Dublin and Cork refused to handle the new coinage until they got more pay for doing so,” according to the newspaper.
Fifty years on, memory of that day appears to have stirred up nostalgia, for both the old coins and the hoopla surrounding the changeover.
The Royal Mint Museum sent boxes with the old coins to nursing homes, where they brought back memories for the residents, the BBC reported. Though it’s been a half-century, one resident remembered the old system immediately.
“That’s two and six,” she said.