Baffled Brits were thrown into confusion and even revolt by a new coin which first appeared in their purses and pocket on Tuesday October 14th, 1969.
The all new seven-sided 50p coin replaced the old 10 shilling note and was quickly nicknamed the ‘10 bob bit’. It was the third new coin to be introduced as part of British currency’s gradual move towards decimalisation.
New 5p and 10p coins had been introduced the previous year, but many people objected to the new 50p, saying it was too similar in size, colour and weight to the new 10p. This was despite the 50p being a revolutionary heptagonal shape – the first of its kind – while the 10p was a traditional round coin.
One group objected specifically to the shape of the new 50p, with retired Army Colonel Essex Moorcroft forming the Anti-Heptagonists, calling the coin ugly and “an insult to our sovereign whose image it bears!”. More generally, some MPs joined shopkeepers, bus conductors and other regular coin handlers in complaining the new 50p was too similar to the 10p coin or half-crown.
One horrified Londoner told his local newspaper he’d accidentally left a 50p in a saucer of 10p coins as a tip for a waiter. That might not sound too bad these days, but in 1969 a 50p piece was equivalent to about £8.50 in today’s money. “Fortunately the waiter was dead honest and told me,” he said, “but I suspect there’ll be a lot of cases where that doesn’t happen.”
Three more decimal coins – the 2p, 1p and ½p copper coins – would be phased in before British currency went totally decimal on February 15th, 1971, which had been nicknamed “D-Day”. There would be similar objections to the 1p and ½p copper coins, which some people felt were too similar to distinguish easily.
The introduction of the new 50p was the biggest ever issue of a new coin, with the Decimal Currency Board stockpiling around 120 million of them at banks around the country in readiness for the October 14th launch. Lord Fiske, chairman of the DCB, said the reason was to replace the 200 million “ten-bob notes” then in circulation as soon as possible. The notes had an average lifespan of only around five months, while the new 50p pieces were expected to last much longer, significantly cutting costs for the Bank of England.
“Although a 50p coin will cost more to produce initially, it should have a life of at least 50 years and the metal will subsequently be recoverable,” said Lord Fiske.
Despite initial reservations, people soon got to grips with the new 50 pence piece. If Lord Fiske was right about its lifespan there could still be the odd original 50p knocking around now, 51 years after its introduction. It’s wouldn’t be in general circulation though, as a new slightly smaller and lighter 50p piece was introduced in 1998, following in the wake of a downsized 10p coin five years previously.
The original 50p measured 30mm across and weighed 13.5 grams while the current edition measures 27.5mm and weighs 8g. Both coins were made from “cupro-nickel” – a mix of 75% copper and 25% nickel.
Over the years the 50p has become one of the most highly collected British coins, mainly due to the minting of several special commemorative editions. The latest of special 50p pieces commemorates the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
It carries the slogan “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations” together with “31 January 2020” – the date when the UK officially exited the EU. About a million 50p coins marked “31 October 2019” had to be melted down and reminted after the date for withdrawal was pushed back by three months.
Ten million of the EU withdrawal 50p pieces were minted and put into circulation. Since 2018, the Royal Mint has also produced a series of 50p pieces aimed only at coin collectors and not released into general circulation (although they could still legally be spent). He latest one, released earlier this year, honours English chemist Rosalind Franklin and features and image of “Photo 51” – an X-ray diffraction image that was pivotal in identifying the structure of DNA.