Fifty years ago today was ‘D-Day’, but this time the ‘D’ stood for decimal.
After a two-year countdown and public information campaign, February 15th, 1971, was the appointed date on which the UK and Ireland would officially switch to the new decimalised currency. Of course, it couldn’t possibly all happen at once in a single day, so the transition from the old currency of pounds, shillings and pence (£sd) was phased in over a few years, carefully planned by the Decimal Currency Board.
The old system had 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. Under the new system the pound was retained, but now divided into 100 new pence, instead of 240 old pennies. The new 5p and 10p coins had been introduced in April 1968 to replace the old shilling (bob) and two-shilling (florin) coins. In October 1969 the new 50p coin was introduced, replacing the old 10-shilling note.
It meant that by D-Day the public was already familiar with these coins and only had to contend with the introduction of three new copper coins on February 15th – the new 2p, 1p and ½ p coins. The old halfpenny (ha’penny) and half-crown had already been phased out in 1969 to ease the transition to decimal currency.
While the younger generation seemed to embrace the new decimal system, it proved more difficult to get to grips with for older people, who had lived with pounds, shillings and pence for longer. “What’s that in old money?” soon became a very familiar phrase in Britain’s shops as some people struggled to understand the new currency.
The substantial publicity campaign, which intensified in the weeks before D-Day, included explanatory booklets being sent to every household and price conversion charts displayed in many shops. There was even a song by popular entertainer Max Bygraves, entitled “Decimalisation”.
The BBC broadcast a series of five-minute programmes called “decimal Five” and ITV repeatedly showed a short drama called, somewhat patronisingly, “Granny Gets the Point”. It starred “On The Buses” actress Doris Hare as an elderly woman who did not understand the new currency but was taught to use it by her grandson. On D-Day itself, the BBC broadcast “New Money Day”, a schools’ programme in which a puppet maker and his puppet friend learned about the new currency on a trip to the shops.
All banks were closed for two full business days before the transition to allow any outstanding cheques and credits in the clearing system to be processed and for customers’ account balances to be converted from £sd to decimal. Mid-February was chosen for D-Day because it was traditionally the quietest time of year for banks, shops and transport organisations.
Many goods in shops were priced in both currencies for some time both before and after the changeover. While shops and businesses could still accept ‘old money’ for some time, they were urged to give change in new decimal currency. The old coins were returned to the banks so they very quickly became scarce.
Despite some predictions of chaos and calamity, Decimal Day actually passed fairly smoothly, probably due to the amount of advance publicity. There were accusations that some traders had used the changeover to raise their prices, hoping no-one would notice amid all the confusion, and many traders disliked the new ½ p coin, saying it was too small.
The Government intended the decimal currency to be called “new pence”, but the public found it easier to pronounce the new coins just as “p”. Thus 10p, 50p, 5p and 2p were soon common parts of the language, gradually replacing the old tanners, florins, farthings, tuppences and thrupenny bits. However, the “quid” – the long-used slang name for a pound – survived the transition to decimal.