On Monday, February 15, 1971, Britain’s currency went decimal. Forty years on, it’s an ideal opportunity for nostalgia about the wonderful coins we had before that Decimal Day.
The £1 remained the basic unit of our currency and in those days we had green £1 notes, rather than the brassy coins we have today – those were introduced in 1983 and the £1 note was withdrawn in 1988.
But now the £1 was divided into 100 new pennies. Previously there had been 240 old pennies, not that we thought of it like that. There were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound.
We had our complicated (imperial) weights and measures tables on the back of every red exercise book and many was the childhood hour we spent memorising them.
Coins were so much bigger then, and the non-decimal system made sure we were good at arithmetic. No wonder our “times tables” went up to 12, rather than the obvious 10 (obvious because we have 10 digits on hands and feet, made for counting on).
A pocketful of pennies also contained the history of our kings and queens for more than a century. Before decimalisation came in, we were able to amass portraits in copper of Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V, George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. Of course George VI is much in the news in 2011 with the success of the film The King’s Speech.
As for Edward VIII (of Mrs Simpson fame), well, we didn’t count him as his coins of 1937 were made but never circulated. They have great rarity value.
The oldest pennies we used in the run-up to Decimal Day were those of Queen Victoria in her youth – but they were so worn by then that sometimes only a vague outline was left.
We also had coins of Victoria in her old age – we used to say she was in her widow’s weeds, although that’s a bit illogical as she was a widow at a very young age and a closer look at the coin now shows a veil, but not over her face.
The weight of all those huge pennies! No wonder we had holes in our pockets…
From the age of five I used to help out with my mother in the local shop (no child care in those days) and I recall there was a Mrs “rattler” Evans, so-called because she always rattled the pennies noisily in her pocket as she came into the shop to browse. There was another, Mrs “thruppenny” Evans because she always asked for “thruppence worth of bacon” and “thruppence worth of cheese”, etc…
At a stroke on Decimal Day all this history was gone. It was so significant that I wrote about it in my diary:
D (for Decimal) day.
I went to Newport with Dad…
I was determined to get my hands on one of each of the new decimal bronze coins, so I had to find articles at the right price. I couldn’t, so eventually ended up with a packet of crisps, packet of chocolate peanuts (I thought they were raisins!), four new 2pm pieces, one 1p piece and two 2p pieces.
They are very nice coins. I suppose the novelty will soon wear off (as will the shine).
At that time I was doing my mock GCE O-levels (forerunners of the GCSEs) and Apollo 14 had splashed down a few days earlier.
On that day only the coppers were being changed because bigger denominations had already been changed gradually in preceding years. The smaller new coins were left until last because they weren’t an exact multiple or fraction of old pennies.
The earlier coins had been so familiar and so well-loved that we even had nicknames for some of them. A few remained and were translated into “new money”. The “florin” (two shillings) was still worth 10 new pence, the “bob” (one shilling) was still worth five new pence and the “tanner” (six old pence) was worth two-and-a-half new pence.
The “tanner” was eventually withdrawn in 1980 and the new 5p and 10p pieces were halved in size in 1990 and 1992 respectively.
There were other losses. The “half-crown” or “two-and-six” (which would I guess be worth 12-and-a-half new pence) had gone out of circulation in 1969, as had the old half-penny with a ship on it. The half-crown was a really weighty coin, especially in a child’s hand, and made a worthy pocket-money gift from visiting relatives.
The farthing or quarter-penny with its memorable wren picture had already ceased to be legal tender in 1960, but for some reason we still had one on the potting-shed bench and I just left it there.
The old red-brown 10-shilling note had been replaced by a seven-sided 50p piece in 1969-1970 and this coin was reduced in size in 1997. My older brother used to call 10 bob a “dollar”, although more common was calling £1 a “quid” or a “nicker” – as in “Lend me a quid” or “That cost me 50 nicker!” I don’t think it was ever “nickers”!
Then finally there is the three-penny piece. Oh what a joy they were. Twelve-sided, golden (or brassy) when new and with a picture of a portcullis. The thruppenny piece, along with the old penny, had disappeared from circulation within about a fortnight of Decimal Day.
All in all, everyone thought we had been “diddled” by decimalisation. Inevitably with the loss of the old half-penny in 1969, prices had been rounded up, and again this happened with the loss of the old penny. Prices that had previously been £1 19s 6d (£1/19/6) in old money were rounded up to £1.99p in new money – an increase in effect of one-and-a-half old pennies (I think! And I said old money made us good at arithmetic!).
The biggest (or smallest?) bone of contention was the new halfpenny piece. It was tiny and as a result was nicknamed a “tiddler”. It was awkward for arthritic old hands to handle and easily disappeared into the hidden corners of purses and pockets.
It was not long for this world and was withdrawn from circulation in 1984, by which time it was not “worth” much. But its loss again led to a rounding up of prices.
Not only have we lost coins. We have also gained some – the seven-sided 20p and the wonderful big £2 coin, which I always think of as “chocolate money” – but don’t bite it, you’ll break your teeth!
You will still see traces of the old currency today, perhaps if you pick up an old paperback in a charity book shop. Look at the back and quite often you will see the price in both old and new money.
Oh my goodness, I’ve just realised that I still say “What’s that in old money?” as a catch phrase to this day – and I bet our young people today don’t know what on earth I’m on about!
Here are some useful links:
The Royal Mint