How the UK made the change to decimalization
Imagine the government announces, out of the blue, that your country’s currency is going to change. Completely. New bills and new coins. And not only that — the whole math system of the currency will change as well! Sounds like a major nightmare, especially if you’re raking in the Chanukah gelt.
This actually happened about 50 years ago in the UK. And it was kind of hectic. But thanks to the folks who put up with the chaos in 1971, the UK now has a currency that makes way more cents -- I mean sense -- than “£sd.”
I’ve confused you already.
£ is the symbol for UK currency and it means “pounds” (just like $ is the symbol for US currency and it means “dollars”). But what on earth is £sd? This delightful symbol is what the old British currency was called, a.k.a pounds shilling pence. £=pounds, s=shillings, d=pence. Yes, I agree that having a d for pence is weird. Check out the sidebar for an explanation.
You’ll see £sd a lot in this article, so you may as well know how to say it. It’s said L-s-d (el-ess-dee), and if you’ve read the sidebar then you know why the £ is an “L”.
The old money system was pretty complicated and had lots of coins:
1 shilling = 12 pence
£1 = 20 shillings (there was a £1 banknote)
1 penny = 2 halfpennies (pronounced “hay-pennies”)
1 halfpenny = 2 farthings
1 half crown = 2 shillings and 6 pence
There was also a 5 shillings and a 10 shillings banknote.
1 florin = 2 shillings
There were also threepence (“thruppence”) and sixpence coins.
Because 1 shilling was made up of 12 pence, you had to be really good at multiplying and dividing by 12. Also by 20, because there were 20 shillings in a pound. The old money system was written differently, as well. It looked a bit like a fraction, so for example: If half a dozen eggs cost 2s 3d (2 shillings and 3 pence), the shopkeeper would write it out like this: 2/3. Hm, that looks like it says two-thirds. It gets more confusing. If a radio cost £3 12s 3d, it was written out as 3/12/3. Which kind of looks like a date, but actually means 3 pounds, 12 shillings and 3 pence. Just to make things even more wild, you could choose to use a slash (/) like I just did above, or a dash: 2-3, or 3-12-3.
Out with the Old, in with the New
Changing your currency is not like changing your socks. It’s a huge shock to the system, even if you’re changing to a simpler method. Ever been a tourist in a foreign country? Then you know what it feels like to hold your cash out to the shopkeeper while he rattles off an unfamiliar sum and you have to trust that he’s not ripping you off. Imagine being a money tourist in your own country! That’s exactly what was going to happen when the new system would come into effect. The government had to make the transition to decimalization as seamless as possible.
The date for the new system was set for February 15, 1971. That was when everyone would be expected to use the new money. But the country began preparing a few years before that, making small changes so that people could get used to things.
The first change came in April 1968. Two new coins were released: the 5p and 10p coins. These were the same size as the shilling and two-shilling coins that everyone knew and loved. More importantly, these two new coins were the same value as the shilling and two-shilling coins (if you need help with the math of figuring this out, either ask an older person to help you, or just thank decimalization for making your life easier so that you don’t need to figure it out). In 1969, the UK welcomed the 50p coin (which was the world’s first seven-sided coin) and let the halfpenny go. In 1970, the country bid goodbye to the 10 shilling note.
Doing things slowly meant that by the time February 15, 1971, rolled around, the country had stopped using some coins and notes, and were already familiar with three new coins.
Obviously, I’m not the only one who can’t handle the math involved in the £sd system. In the 18th century, when the United States of America and some European countries started adopting a simpler money system, people in Britain began clamoring for the same. If you know anything about Britain, then you know that tradition is just as sacred as teatime. Which is why the British muddled their way through £sd for another hundred years or so (while Russia and France were happily forgetting their 12 and 20 multiplication tables — see the timeline sidebar for more details).
When South Africa left £sd behind in 1961, Britain finally realized that they had to change with the times. It took another few years of schlepping, before the UK Parliament made the new currency system an official part of the country’s future.
The new system was to be called “decimalization.” If the old system looked like fractions, the new system was all about that decimal point. Decimalization meant that everything would be divisible by 100. That meant getting rid of the shilling (which was divisible by 12). The pound would remain, but would now be worth 100 “new pence” instead of 240 pennies. In fact, all the coins and banknotes had to be phased out and replaced by new money. There would also be no more wracking your brain for half an hour trying to figure out how many farthings there are in four shillings.
Decimalization couldn’t have come soon enough for the UK. Computers were becoming a thing, and with computers came the digital age. The convoluted £sd system would be a nightmare to digitize. If you wanted to march forward into a digital future, decimalization was the way to go.
Change Is Coming
There was still a lot to do in the leadup to Decimal Day, or D-Day, as February 15, 1971, came to be known. The government spent weeks educating the British public about the new money.
A famous singer created a song called “Decimalization.” It played on the radio all day, and went like this:
We call it… decimalization, decimalization
Soon it’s gonna be time to change the money round
‘Cause we’ve got… decimalization, decimalization
There’s a hundred new pennies now for every pound
Gone are the days when 12 old pence added up to make a shilling, not much sense
The half crown too has gone for good — a coin that foreigners never understood
Now some people who were feeling very bright have put their heads together just to make things right
They have made it easy for every citizen, ‘cause all we have to do is count from one to ten
There was also a show called Granny Gets the Point, which was about an elderly woman whose grandson teaches her to use the new money. Pamphlets were printed to explain the new coins and decimal system.
The best part about the months leading up to Decimalization Day was that there were so many types of coins in circulation. Sure, the hay-penny and the half crown were gone, but the shilling, threepence and sixpence coins were still around. Plus, there were the new coins that had already been introduced. People had a grand time playing around with their money, and paying for goods with a mix of old and new currency. They even figured out that they could use the new 1p coin instead of an old sixpence coin in vending machines. I bet it wasn’t too much fun for the shopkeepers, though.
Why does “d” stand for pence? Contrary to what you’re thinking now, that particular symbol wasn’t invented by a five-year-old learning the ABCs. It actually stands for the Latin word “denarius.” In fact, each of the three symbols in £sd stand for a Latin word. The “s” stands for “sestertius” (but you’ll be forgiven for thinking that it stands for “shilling”). The £ is actually a fancy “L” and stands for “libra,” which is Latin for pound. The libra, sestertius, and denarius were all coins used by the Romans. £sd was actually used in most of Europe for 1000 years, until decimalization began.
The banks had the hardest job of all. Don’t forget that everyone’s bank accounts were in £sd. Who was going to convert every single bank account in the UK to decimal currency? Why, the very dedicated bank clerks, of course.
The Royal Bank of Scotland has said that decimalization was “the biggest single operation ever undertaken in the history of British banking.” It was definitely a huge responsibility.
At 3:30 pm on February 10 — five days before Decimal Day – all the banks closed. They stayed closed until 10 am on D-Day. During that time, bank staff worked overtime to convert everyone’s bank accounts, change out their cash reserves and update their bookkeeping and machines. The headquarters of each bank also had to ship out the new coins and banknotes to the other bank branches across the country.
Bank employees were expected to become as familiar with decimal currency as they were with £sd. That meant spending several days at training sessions. The banks also took it upon themselves to educate their customers. Local bank branches ran workshops in community centers and clubs to teach people how to convert £sd to decimal currency.
The biggest currency change in history happened when 12 European countries abandoned their own currencies and adopted a single new one — the Euro (€). The idea for one European currency was first brought up in the 1960s. It took almost 40 years for it to become a reality. The Euro was launched on January 1, 1999, but at first it was for electronic payments only. The new coins and banknotes came on January 1, 2002. Having one currency makes these European countries more powerful as a group. It also helps attract foreign investors. Today, 19 out of 27 member countries use the Euro — they’re called the “Eurozone.”
D-Day is when all the old money was no longer legal tender. You could still use it to pay for something in a shop, but the shopkeeper would only give change in new money. On D-Day, some more new coins and banknotes were released, and the pound sterling was officially a decimal currency.
As you can imagine, there were the naysayers who moaned and groaned about decimal currency. They claimed it would make math harder (which makes sense — if you have trouble counting to ten). They also claimed that switching to an easier system would make kids dumber, because they wouldn’t have to do mental acrobatics every time they wanted to buy something. For the most part, though, people were relieved that the UK was moving on.
Still, becoming a tourist in your own country wasn’t easy, especially for older people. To make things easier, helpful shopkeepers displayed prices in both £sd and new money (but some stores were accused of using the change as a way to raise prices). There were also these nifty little gadgets called decimal counters, which helped people figure out the decimal system. For a few months after D-Day, you could see people walking around with decimal counters as they got used to the new system.
If you were expecting to hear about all sorts of chaos that went down on D-Day, you’ll be disappointed. Apparently, the government had prepared everyone so well, that D-Day came and went without much hullabaloo. In fact, things went so smoothly that bank clerks who had been working all night every night felt a major anti-climax. D-Day was, according to Lord Fiske, chairman of the Decimal Currency Board, the “non-event of 1971.”
The day after D-Day, the front page of The Times reported, “Britain swings cheerfully into new era of decimal currency,” which is pretty remarkable for a country that clings to tradition like life depends on it.
Being able to divide by 10 and 100 makes life so much easier. I wonder how long it will take for miles, feet, inches and Fahrenheit go the way of £sd.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 941)
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