Monday marks 50 years since switchover to decimal currency

Vicky Shaw, PA Personal Finance Correspondent

The switchover to decimal currency – a move which broke with centuries of monetary tradition – happened 50 years ago on Monday.

The Royal Mint is marking the half-century with a string of initiatives aiming to encourage those who remember the monumental change to share their memories and inspire younger generations.

The new decimal currency system was formally adopted on February 15 1971, evolving from a tradition which had spanned generations, of pounds, shillings and pence.

The new currency was based on 100 pennies to the pound. Under the previous system there were 12 pennies to a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound.

The transition to decimalisation took around five years of planning, after the decision to go decimal was announced in 1966.

It involved a huge information campaign to help households and businesses adapt.

The first of the new coins made their way on to high streets in 1968, giving people time to familiarise themselves with them before the full switch. It was reported that some shoppers initially refused to take them.

Some retail staff were given special training to help customers understand the new money in their purses and wallets. At Harrods in London, there were “Decimal Penny” assistants helping customers with the new coins.

A visit to Harrods during the decimal switchover
Decimal Currency Board chairman Lord Friske with two women trained as ‘Decimal Pennies’ at Harrods in London (PA)

A Decimal Currency Board was also set up to oversee the switchover.

Singer Max Bygraves recorded a song called Decimalisation, and TV shows, films and posters helped people to understand the new coinage.

To meet the challenge of striking the new coins, a new factory was also needed, along with new machinery, production techniques and processes.

In 1971, Sir Edward Heath was prime minister, the country was going through a period of industrial upheaval, and Elvis Presley, T-Rex, the Kinks and Benny Hill were in the music charts. It was also the year that Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors, died.

The Equal Pay Act had been introduced the year before, and the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act came into being later on in the decade.

Sarah Coles, personal finance analyst, Hargreaves Lansdown, said: “Life has changed dramatically since February 15 1971. The way we live, work and spend have altered beyond recognition.

“Inflation makes the past feel like another world, with a 5p pint of milk and 15p pint of beer.

“After you take inflation into account, some things are much cheaper now than in 1971, and basic groceries have fallen in price. The cost of beer, sadly, has escalated as the taxman has grabbed a bigger share.”

To help mark 50 years since Decimal Day, the Royal Mint, based in Llantrisant, South Wales, has created 50 “museums in a box”, which are touring care homes to help people with dementia.

Each box contains pre-decimal coins, posters and conversion charts, which aim to evoke childhood memories.

The Royal Mint Museum is making the boxes available to care homes free of charge. Each care home will receive a box for two weeks, and they will be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between uses.

Those wanting to register for a box can contact decimalisation@royalmint.com or visit https://www.royalmintmuseum.org.uk/decimalisation.

The Royal Mint has also has a 50p commemorative coin for sale on its website, featuring “old money” in the design.

Clare Maclennan, divisional director for commemorative coin at the Royal Mint, said: “The Royal Mint made decimalisation happen 50 years ago, introducing the coins we use and collect today.

“We’re celebrating with a special Decimal Day 50p featuring ‘old money’ as well as launching memory boxes for care homes – helping people with dementia recall their memories of ‘the changeover’.

“Although we are famous for making coins, we make so much more and have changed a lot over 50 years.

“Today the Royal Mint has grown to become the home of gold investment in the UK, we make collectable coins for all interests, and even have a tourist attraction.

“Our historic coin business is also booming, as we use our unique expertise to source rare coins for collectors.

“Decimalisation offers a great opportunity to celebrate our past, and look to our future and the exciting changes we’ve making.”

The Mint is also asking coin collectors to share images of their pre-decimal coins for its online gallery at https://www.royalmint.com/our-coins/events/the-50th-anniversary-of-decimal-day/inspiration-wall-collections.

People can also view other coin collections on the website.

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