Marking the 50th anniversary of decimal currency: David Gratton, Director at Duncan & Toplis

15th February 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of ‘Decimal Day’, the date when the UK and Ireland transformed its entire system of currency.

The changes that businesses are facing today are extraordinary and unlike anything they’ve faced before, but we’ve helped businesses face big challenges and changes throughout our 95 year history, and decimalisation was one of the biggest.

At the time, Duncan & Toplis was far smaller than it is today; we had just four offices in Grantham, Sleaford, Gainsborough and Boston and we were yet to acquire our first computer (which had to be lifted through a window into the office using a crane!).

Apollo 14 had just landed on the moon, the UK was trying to gain entry into what would become the EU and, until 15th February, people and businesses across the country were using pennies, shillings and pounds in a system which dated back to the Roman Empire

In this system, a pound (L) was worth 20 shillings (s) or 240 pence (d). There were sixpence (worth 6d), crowns (a quarter of a pound), half crowns (an eighth of a pound), florins (2s), sixpence (6d), threepence (3d), halfpennies (½d) and farthings (¼d). Needless to say, this meant even basic accounting was a challenge.

Although there had been attempts to decimalise the currency throughout the 19th century, it wasn’t until 1966 that the government announced its intention to attempt decimalisation once more.

By this time, countries around the world had already shifted to the decimal system, which had been used for thousands of years in China and for more than a century in Russia, France and the USA as well as in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand which adopted the system in the 1960s.

While many other countries switched to using dollars however, Britain opted to keep the pound sterling, simply dividing it into 100 ‘new pence’.

Over three years, the new denominations were introduced into circulation alongside the ‘old’ shillings and pence. The new 5p and 10p coins, which had the same value as the shilling and two shilling coins, were introduced first and these were followed by the 50p in 1969, which replaced the 10 shilling note.

Finally, the 0.5p, 1p and 2p coins were introduced on ‘D-Day’ in 1971.

This was a huge change for society, and, as well as the years of planning and adjustment, banks were closed for four days to allow cheques in the old currency to clear and for staff to convert all accounts into decimal currency. Accountants worked overtime to help their clients prepare and adapt.

Coin-operated machinery, such as taxi meters or vending machines, had to be adapted or retrofitted and more than 340,000 cash registered had to be converted. Shops took to displaying prices in both old and new currencies and a large scale media and education campaign taught old and young how to convert the two.

Special programmes were broadcast on TV, there was an educational song and free decimal adders-converters were distributed to help people convert prices. Businesses had to train their staff how to use the new currency and accountants worked furiously to convert accounts, help clients to relearn bookkeeping and make sense of their new finances.

Converting books became a full time job, with every sum having to be done by hand, without the aid of computers.

Not everything went seamlessly and there was also anger and outrage from some, with many suspecting that they were being short-changed by the government – and many shops were indeed taking advantage of the confusion by using the transition to increase their prices overnight, with almost all businesses rounding prices up, rather than down. There was also a vocal campaign which succeeded in keeping the sixpence (worth 2.5p) until 1980. It was a major change, and, sadly, it saw some unprepared retailers going out of business.

However, thanks to the preparation and flexibility of authorities, banks, accountants, businesses and consumers, the process of decimalisation was remarkably successful. A transition which was expected to last two years took just two weeks in practice, with use of the old coins dropping dramatically within a matter of days.

Now, many of us look back at the old currency with fondness or bafflement, but it’s easy to forget just what a major moment decimalisation was for our society.