15 February 1971: Decimal Day – Britain adopts decimal currency

On this day in 1971, Britain adopted the new decimal currency, replacing the old system of pounds shilllings and pence that had been used for centuries.

For the average person in Britain today, our currency is something unremarkable. It's a bog-standard unit-divided-into-a-hundred-sub-units system of currency like pretty much every other currency in the world.

It's not always been that way, of course. The pound used to be divided into 20 shillings, each of which was made up of 12 pence, making 240 pence in the pound. Pennies were subdivided into ha'pennies and farthings. A tanner was sixpence, and 12 pence a bob. Two shillings made a florin, two and six was half a crown, and five shillings a crown.

It all made perfect sense, and was as English as jellied eels, black pudding and warm beer. Except it wasn't – it was imported from the continent. It was originally a Roman system, which fell out of use and was reintroduced by the Frankish king Charlemagne, and was imported to Mercia by King Offa. So, to be fair, it had been around for a while, and people had got used to it.

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Its replacement on this day in 1971 – Decimal Day – was controversial. Some feared it would mark the end of everything civilised, lead to the “dumbing down” of the nation, as its youth grew up without the necessary mental agility to divide £4/3/6 by seven. Others claimed it was all an excuse for shopkeepers to increase their prices on the sly.

There was a huge publicity campaign leading up to the change to familiarise the population with the new currency. Two years before “D-Day”, two million booklets explaining the changes were sent out to two retailers, schools, businesses and libraries. Twelve months before the changeover, every household was sent a leaflet, and in the run up to the change, there was a comprehensive radio and TV campaign.

In the end, the transition was fairly smooth. Some of the old coins remained in use in parallel with the new – the shilling and florin became 5p and 10p bits, while the sixpence lived on as two-and-a-half-p, which would buy you a packet of crisps.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. As an early adopter of bitcoin, Ben bought when the price was under $200, but went on to spend it all on foolish fripperies.