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This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of decimalisation in the United Kingdom. Decimal Day was on Monday 15 February 1971, when Britain finally moved to a system based on units of ten. Under the old system, which had been in place for hundreds of years, there were twelve pence in a shilling and twenty shillings, or 240 pence, in a pound.

A 1960s handmade poster in shillings and pence from Quinn’s of the Milestone in Newry and tea packet from the same shop, dating from the early 1970s, pricing four ounces of tea at 7½p.  Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
A tea packet from Quinn's The Milestone in Newry dating from the early 1970s, pricing four ounces of tea at 7½p. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

It is hard to imagine for those of us under fifty that our parents and grandparents had to wrestle with complex arithmetic every day. In fact, the problems of dealing with this complicated system had been raised as far back as 1847. Sir John Bowring, a Member of Parliament at that time, called for it to be changed to a currency based on units of ten. His argument was simple: “Every man who looks at his ten fingers, saw an argument of its use, and evidence of its practicability.”

Leaflet issued by the Government to explain decimalisation. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
A Leaflet issued by the Government to explain decimalisation. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

His fellow MPs could see he had a point. In 1848 the nation’s first decimal coin appeared. The florin was one tenth of a pound. But that is as far as decimalisation went at that time. In 1961, over a century after Sir John Bowring’s speech, the Government set up a special committee to think about whether Britain should introduce a decimal currency. The committee decided in favour of decimalisation. So, on 1 March 1966 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, announced that pounds, shillings and pence would be replaced by a decimal currency, with a hundred units in a pound.

Decimal converter which was used in the Victoria (McCann’s) Bakery. These machines were used in numerous shops, businesses and private homes.  Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Decimal converter which was used in the Victoria (McCann’s) Bakery. These machines were used in numerous shops, businesses and private homes. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The committee then put plans in place to introduce the new currency. Decimal Day was set for 15 February 1971, when the new coins would be introduced. It was a momentous day for the national currency and the beginning of a period of planning and changes for The Royal Mint. Banks were closed for four days before changeover to prepare. During the 1960s, the Republic of Ireland had also been moving towards decimalisation and they changed to decimal currency on the same a date as Britain.

Currency converters were available for everyone and prices in the shops were shown in both currencies. This went some way to alleviate the feeling that shopkeepers might use the conversion from ‘old money’ to new to increase prices! We are lucky enough to have in the Museum Collection, a decimal converter from McCann’s Bakery where it was used to convert pounds, shillings and pence into decimal currency. Many shops and businesses designed and produced their own individual decimal conversion tables for their customers.

Shops and businesses sometimes produced their own decimal conversion tables as a form of advertising such as this one from Turkington’s men’s wear shop in Newry. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Shops and businesses sometimes produced their own decimal conversion tables as a form of advertising such as this one from Turkington’s men’s wear shop in Newry. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

‘Decimal Day’ ran without a hitch. Although the elderly generation found it more difficult to adapt to decimalisation, in general the population readily embraced the new currency. “How much is that in ‘old money’?” was a phrase heard in many shops during the 1970s.

For a short time, the old and new currencies operated in unison, whereby people could pay in pounds, shillings and pence and receive new money as change. Originally it was planned that ‘old money’ would be phased out of circulation over eighteen months, but as it turned out, the old penny, halfpenny and three penny coins were officially taken out of circulation as early as August 1971. It was originally intended that the new unit of currency would be referred to as ‘new pence’ to distinguish it from the old money, but this was quickly adapted to the abbreviation ‘p’, which we still use today.

Newry and Mourne Museum is open Tuesday – Saturday 10.00 am – 4.30 pm. Please call 0330 137 4422 for further information.

by Anna Savage

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