When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971

The story of the decimalisation of Britain coinage, told by curator and author Mark Stocker, who vividly remembers the decimal changeover of 1971.

Mr. Manning: ‘Stocker, what is £5 7s. 4d. in pennies?’

Me: ‘I really don’t know, Sir, but an awful lot of them!’

I was a just a boy at prep school when this happened and no, I didn’t get caned! It shows in a few words how complicated the old currency that ruled Britannia for over a thousand years really was, as well as how fatuous the old arithmetic could be. In retrospect, the need to decimalise was a no-brainer, and in my book I look at its whole story. An elegant foreword by Edmund de Waal sets the pace, and mentions some of the questions explored below.

The commission to write the book came from the Royal Mint and Spink in 2019. It was a godsend, as sadly I had just been made redundant as curator of historical art at New Zealand’s national museum. Long-haul return flights and four months of frantic archive-bashing at the Royal Mint and National Archives, Kew, ensued, and I wrote up everything during lockdown, keeping in constant contact with the Mint. Though I’ve lived in New Zealand for 35 years, I grew up in Britain and have vivid memories of the decimal change-over – like everyone of Boris Johnson’s age or older.

Jim Callaghan, Prince Charles, Prince Philip, Jack James and the Queen at the Royal Mint, 1968.

But that’s quite enough of me: now for the book. The Royal Mint was totally up with the decimalisation play, and through its Advisory Committee (RMAC), designs rapidly got off the drawing board. Key players were Jack James, Deputy Master of the Mint, and the late Prince Philip, who chaired the RMAC for 47 years. A conservative, gaffe-prone fogey he certainly was not – back then, in the Swinging Sixties, he was a ‘with-it’ Royal, deeply committed to the decimal cause and to good design alike. I developed a liking and admiration for him as I sifted through the material, and it’s just one of his 1001 good works that the public still know surprisingly little about.

Decimal coins with obverse by Arnold Machin.

Two designers fairly rapidly emerged, Arnold Machin for the obverse (heads) and Christopher Ironside for the six reverses (tails). The obverse is seriously beautiful even if it reminds me slightly of the head that used to be embossed on every cake of Camay soap. Its success certainly helped Machin’s chances in designing the Queen’s head on British stamps, which is unchanged to this day.

The coinage reverses were more complicated, with lots of chopping and changing – St George and the Dragon fought it out but disappeared and the same applied to Britannia – horrors! How could we have a coinage with Britannia no longer ruling the waves?  So, under public and media pressure she eventually appeared, albeit a bit skimpily, on the seven-sided 50 pence piece. The reverse designs have a simplified modernist logic to them, linked to traditional national symbols; I particularly like the English lion on the 10 pence, the Scottish thistle on the 5 pence and the Prince of Wales feathers on the 2 pence. The other designs are, well, okay, and these include the portcullis on the penny. It’s there because Jim Callaghan, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, wanted something distinctly parliamentary on one of the coins and the portcullis is the Lords and Commons badge. Prince Philip’s witty suggestion of a hot air balloon was sadly overruled!

The decimal reverses by Christopher Ironside could have looked like this! (1963-65).
Britain’s decimal reverses as issued, 1968-71.

The introduction of decimalisation was cleverly managed – the 10 and 5 ‘new’ pence coins were drip-fed into circulation almost three years before ‘D Day’ – and they were identical in size and material to the existing florin and shilling coins. Older coins that couldn’t be converted easily were phased out. The only blip, really, was the innovatively shaped 50 pence coin, at whose appearance the popular press and public went temporarily ballistic. Private Eye spoke melodramatically of civil war, mass suicides and worse! Much of the furore can be put down to the ‘shock of the new’. What was the response of Dick Taverne, the treasury minister of the time, who is miraculously still alive? In four words, ‘get used to it!’ And people did.

Sheet music for Max Bygraves, ‘Decimalisation’

In the event, decimalisation proved very much what the avuncular Labour peer, Lord Fiske, chairman of the Decimal Currency Board (DCB) predicted: ‘the non-event of 1971’. The DCB had done a great, largely unpublicised job, making the conservative British public decimal savvy and encouraging the mass conversion of slot machines, adding machines and juke boxes. The rest is history. Perhaps the worst decimal disaster was a dreadful record, ‘Decimalisation’, by Max Bygraves, which deservedly failed to get into the top 50.

I hope readers will enjoy the story of when Britain went decimal: it’s a book that works on a number of levels, whether it’s history, art history, a whiff of economic history, politics, design or interesting personalities – and not just Prince Philip. It’s a window into a less fractious, more progressive and more optimistic Britain than where we live now. Finally, here are several important points which the book discusses, and which may still provoke people today:

  • Decimalisation kicked in with a Tory government, when Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd appointed the Halsbury Committee whose remit was not the ‘if’ of decimalisation but ‘when’. There were no serious precursors of Jacob Rees-Mogg, proudly and patriotically holding out for pounds, shillings and pence.
  • There was never any real connection between Britain’s decimalisation and joining the Common Market, which later became the EU. People believed there was, and muttered darkly about ‘continentalisation’ but De Gaulle didn’t give a toss (of a coin!) as to what unit or system of currency Britain would adopt.
  • The British were slow-coaches in adopting decimalisation, the last major world power to do so. A major reason was ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ but when British economic and political power declined relative to other countries, the old system looked increasingly absurd, complex and expensive.
  • Britain learnt that former Empire and Commonwealth countries could painlessly decimalise. Up to the 1920s Britain called the shots; in the 1950s and 60s, ‘reverse imperial impact’ applied: India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand all went decimal with no loss of blood. Why shouldn’t Britain follow their successful example?
  • No, decimalisation did NOT cause inflation – if anything, inflation was slightly higher in the months that immediately preceded it. The Sun launched a war on ‘decimal diddlers’, encouraging readers to dob them in – only nobody serious was. Perhaps the humiliation of diddlers’ exposure meant that it was, yes, The Sun ‘wot won’ decimalisation.

Pay with your hard-earned decimal money, a mere 3000 new pence, and you will get your very own beautiful copy of When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971!

When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971
By Mark Stocker

Takes readers through the changeover leading to decimalisation day and beyond: how smooth and successful was the process? Did newspapers secretly hope it would fail? Did it lead to inflation, as many people believe today? Entertainingly written and beautifully illustrated, this book attempts to answer all these questions and more, looking as much at the design – indeed the ‘art’ behind the new coinage – as at social, economic and political history.

9781912667567 | Spink Books | Hardback | £30.00
Available through Oxbow Books