D-DAY FOR OUR COINS
Tom Hockenhull, Curator: Medals and Modern Money, British Museum, provides ten little-known facts about Britain’s switch to a decimal currency
On a grey, drizzly Monday, 15 February 1971, Britain went decimal. Ten years in the planning, ‘D-Day’ upended a currency system that had been unchanged for more than a millennium. Celebrating the publication of a new book, Making Change: the decimalisation of Britain’s currency, author Tom Hockenhull, Curator: Medals and Modern Money, British Museum provides ten littleknown facts about how it happened
1. Decimalisation had been discussed since the seventeenth century
Early advocates of decimalisation included Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and the influential economist Sir William Petty (162387) who, in 1682, proposed a system to ‘keep all Accompts in a way of Decimal Arithmetick’. However, the opportunity was not taken and in 1704 Russia became the first country to decimalise under the reforms of Peter the Great (reigned 1682-1725).
There were concerted efforts to implement UK decimalisation during the mid-19th century.
At the International Monetary Conference convened in Paris in 1867, representatives from several nations were invited to discuss how they might introduce a decimalised international currency. Rather out of politeness than genuine enthusiasm, the British Government dispatched a Treasury official and Thomas Graham (1805-69), Master of the Mint, with instructions merely to observe the proceedings. Unbeknown to the government, Graham in his enthusiasm for the project had prepared by having the Mint produce pattern decimal pence/ franc pattern coins which he shared with the other delegates along with his proposal for a decimal system. The Government reluctantly agreed to investigate and it duly convened a Royal Commission. This Commission, however, poured cold water on the proposal, as it would require the withdrawal of all the UK gold coinage.
2. The impetus for reform came from the Commonwealth
In the late-1950s India decimalised its rupee and there were similar commitments from New Zealand, Australia and the Republic of Ireland. These decisions reflected an overall disengagement from the post-colonial project. In South
Africa the 1961 introduction of the rand (a new currency) was further evidence of the hostile Afrikaner government’s deliberate distancing from the Commonwealth, which it left in the same year. The only nondecimal currencies left would soon be those of the UK, Nigeria, Malta and the Gambia. Within just a few years Britain’s idiosyncratic £.s.d. system had become exposed and isolated among world currencies.
The government responded by, in 1961, appointing a Committee of Inquiry chaired by Tony Giffard, 3rd Lord Halsbury (1908–2000). The Halsbury Committee was tasked with advising on the most practical form the currency could take, the timing of its introduction and an estimate of the costs. Its report was published in 1963, though a public announcement on decimalisation would not be made until 1966.
3. The Royal Mint held a secret team competition to produce the initial designs
Following the appointment of the Halsbury Committee the Royal Mint secretly invited various arts bodies to form teams that would compete against one another to produce new decimal designs.
The Royal Designers for Industry and Royal College of Art formed a joint RCA/RDI team, whose members included the modernist sculptor Geoffrey Clarke (19242014) and Christopher Ironside (1913-92). They took to the task with enthusiasm. Geoffrey Clarke’s ideas were particularly experimental. He proposed dish-shaped coins and designs where all the textual information is restricted to one side. They were considered too adventurous, and taken no further. From this competition Arnold Machin (from the Royal Academy team) was selected to sculpt a new portrait of the Queen, while Christopher Ironside took on the decimal reverses.
4. Machin sculpted the portrait of the Queen from life
Arnold Machin recounts in his autobiography how he was granted four sittings with the Queen in an upstairs room at Buckingham Palace. One final sitting took place at Balmoral Castle where the Royals were spending the Summer break. While there he was given a tour of the estate and invited to a special dinner celebrating the announcement that the Queen was expecting a fourth child. Machin found the Queen to be a relaxed and genial host with a mischievous sense of humour – she once asked him his opinion on the artist L.S. Lowry, and listened with a smirk while Machin held forth about how much he hated his work. He later learned that she had bought a Lowry painting only the week before.
5. Government ministers hated Ironside’s initial designs
Ironside’s preliminary designs were completed between 1963 and 1966, and shown to cabinet ministers in July of that year. The response was less than enthusiastic with one particularly vocal critic describing them as ‘bad, fussy and “old hat”’. This was a huge blow to the Mint. Feeling that the role of Mint Advisory Committee had been undermined, the Duke of Edinburgh briefly contemplated resigning as its President. Instead, in August 1966, he wrote to the Chancellor suggesting that, since ministers didn’t like them, perhaps
a public competition could be held to find fresh designs. Ironside was summoned to the Mint where the Deputy Master, Jack James, poured him a large gin and tonic and broke the calamitous news. After a few days’ despair, Ironside resolved that he must enter the open competition with a fresh set of designs, so he went back to the drawing board. These improved designs won the competition. Had they not, Ironside’s role in the decimal coinage would be no more than an unfortunate footnote.
6. The portcullis on the ½p
With the competition won, Ironside’s decimal reverses quickly fell into place – the crest of England on the 10p, badge of Scotland on the 5p and badge of the Prince of Wales on the 2p. In his submission to the competition Ironside had proposed that the portcullis motif associated with Parliament should sit on the ½p. However, since the ½p was looking likely to be later withdrawn owing to inflation, its design was considered the least important of the set. The decision was taken to transfer the portcullis onto the 1p coin while a more expendable design – a royal crown – was introduced on the ½p. The Mint was later alerted to a minor error in the portcullis design, specifically in the crown of Henry VII above where the cross pattée and not the fleur-de-lys should come by the arches. The same error had been made on the sixteenth century gates of Westminster chapel, which is possibly where Ironside saw and copied it. Nobody else had seemed to notice, and so the Mint remained quiet.
7. Public reaction to the new 50p was fierce
The new seven-sided 50p coin was extensively marketed. Posters were printed and the Decimal Currency Board arranged for a sample to be used in the coin toss at the 1969 FA Cup Final. Released into circulation on 14 October 1969 to relatively positive reviews, coverage quickly turned hostile with
The Times declaring the coin a ‘monstrosity’. There were concerns that it might be confused with the similarly sized 10p piece. The Mint received almost 600 letters of complaint, although only twentyeight claimed to have lost money as a result of the confusion, and in November it became the subject of a heated debate in the House of Commons. The storm gradually died down and acceptance of the coin gradually grew, from a mere 28 per cent approval rating in November 1969 to 56 per cent by March 1970.
8. Technicians worked around the clock to convert cash registers
The UK’s estimated 610,000 cash registers all had to be made decimal-ready. Planning had commenced years in advance and parts had been stockpiled in readiness. The task fell to teams of technicians employed by the big manufacturers who worked fifty or even sixty-hour weeks from January to October 1971. The National Cash Register Company employed 1,600
technicians to complete the job. Most machines made after 1960 were decimal ready, meaning that they could be converted at the flick of a switch. Older models were more complicated and most mechanical models had to be taken to bits to have their innards modified or replaced altogether. The conversion of equipment came at a cost which had to be borne by the retailer. With new machines costing about £100, most elected to have their existing machines converted, at a cost of £30 to 40.
9. Croydon’s place in decimal history
In February 1970 Sainsbury’s, at the time Britain’s largest grocer, converted its Croydon store to serve as a decimal training shop. Upon arrival, shoppers were shown a short film, Quick Change, and then allowed to try shopping in the store, which stocked around
400 of Sainsbury’s 3,000-strong product line. The shop aimed to provide as realistic a shopping experience as possible in which to train 1,500 Sainsbury’s employees (out of a total staff of 25,000). The consumer magazine Which? interviewed sixty-seven housewives who had just been through the store, and the results were encouraging: overall, sixty-two of the group rated the experience as at least ‘fairly easy’.
10. D-Day was a ‘non-event’
Bill Fiske, Chairman of the Decimal Currency Board, famously declared that D-Day would be the non-event of 1971. By and large, he was right. February had been chosen for the changeover because it was the least inconvenient time of the year – a quiet day for businesses and banks. Banks had, in fact, been closed since the end of Wednesday 10 February, giving them four days to prepare – an inconvenience for customers that was offset slightly by a recent innovation to the high street: the cashpoint. A survey commissioned by the DCB on the day found that 67 per cent of those interviewed found shopping easy, 25 per cent found it hard and 8 per cent had no feelings either way. Crucially, of those interviewed, 73 per cent said it would get easier over time. Newspapers were quick to declare that D-Day had been a success: ‘You’re getting the point’, said London’s Evening Standard.