diamond geezer

 Tuesday, February 15, 2011

It's 40 years today since Britain went decimal. Ah yes, I remember it well (or as well as you can when you're only five and haven't started getting pocket money yet).

The country went to bed on Sunday night with 240 pennies to the pound, and woke up on Monday morning with 100. Silver coins continued in circulation (with the shilling and florin worth 5p and 10p respectively), including the heptagonal 50p which had been around for a few years in place of the ten shilling note. But it was only on February 15th 1971 that we got our hands on the new coppers. These had no direct pre-decimal equivalent, so lots of people went shopping with helpful cardboard ready reckoners to aid conversion.

As a numerate infant I coped pretty well, having barely had to engage with the previous system. My year at school was the first to use special decimal workcards in maths lessons (as pictured here in a glass case in Luton Museum). Those older than me had had to learn complex base 12 and base 20 arithmetic to carry out even the simplest of money calculations, but base 10 was far easier. I guess my class never realised at the time how lucky an escape we'd had.

Conversion was tougher for adults, so the government launched a public information campaign to ease them in. The Central Office of Information released this short film to get the basics across, plus this rather patronising short to try to persuade housewives to think decimal. I particularly remember a 26 minute film called Granny Gets The Point, in which the Collins family tried to persuade grandma to cast her half crowns and thruppeny bits aside, with supposedly hilarious results. No promotional tool was too crass, including sending two girls called Penny into Harrods on the arm of the Chairman of the Decimal Currency Board.

And then there was Max Bygraves. He recorded a song of terrifying jollity, entitled Decimalisation, in which he attempted to get Radio 2's core audience singing along with the New Money basics. I was shocked to discover that the lyrics to this 1971 classic aren't online, so I've transcribed them diligently below. Notice how the words are aimed at Sun reader level, with the exception of one highly technical term slipped into the middle because it rhymes.

We call it... decimalisation, decimalisation,
Soon it's gonna be time to change the money round,
Cos we've got... decimalisation, decimalisation,
There's a hundred new pennies now for every pound.

Five new pennies are like a shilling, and ten new pence is a two bob bit,
A fifty pence piece hasn't got a milling, it's seven-sided and a half a quid,
With a half and a one and two new pence, decimal shopping will commence.

Then we'll have... decimalisation, decimalisation,
Soon it's gonna be time to change the money round,
Cos we've got... decimalisation, decimalisation,
There's a hundred new pennies now for every pound.

Gone are the days when twelve old pence added up to make a shilling, not much sense,
The half crown too has gone for good - a coin that foreigners never understood,
Now some people who were feeling very bright have put their heads together just to make things right,
They have made it easy for every citizen, cos all we have to do is count from one to ten

Repeat chorus x2
Decimalisation was an act of fundamental economic change, especially in an era when most things cost less than a pound, but the British public switched surprisingly successfully. I would refer you to an excellent Radio 4 documentary on the subject, except they last broadcast it 8 days ago so it's fallen off iPlayer just in time for today's anniversary (sigh). Instead let me point out that the old system had some arithmetical benefits over the new, in that 240 divides exactly by more numbers than does 100.

friends share a £7 bill at the Lyons Corner House. How much does each pay?

friends share a £7 bill at the Golden Egg Restaurant. How much does each pay?

Most of those first decimal coins have already bitten the dust. The titchy halfpenny was withdrawn in 1984, while the five, ten and fifty were resized in the 1990s. Our pockets are no longer full of shillings and florins - a tangible link to Kings and Queens past. But at least there are no plans on any immediate horizon to swap pence for cents. Decimalisation may have been an upheaval, but I bet Euro Switchday would be far more traumatic.

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