Fifty years ago today it happened. 15th February 1971, the money went funny.
Ha’pennies, pennies, thruppenny bits, tanners, bobs, florins, half crowns and ten bob notes were replaced with new pennies.
I grew up with pounds, shillings, and pence and although maths has never been my strong point, I was never in a dither when it came to using ‘the old money’, it was second nature. In the late 1960s my pocket money was 2/6d a week, that’s 30 pennies, ten thruppenny bits, five tanners, two and a half bob, a florin and sixpence or a whole eighth of a pound. I often thought that in just eight weeks, if I were good and saved my money, I could have a whole pound to play with.
Two short months and a crisp one pound note could be mine, all mine. Of course, it never was, I was always tempted by a new Superman comic or a bag of sweets. I say it never was, but I did once save up enough to buy myself an action figure, a doll for boys. 19/6d it cost as I recall, I may be in error there but there was definitely a sixpence on the end, that’s eight weeks pocket money and a tanner change. The amount of money I had at any one time might have been minimal but dealing with the money when I had it was easy.
Attempts at introducing a decimalised system of currency had been put forward before. In 1824 Staffordshire MP, Sir John Wrottesley put forward the idea of a decimal currency, he suggested that 100 farthings should equal one double shilling and twenty double shillings would equal one pound. That wasn’t actually so crazy though, as it stood one pound consisted of 240 pennies, the farthing was a quarter of a penny so, 240 multiplied by 4 equals 960 farthings to the pound, upping that to 1,000 for the sake of easy maths would have been quite easy to do methinks, Parliament however rejected the idea; spoilsports. Farthings were withdrawn as currency in 1961 so I never had the joy of using them in financial transactions at sweet shops.
Then in 1847, Sir John Bowring, member of Parliament for Bolton at the time, tried to revive the idea of decimal coinage and the 1,000 farthings to a pound approach but he refined the idea saying that the pound should be divided into 100 sub-units which he suggested should be called ‘Victorias’ and that 10 ‘Victorias’ should equal one ‘Queen’ giving 10 ‘Queens’ to the pound. This suggestion for decimalisation was also rejected but one of his ideas, a coin worth one tenth of a pound was put into practice and in 1849 the two shilling coin appeared; these coins were called not ‘Queens’ as per Bowring’s original idea but ‘Florins’ although it is recorded that Bowring himself wanted to call these coins ‘Dimes’.
And so, we continued with, 12 pennies to the shilling, 240 pennies to the pound, thruppenny bits and tanners and so on. The 3d coin was, I think, my favourite. There was something very satisfying about holding a thruppenny bit, it felt substantial, chunky, it felt worth something. And to all of you sniggering in the back row, to a lad whose greatest aspiration was to own Virgil Tracy, one of the hopelessly expensive Thunderbird action figures, dreams of holding ‘thruppenny bits’ were still some time in the future.
We had warnings of course, in 1968, in preparation for going decimal in 1971, the 5p and 10p coins were introduced. These were the same size and value as the shillings and florins that they were intended to replace and circulated side by side with the old money. The next year, 1969, a new, 10 shilling coin was issued, rather confusingly called a 50 pence piece and in 1970 the beloved ten bob note was withdrawn.
Then it happened and on 15th February 1971 there were three more new coins to contend with; the half new penny, the new penny and the two new penny piece and bang! Britain had gone decimal. The old penny and thruppenny bit coins were withdrawn on D Day. The old ha’penny had disappeared in 1969 and the Half Crown had been withdrawn in 1970. The tanner though, the sixpenny bit, which was by now equal to 2½ new pence seemed to lead a charmed existence pre-decimalisation and wasn’t demonetised until 1980 although the chances of coming across one and shopkeepers willing to accept them was fairly rare. The shilling and florin remained legal tender, as 5p and 10p equivalents, until the early 1990s when the existing ‘new’ money was redesigned to make it smaller.
A few days after D Day, as it was called, I was sent by my mum down to the shops at the bottom of Three Close Lane, opposite The Rex Cinema, to buy a loaf of bread and a few other things. I got it hopelessly wrong. I had to let the shopkeeper take the correct money from my outstretched palm. It sounds counterintuitive now but then, the complexities of pounds, shillings and pence seemed really easy.
This new-fangled decimal coinage was tricky and bear in mind, some of the old coins were still in circulation with the new ones; the shilling and florin now being equal to their decimal usurpers as 5 new pence and 10 new pence respectively. I think I’d got flustered, confused with the florin’s new value as 10 new pence, thinking that it was 20 new pence because, you know, it’s twice the value of a shilling which was, um, 10, wasn’t it?
When mum had given me the money to go down to the shops, go down in a very literal sense as we lived at the top of a hill, I had been cocksure about the whole new money thing. I returned with the bread and other supplies, somewhat crestfallen. The lesson however had been learned and I didn’t make that mistake again and of course, after a while it was so obvious that decimal money was the sensible thing to have; how on earth did we ever cope with all those antiquated coins and weird denominations?
I still have a small cache of pre-decimal coins and yes, holding a thruppenny bit I still get the feeling that this coin was a thing of worth, if only three pennies. And now of course with our new, smaller coins, holding a half crown, it feels enormous…
Look, I told you lot at the back about sniggering, if you’re not going to behave then I’m putting you all in detention.