It's been 50 years since decimal currency was introduced in the UK - here's what that means

An assistant helps an elderly customer pay for her purchases using the new decimal coinage in a London supermarket on the first day of national decimalisation (Photo: Leonard Burt/Central Press/Getty Images)

Today marks 50 years since the new decimal currency system was formally adopted on 15 February 1971 – known as Decimal Day.

Evolving from the centuries-old tradition of pounds, shillings and pence, introducing the new system was a mammoth feat of public relations and communication.

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It’s a time fondly remembered by many, and so the anniversary is being marked in a number of interesting ways.

Here is everything you need to know about it.

What is decimalisation?

Our current decimalised system of currency was introduced to make the tendering of money much simpler, and to bring it in line with similar currencies around the world, easing the process of international trade.

Previously, under the British currency there were 12 pennies to a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, a tradition which had spanned generations.

The new currency was based on 100 pennies to the pound.

Not everyone was convinced, and despite the first of the new coins making their way to high streets in 1968, giving people time to familiarise themselves with them before the switch, some shoppers initially refused to take them.

Ahead of the switch, a huge information campaign was launched to help households and businesses adapt. Singer Max Bygraves recorded a song called ‘Decimalisation’, and TV shows, films and posters helped people to understand the new coinage.

Some retail staff were given special training to help customers understand the new money in their purses and wallets. At Harrods in London, there were “Decimal Penny” assistants helping customers with the new coins.

A Decimal Currency Board was also set up to oversee the switchover, and to meet the challenge of striking the new coins, a new factory was needed with new machinery, production techniques and processes.

When was Decimal Day?

(Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The transition to decimalisation took five years of planning after the decision was announced in 1966.

The switch came on Monday 15 February 1971, a date chosen as it was the quietest time of the year for banks and shops.

Banks were closed from 3.30pm on Wednesday 10 February to enable outstanding cheques and credits in the clearing system to be processed and customers' account balances to be converted.

At the time, few bank branches were computerised, and so this conversion work mostly had to be completed manually.

But Decimal Day wasn’t the first time the idea of decimalisation had been floated in the UK.

In 1824, Parliament rejected Sir John Wrottesley's proposals to decimalise sterling – prompted by the introduction of the French franc three decades earlier – and in 1841, The Decimal Association was founded to promote decimalisation.

How is the occasion being marked?

On the day of the official change to decimalised currency, Lord Fiske, chairman of the Decimal Currency Board, makes a purchase at a Woolworths store (Photo: George W. Hales/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The Royal Mint is marking the half-century with a string of initiatives aiming to encourage those who remember the monumental change to share their memories and inspire younger generations.

The Royal Mint, based in Llantrisant, South Wales, has created 50 “museums in a box”, which are touring care homes to help people with dementia.

Each box contains pre-decimal coins, posters and conversion charts, which aim to evoke childhood memories, and the Royal Mint Museum is making the boxes available to care homes free of charge.

The Royal Mint has also has a new 50p commemorative coin for sale, featuring “old money” in the design. The coins are available from the Royal Mint’s website in a range of precious metal and base proof finishes.

It is also asking coin collectors to share images of their pre-decimal coins for its online gallery. People can also view other coin collections on the website.

Ahead of the anniversary, the Mint revealed the rarest 50p coins in circulation – the famous Kew Gardens 50p remains the most coveted coin, with a mintage of just 210,000.

A version of this article originally appeared on our sister title, The Scotsman