It’s 15 February, and today we celebrate the power of 10. More specifically, we celebrate Decimal Day, commemorating the day in 1971 when the UK and Ireland finally decimalised their currencies.
Before decimalisation the UK, and most of the Commonwealth, operated on a rather odd monetary system, where a pound was made up of 20 shillings, and a shilling consisted of 12 pence. Hence a pound was worth 240 pence. Working in this monetary system was not only much more difficult than using decimal currency, but it also left tourists utterly confused, having to contend with things like a ‘half-crown’, which was worth two shillings and a sixpence, or one eighth of a pound. It was certainly far from ideal for international trade too. Given these hassles, it surely is testament to the unique character of the Brits that they clung to their old monetary system for so long.
It’s not as though there wasn’t a realisation, many years before, that decimalisation made logical sense in a world where international trade became more and more common. Proposals to decimalise the UK currency date back to the early 1820’s and a Decimal Association was founded in 1841 to promote decimalisation and metrification. This prompted a Royal Commission on Decimal Coinage, tasked to investigate the pros and cons of decimal currency. Amazingly, in their final report (1859), they recommended that decimalisation be scrapped as it had ‘few merits’.
Things puttered along until a new Royal Commission on Decimal Coinage (1918-1920) revisited the idea. This commission was slightly more open minded, yet still decided that, all things considered, decimalising the currency would just be too inconvenient.
It was only after a joint report in 1960 by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, that the adoption of a decimal system gained serious ground. The feasibility of moving to a decimal currency was based in part on the recent success of decimalisation in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. A Decimal Currency Board was created to manage the process.
Changing the currency was obviously not without complications. First it had to be decided what the basis for the new currency should be. In Australia and New Zealand, for instance, a replacement for the pound was adopted – the new Australian Dollar and New Zealand Dollar was defined as being worth 10 shillings, and this was divided into 100 cents. Thus the currency was not only decimalised, but the naming of the currency units was also internationalised. In the UK, however, the historical importance of the pound resulted in its value being retained, and instead the British pound was divided into 100 ‘new pence’. In addition, 5p and 10p coins were introduced, followed later by a 50p coin.
So, after 150 years of lobbying and investigation, and the formation of numerous commissions, boards and asociations, the British currency finally entered the decimal age.
In this era of international e-commerce, where buying from anywhere in the world is the norm, and transacting between different currencies is almost a no-brainer, it’s hard to imagine that a mere 50 years ago, such a big part of the world operated on a non-decimal currency!