Scrap Book project – Decimalisation and the end of Pounds, Shillings and Pence

The pre-decimalisation British system of coinage was introduced by King Henry II. It was based on the troy system of weighing precious metals. The penny was literally one pennyweight of silver. A pound sterling thus weighed 240 pennyweights, or a pound of sterling silver.

On 15th February 1971, after five years of planning by the Decimal Currency Board, Britain abandoned this medieval currency system and converted to a much simpler decimal system based on pounds and new pence.

This was much simpler because in the years just prior to decimalisation, the circulating British coins were the half crown (2s 6d), two shillings or florin, shilling, known as a bob, sixpence (6d), the tanner, threepence (3d), thruppenny bit and my favourite pre decimal coin, penny (1d) and halfpenny (½d). The farthing (¼d) being practically worthless had been withdrawn as long ago as 1960.

Under the old currency the pound (denoted by the letter l for libra) was made up of 240 pence (denoted by the letter d for Latin denarius and now referred to as “old pence”), with 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings (denoted by s for Latinsolidus) in a pound.

Amounts of money were written as l s d, for pounds, shillings and pence.  5s was 5 shillings, often just written as 5/-. And 5s 6d was 5 shillings and sixpence – and was often, instead, written as 5/6.  In spoken English, the “shilling” word was often missed out – so a shopkeeper might say, “that’ll be 5 and 6, please”, meaning 5 shillings and six pence.

In an era before widespread computer use, monetary calculation, such as adding up sums of money, was more complicated than with a decimal currency.  When I was at primary school between 1959 and 1966 I had to learn arithmetic based on this confusing system and in Mrs Bull’s class three it was time for adding up and taking away and we would sit and chant out the times tables over and over again until we knew them off by heart.  That was boring but useful because I have never forgotten them.  Doing sums was a lot harder then because we were still ten years away from decimalisation and had to add things up in pounds, shillings and pence and that was difficult let me tell you. Try adding this lot together and you will see what I mean:



£   19.11½


After decimilisation there was a completely new set of coins to get familiar with.  The 50 pence coin had been introduced in 1969 to replace the paper 10 shilling note and in 1971 we had the 10 pence, 5 pence, 2 pence, 1 pence and ½ pence coins. Between 1969 and 1971 we used to take half crowns into the school metal work shop and file down the edges to convert them to 50 pence pieces in a crude attempt to quadruple their value and then try and pass them off in the sweet shop down the road where the shop keeper had poor eyesight.

To commemorate decimilisation the Royal Mint sold souvenir wallets with each of the new coins and a short explanation.  Mum and dad bought one for me and my sister but I just popped the coins out from the cardboard holder and spent them and then a few days later I spent my sister’s as well and I feel really bad about that now!

The 20 pence piece was introduced in 1982. The half penny was withdrawn from circulation in 1984.  A smaller, lighter 10 pence piece was circulated from 1993 and similar changes were made to the 50 pence in 1998.  In June 1998 the £2 coin came into general circulation.

The answer to the sum is seven pounds, eight shillings and fourpence ha’penny.  I told you it was hard!

43 responses to “Scrap Book project – Decimalisation and the end of Pounds, Shillings and Pence

  1. The old system still has its uses to this day – my mother calculates the time in Australia (where my brother lives) using old money; sounds nuts I know, but somehow it works. I’ll try and remember today to ask her the formula so I can share it here!

  2. Shame on you for spending your sister’s decimal coin kit! Hahahaha

    Wouldn’t the re-worked “50 pence pieces” have fitted into any vending machines? 😛

  3. Not sure what happened to my new pence set but still have the old money set.

    I used to be good at the adding up. I couldn’t get the shillings to eight though doing it in my head 😦 Had to write it down to do it!

    I didn’t know the origin of pound sterling or the reason for 240 pennies was all based on silver however. Or if I did, I have certainly forgotten.

  4. Pingback: Memory Post – Decimilisation | Have Bag, Will Travel

  5. . . . didn’t even try to add it . . . or check your math.

  6. I think it was the law that all sweet shop owners had poor eyesight. Old Mr Lemmon where I lived was literally robbed blind!

  7. Those were the days!

  8. Remember the changeover well. Ruined Bob a Job Week. I still have my wallet of coins – I can’t believe you spent yours AND your sister’s! Surprised how long ago some things are eg 1982 for 20p piece and 1998 for the £2 coin. They seem far more recent.

  9. Phew, I got the sum right. I’m sure it was much easier then though.

  10. Funny how we now refer to the term ‘in Old Money’ when what we really mean is the old fashioned way of doing things no matter what the context, even when it has nothing to do with money.

    I wonder if Opob’s mum uses 240 pennies as her starting point? Sounds very complicated.
    I have always been useless at maths but I never had difficulty with calculating money!

  11. The problem with decimalisation was that all the grasping shopkeepers put their prices up. You’d find that 2/6d wasn’t 12½ new pence but 15 or even more.

  12. Naturally I remember it well. When I started work in 1960 we used mechanical calculators and the simplest way of adding tables of currency was to convert LSD to decimal in ones head first

  13. John’s point was immediately predictable

  14. LOL! I had to laugh when I read you and your sister spent the coins in the new decimal system booklet! I had a great aunt who always hadn’t my siblings and me beautiful Morgan silver dollars with the admonition, “…and don’t tell your Mommy and Daddy I gave you this!” Of course, I didn’t, and the silver, now a fortune in value above face value, ended up purchasing water guns and candy. If I had told my parents, you know the money would have gone into a special place to be saved till I better understood how valuable the coins were.

  15. With regards to disperser’s comment of US coinage, I agree, of course, though one rarely gets any coins above the quarter (25 cents) in change. I recently got a Kennedy half in change and didn’t realize it until I empty the jacket pocket I put it and the rest of the change in. (One should pay attention to change!) the Sacagawea and Susan B. Anthony dollars, while attractive coinage, almost never get used. Americans resist the weight of coins in their pockets, and the most large-denomination coins in use traditionally are those in circulation in the West. The presidential dollars program failed to catch on, and most sit in vaults, unwanted, unused, and a pain for the US Treasury. People just don’t want the metal dollars. As for the penny, Canada got rid of it years ago, but the US resists eliminating this and the second least useful coin, the 5-cent piece (nickel). I have a pile of the dang things from change given me, and they periodically get donated to a program to feed needy children. (Other change in larger denominations is added to the pile as well, of course, or the donation would be pretty petty!) I’m not sure that the resistance isn’t because Abraham Lincoln is on the coin, well his memorial, with a tiny, tiny, very minuscule Abe on this marble chair that can be barely seen is. Anything related to that president, generally regarded as the best one we ever had because he freed the slaves, preserved the Union, inspired with his rhetoric (for example, the Gettysburg Address), and was the first president to be assassinated – you know how we like to shoot people here… – makes Lincoln and anything related to Lincoln to sacred to touch.

  16. Grammarly failed to pick up a verb agreement issue and the wrong use of “to” toward the end. I see I need to proofread text regardless of that tool! I’m better trained than this.

  17. Pre-decimalization English kids truly had reasons to whine about the lessons on using the old system. In my country, the worst they endure is working with fractions. Oh, and the so-called New Math.

  18. This was a very educational and entertaining read about the change in currency. Thank goodness that happened. What a mess it used to be. I keep hearing Eliza in my head though, insisting, “NOT a brass farthing!”

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