The Day We Changed Our Currency

So the British way of life continued for hundreds of years, each new generation of children reciting parrot-fashion until they learned it by heart that twelve pennies made a shilling and twenty shillings made a pound and all the other coins fell somewhere  in between and they were not to ask too many questions, because thats the way it was.

And then on Monday 15th February 1971 we all woke up to find our old currency was scrapped and we had some new schizzle to learn – not only had we some new coins, but they were based on a sensible way of working, the way of working coins that the whole world used except us – the decimal system, 100 pennies in a pound instead of 240, units of tens instead of twelves, or twenties, or whatever.

It should have been much easier

But it wasn’t, it was perhaps the hardest thing that the British public had ever been asked to undertake.

For a start, there were only 100 pennies in each pound, which meant that the things that had been priced at one of the old pennies couldn’t simply carry on being priced at a new penny, for that would instantly have created inflation at 240% (or something like that), so everything on sale everywhere had to have a mathematical calculation done on it by the shopkeeper and repriced using the new currency and in the days before electronic calculators became cheap enough to be in widespread use there was only one way to recalculate the value of anything – you used a “Ready Reckoner”.

Everyone had one, a small red book in which every price that you could think of was written in one column with the new decimal currency price listed opposite in another column, for years it was like shopping in a foreign country using a phrase book as housewives and shopkeepers both poured over their Ready Reckoners, flipping back the pages to check whether or not one was ripping off the other by means of simply getting the decimal point in the wrong place…

“Are you sure these apples are eighteen pound forty two new pee ?” the housewife would ask
“Oh yes madam” the shopkeeper would reply with a straight face, “its the new currency you know”
“But they only used to be two and thre’pence…”

And of course with each new one penny being worth slightly less than two and a half old pennies there was no way on earth to directly convert the prices to their exact decimal equivalent, so prices were rounded up to their nearest new one penny or new halfpenny which in turn led to mass accusations of profiteering by retailers – this decimalisation thing didn’t get off to a good start at all.

And there were anomalies too – for some strange reason the silver sixpenny piece was not declared void on Decimal Day, it survived as legal currency for several years thereafter, probably on the whim of a Minister at The Treasury, probably because that Minister used to pay his housekeeper a silver sixpence in weekly remuneration, so we continued to use a coin that had been a part of our currency for several hundred years and we continued to call it a sixpence, even though it no longer represented six pennies but in fact two and a half new pennies, which in itself was not an exact conversion, just a rough estimate…

“How much is that then love” the old lady would ask the market stall holder
“Sixpence love” he’d reply (we call everyone “love” in the North)
“oooh thats dear, now let me see…” and she’d get her Ready Reckoner out to see what coins to give him
“No love, not six new pence, sixpence, a tanner”
“Oh a tanner, why didn’t you say a tanner then”
And he’d shake his head in despair and wish he’d worked in a factory like his dad had told him to.

As a fourteen year old it was a simple process to just forget everything you’d ever learned about the old system – an easy thing to do when actually you’d never totally learned it yet anyway – and start again but count in tens this time, I didn’t need a Ready Reckoner for I had no reason to want to know what the price had been in “old money”, if the four-per-old-penny chews were now four-per-new-penny then so be it, even though they were now two and a half times more expensive, it was still a penny wasn’t it ?

But the old folks really suffered, some went certifiably mad in the process, some old folks never forgot what “they” had done to “our currency”, “the finest currency in the world ” it was until “they” changed it to decimal – who “they” were is not known and is a detail that is not required for as long as there is a “they” to blame then the proletariat are happy.

“How much is that in old money ?” was the question most frequently asked of retailers all over the land for years after Decimal Day had been and gone

“I don’t know love” would come the answer, “I wasn’t born when we had the old money”

Even today, forty years later, if you wander around any marketplace in any town in this country it won’t be long before you find an old lady telling a stall holder how much those pears would have been in old money, “seventy five pence for a bag of pears, why thats seventeen and sixpence, daylight bloody robbery, my Bert only earned five bob a week and we paid the rent and raised eight kids on that, we wouldn’t even be able to buy a bag of pears now-a-days on my Berts wage” and then a policeman will lead them away to sit them down outside a cafe and buy them a cup of tea at a price that would have taken her Bert three weeks to afford.

Thank goodness there were proper informative adverts to alert the women of this country to this new currency…


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