I remember ‘D-Day’ – Decimilisation Day – with startling clarity. I went to bed on 14th February 1971 with a Penny Arrow (a thin strip of tooth-pulling toffee, much beloved by schoolboys) costing, as its name implied, a penny (1d – I have absolutely no idea why an old penny was expressed as ‘d’) and I woke up on Monday morning, 15th February 1971 to find that it still cost a penny, but it was now a New penny (1p) – meaning that, although the toffee bar was of the same size and weight as before, it now cost over twice as much as it did the day before.
Now, for those of you who are not from these shores, and for those of you who are younger than myself (most of you) I feel that I probably need to offer some sort of explanation of what happened on that fateful day. (Concentrate now, this could get very messy.) The coins that were in circulation on 14th February 1971 were a half penny (ha’penny), a penny, three pence (thrupence), six pence (tanner), a shilling (bob), two shillings (florin), two shillings and six pence (half crown – which my dad always referred to as ‘half a dollar’) and five shillings (crown – five bob – ‘a dollar’). There were also the ten shilling (ten bob), one pound and five pound notes. Rumour had it that there were also notes of higher denominations, but they had never actually been seen by anyone on our estate. Are you still with me? It gets more complicated. There were twelve pennies to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound (my, wasn’t currency fun!) Larger items were often priced in guineas (one pound and one shilling) although there was no longer a coin of that denomination.
On ‘D-Day’ the pound remained the same, but it was now populated by one hundred New Pennies. The coins were now ½p, 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p and 50p – none of which had a friendly nickname and, because the government did not feel that we would be confused enough at this stage, the old six pence, shilling and two-shilling coins remained in circulation for some time, to be used at their new face value. My pocket money went from two shillings (twenty four old pence) to ten new pence, and I felt very hard done by.
The shops all had conversion charts by the tills (which mysteriously, I recall, showed that 1 New Penny was equivalent to 3 old ones) and for many months thereafter all young people were expected to help their elders work out exactly what lurked within their purses. Everybody suspected the shopkeepers of profiteering – especially as some manufacturers took the opportunity to simultaneously introduce the decimal into our weights and measures. I cannot possibly go into the pounds to kilograms, pints to litres thing – principally because I staggered through Maths ‘O’ level and have never added up anything that goes beyond my number of fingers since. Just imagine if somebody told you that your four ounces of ‘rhubarb and custard’ sweets, formerly costing 6d, would, henceforth, cost you 22p a kilo, and then try to imagine attempting to work out whether or not you were being ripped off whilst standing at the head of a queue full of belligerent and confused pensioners in a hurry, brandishing a fistful of coins that they did not understand.
Anyway, that’s why I remember the day, but it doesn’t explain why I’m wittering on about it now, does it? Well, you see, I’ve just had somebody suggest to me that Brexit provides the ideal opportunity to reintroduce our old system of pounds, shillings and pence. Money, they assured me, made so much more sense back in those days. I remember being told, back then, that our new system relied on units of ten, but the only unit of which I was aware (a shilling) was five. I was deeply sceptical. Was this some sort of Soviet Plot? (Why, the next thing you would know, they’d be interfering in our elections.) Why, if they wanted to be compliant with Euro-regulations, didn’t the government just have ten old pennies to the shilling and ten old shillings to the pound? Probably they realised that we needed something that was simultaneously banally trivial and yet unreasonably complicated in order to take our minds off real life in the UK at the time. (Check out the Wikipedia page for 1971 and you’ll be pleased that you are alive today.) Anyway, I cannot begin to imagine the confusion that going back could cause now: ‘OK, we’re taking this five pence off you and giving you a shilling instead – it has twelve pennies in it…’ Unless, of course, there is something currently going on in the UK that the government thinks it needs to take our minds off…