On 14th February 1971, the country went to bed with one currency, and woke with another. The following day, 15th February 1971, Britain went decimal. And this year marks the 50th anniversary of this monumental change.
The UK has been at the forefront of iconic and innovative coin designs throughout history. From King Edward III’s first gold coin which was introduced to the UK in 1344, to the experimental and iconic new designs seen on The Royal Mint’s latest issues.
But the UK wasn’t the first country to go decimal. In fact, it was rather slow in its conversion and was one of the last countries in the world to go decimal. And the growing pressure of a world around it changing to Decimal currency would eventually push the UK to make the switch…
Who was the first?
Russia is considered the first country to go decimal, as under Tsar Peter the Great, the Russian Ruble was introduced with a sub-division of 100 Kopeks. It wasn’t until almost 100 years later in 1794 that France followed suit with the Franc, and the Netherlands was the third European country to go decimal in 1817 with the Dutch Guilder. Impressively, there are now only two countries in the world that are still using non-decimal currency – Madagascar and Mauritania (and interestingly both countries’ currencies are sub-divided into units of 5).
What about the Commonwealth?
By the 1960s, half the world had gone decimal and a number of Commonwealth countries had also made the switch to a decimal currency. Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa all turned to decimal throughout the 1960s giving rise to a powerful decimalisation movement in the UK. As the world around it converted to a modern decimal currency, it seemed inevitable that the UK would soon have to follow suit.
By the time the UK eventually got to Decimal Day, the majority of the world had already made the switch. That includes the likes of the US, Greece, Spain, Switzerland, The Philippines, Nova Scotia, Bolivia, China, Brazil, Jamaica, Fiji, and many more.
When D-Day finally came…
When Decimal Day finally arrived in 1971, many countries around the world had long since made the switch. For the UK, although the wheels had been set in motion with the introduction of the Florin 120 years prior, it wasn’t until 1968 that decimal coins officially circulated. The 10p and 5p coins were issued alongside their pre-decimal siblings, the Florin and Shilling, for almost 3 years before Decimal Day. Importantly, the first 50p coin entered our circulation in 1969, ultimately becoming the collector’s staple denomination. Fittingly, it is also the denomination that The Royal Mint have chosen to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Decimalisation this year.
These early introductions helped the public warm to decimalisation and after seeing the world around them change. 15th February 1971 marked a long foreseen, yet inevitable event for the public – the biggest for UK coinage in over a thousand years! It altered the lives of everyone in the UK, remember these were the days before bank cards, and people had to learn a whole new currency! It is certainly an important moment in the history books.
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Next month marks the 50th anniversary since the UK switched to decimal currency, leaving behind the old Pounds (£), Shillings (/-) and Pence (d) and introducing the decimalised coins we know today. You might even remember Decimal Day in 1971 yourself, using conversion charts and rhymes to learn the new currency and the excitement of seeing the new coins in your change.
In the 1820s, discussions for a new decimal currency had already begun, and in 1849 a new decimal coin was introduced in the UK. But its introduction didn’t quite go as planned and decimalisation was delayed for almost 130 years!
The Florin first entered circulation in 1849 and had a value of 1/10th of a pound, or 24 pence (in old money). Supposedly, the name came from a similar coin issued in the Netherlands to help with decimalisation there. The Florin (or Two Shilling Coin) featured a special portrait of Queen Victoria in a medieval gothic style. It was the first time since Charles II that a monarch was depicted on a portrait wearing a crown.
Blamed for famine and sickness
The Gothic portrait was featured on the Florin when it was first introduced in 1849. Because the bust was larger than the previous Young Head portrait, the design omitted ten important letters. The words “DEI GRATIA” had been removed from the coin’s inscription. In a deeply religious society, the fact that the words meaning “by the grace of God” no longer appeared on the coin caused outrage.
Many people believed that the lack of the inscription had angered God and caused famine and sickness at the time, leading many to avoid the coin altogether.
One of the shortest-lived coins in UK history
The public outrage meant that the design was altered to include a shortened version of DEI GRATIA (d.g.) by making the diameter of the coin 2mm bigger. This coin soon became the Gothic Florin and was better received by the public, but it’s safe to say that the disaster with the Godless Florin tainted the idea of decimalisation for many years. It also meant that the Godless Florin circulated for just a few years, making it one of the shortest-lived coins in our history!
A second attempt
The Victorian’s made a second attempt at decimalisation in 1887 in the form of the Double Florin (equivalent to 1/5th of a pound, or 48 pennies), issued with a new portrait of Queen Victoria for her Jubilee. But this coin also wasn’t received well and was withdrawn from circulation completely by 1890.
One of the features that makes the Double Florin stand out in history is that it was almost indistinguishable from the crown coin. Neither carried the denomination, and the only difference between the two (apart from the value) was that the Double Florin was 2mm smaller – not something that was easy to spot by eye. Because the two coins were so easily confused, the Double Florin became infamous for causing barmaid to lose their jobs after they short-changed pub owners!
The Victorians are famed for their innovation and sweeping changes in technology, industry, and culture. The Florin as a denomination did circulate until 1993 when it was eventually demonetised, and whilst there were countless experimentations with coinage and new denominations under Queen Victoria, it seems that the UK wasn’t quite ready for a change as big as decimalisation.
If you’re interested:
With such a fascinating story and sense of history behind it, it is no wonder that the Double Florin is such a highly-regarded British coin. Those that do remain are very difficult to track down and we have a very limited number available. And now you can spread your payment across 5 interest free instalments of JUST £19. Click here to secure yours today before they sell out!
It’s a tradition that dates back to the time of the Bible. During the Last Supper, Jesus famously washed the feet of his disciples as a sign of his humility, and it was this religious event that inspired an Easter tradition which takes place to this day.
Since the thirteenth century, members of the Royal Family have followed Jesus’ example, giving gifts to the poor and washing their feet on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. By the eighteenth century, the act of washing feet was discontinued and the accompanying gifts were replaced by a money allowance, known as Maundy money.
And it was this change that created one of the most interesting of all the historic Royal Mint releases.
The first Maundy money ceremony took place in the reign of Charles II, when the King gave people undated hammered coins in 1662. The tradition has continued for over 350 years and today’s recipients of Royal Maundy are elderly men and women, chosen because of the Christian service they have given to the Church and the community.
At the ceremony, the monarch hands each recipient two small leather string purses. A red purse contains ordinary coins, while a white one contains the extremely special silver Maundy coins, amounting to the same number of pence as the years of the sovereign’s age.
Its deeply historical roots are what makes Maundy Money a rare highlight in any classic coin collection. But because of their extremely limited mintage and the fact they have never been issued into general circulation, they now stand as a one of the most highly sought after Easter gifts in the world!