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The Story of Decimal Coinage

By The Royal Mint    |   Wednesday, 15 February 2012

British Florin 1849
Florin 1849

For those of us under the age of 50, it is hard to imagine accounting in pounds, shillings and pence, a system whereby 12 pennies made a shilling and 20 shillings a pound. But that was the complex arithmetic our grandparents wrestled with and, moreover, was a system which they were reluctant to see disappear.

Decimalisation of currency was not a new concept and had been the subject of passionate debate for centuries. >Sir John Bowring was a prominent figure in the decimal debate.

...every man who looks at his ten fingers, saw an argument of its use, and an evidence of its practicability

In fact, the first decimal coin appeared in 1849 when the florin, as one tenth of a pound, was introduced as a tentative step towards a complete decimal currency. The florin survived but the Government of the day was cautious and hopes of decimalisation were dashed at that time.

The Story of Decimal Coinage

It wasn't until the majority of Commonwealth countries had already switched that a special Committee was put in place in 1961 to consider how and when Britain should change to a decimal currency.

On 1 March 1966 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, announced that the centuries-old £sd system would be replaced by a decimal currency in which the pound would be divided into one hundred units. Pennies and pounds were favoured above foreign-sounding dollars and cents, and five new coins were decided upon. The shapes, designs and sizes of each were intended to make them readily distinguishable from each other and from what had gone before, yet enable them to run easily alongside £sd coinage for a short time.

The following decade was to be one of careful planning and Decimal Day was set for 15 February 1971.

The Decimal Debate

Decimalisation had been the subject of passionate debate for centuries. As early as the sixteenth century mathematicians and others had seen the advantages of a decimal system and over the decades, men of learning lent strong support and sound argument to the decimal debate. In 1682, for instance, Sir William Petty in his Quantalumcunque proposed that there should be five farthings to a penny instead of four so that we could keep all Accompts in a way of Decimal Arithmetick, which hath been long desired for the ease and convenience of Accompts. Sir Christopher Wren was clearly of the same mind, suggesting in 1696 a decimal coinage based on a silver noble divided into ten primes and 100 seconds which Centessimal Division will be very proper for Accounts.

He sighed as he thought of those happy days in which he used to fear that his mind and body would both give way under pressure of decimal coinage a reference to the Duke of Omnium in Anthony Trollope's The Prime Minister

Interest continued unabated and with the spread of decimal currency throughout Europe and the Americas decimal hopes ran high. In the early Victorian years several commissions were appointed and all, to some extent, were enthusiastic.

Nevertheless, the government of the day was cautious and Gladstone was not alone in considering the problem of public education to be insurmountable.

The Historic and Momentous Decision

There the matter rested until 1918 when George V appointed another Royal Commission to investigate whether the British currency might be placed on a decimal basis. Again, however, despite learned opinion and a growing interest throughout the British dependencies for a decimal coinage applicable to the whole Empire, there still seemed strong arguments against any change in Britain.

By 1960, the majority of Commonwealth countries had already switched or were in the process of switching to the more convenient decimal system and, as a practical business decision, the need for coinage reform in Britain became increasingly urgent. Consequently, the Committee of Inquiry, appointed in 1961 and chaired by the Earl of Halsbury, was asked to consider not whether Britain was to decimalise but just how the changeover was to be effected.

Victorian pattern pieces

In Victoria's reign preparations for a decimal coinage went as far as the production of trial pieces. Dollars and cents were among the denominations considered: eventually, however, and providing a welcome link with the past, the historic names pound and penny were retained.

The designing of the decimal coins started in 1962. No official Government announcement had been made on when to go decimal but the Royal Mint must have felt that it was likely to happen and wished to be prepared. Sir Robin Darwin, a member of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee and Rector of the Royal College of Art, came up with a plan, by which various artistic bodies including the Royal Academy, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Faculty of the Royal Designers for Industry and the RCA should invite artists of their choice to submit designs for a new decimal currency. My husband Christopher, who taught life drawing at the RCA and who had designed a few medals in the past for the Mint, joined the combined RDI/RCA team which duly won the competition and it was Christopher's designs that were chosen.

All this took place in total secrecy. Most instructions were given over the telephone – the occasional letters were marked STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL and Christopher was forbidden to speak to anyone. This made life rather difficult at home because in the end the secrecy was to span from 1962 to 1968.

With a teenage daughter at the top of the house, an elderly mother on the ground floor and two babies arriving in quick succession, there was little room at home for a discreet place to work. Christopher occupied one end of our drawing room, throwing a large cloth over his desk each time friends called. Plaster casts were stacked neatly out of sight on a balcony. But our efforts at secrecy failed when after dinner one night two friends took it into their heads to stroll onto the balcony while Christopher and I were downstairs making coffee. You're designing the decimals! they cried.

You haven't seen a thing! growled Christopher. If you say anything, they will put me in the Tower!.

Another hazard of working in the living area was the children. At six o'clock one morning Kate climbed out of her cot and was discovered sitting happily at her father's desk, digging his tools into a finished plaster. The Mint had to wait a further two days for that one. If an amended drawing or plaster was needed in a hurry for the design committee, a large Mint car would arrive and a chap in a peaked cap would solemnly bear the plaster away in a flat white box rather like a modern take-away pizza.

In 1966 all these preparations came to a halt. The country was on the verge of a General Election and James Callaghan as Chancellor of the Exchequer had a financial statement to make. A telephone call summoned Christopher to the Mint. The ever courteous Deputy Master, Jack James, beckoned him to a chair and silently poured out an enormous gin and tonic which he thrust into Christopher's hands with the words, Drink that. Callaghan is about to announce in the House of Commons that Britain will be going decimal but he insists there must be an open competition for the designs. Everyone who wants to must have a chance to enter. So, added Jack James sadly, you haven't won after all.

A few days later, having metaphorically picked himself up, Christopher decided he had to enter the open competition and do more and better designs. Thus began months and months of work. By this time Virginia, Christopher's eldest daughter, had flown the nest, we had moved house and he at last had a separate workroom. All social life came to a standstill. Apart from two days teaching, which he needed for income, he worked all day, every day, producing endless versions of lions, Britannias, dragons, coats of arms, St Georges and roses. Mealtimes were devoted to discussions of fresh ideas or to heraldry. Once when I disturbed him with a mug of tea, I was faced with 15 St Georges. Which did I like best? St George naked or with armour? Why that one and not this one?

He finally discarded hundreds of drawings and selected three sets: Royal, Regional and Popular. Then, when I thought life could begin again, he decided there should be a fourth Avant-garde set. By the entry date he was exhausted. All the designs were displayed anonymously and the Advisory committee invited to judge.

The only thing I remember about that day was sitting in the car outside a house where a party was going on. Christopher dashed in and minutes later returned saying, It seems I've got the tails. I cannot remember if we actually went to the party in the end. The Mint, however, never actually said he had won the competition. Your designs have been chosen for development... was the phrase. Then the modifications began.

Christopher felt strongly that coins are public property. If an artist paints a picture, the public can choose to buy it or reject it, but coins are thrust upon people and he wanted to do his utmost to make them generally acceptable. This was no time to be a prima donna. However much he might privately like a particular design, other considerations were paramount, but it was difficult. Jack James' right hand man, Alan Dowling, would telephone to report the varied views of the Committee. This would lead to a rise in Christopher's blood pressure as he was faced with a self-cancelling brief.

On one occasion he was asked to make Britannia lean back a fraction more and lift the trident forward but not to touch the lettering. Impossible. Steam came out of Christopher's ears. Hours later, when I brought in the regulation mug of tea, the floor was covered with Britannias. I've done it! Look at this, he cried. Not exactly what they wanted but they will never know!. And they never did.

In the end, after months of to-ing and fro-ing, Christopher finally managed to attend a Royal Mint Advisory Committee meeting. I believe this had not been done before as it was feared designers would become tongue-tied in the face of an eminent gathering which included Sir Kenneth Clark, Sir Anthony Wagner and John Betjeman and which was chaired by His Royal Highness Prince Philip. Possibly by now the Mint realised that Christopher's tongue was seldom tied.

He found the meetings he had with the Committee very helpful. He could pull out a pad of paper and demonstrate what happened to some of their suggestions. Thus time was saved. One recurring problem was Garter King of Arms who had to be satisfied with the accuracy of the heraldry. Christopher used to call on him for clearance from time to time which led to the saying in our house, If only Garter could be more elastic. Year in, year out, the secrecy prevailed. Christopher supposed he was now designing the coins but he did not know. At one point, when answering the telephone to Alan Dowling, I said in desperation, Has Christopher won or not?.

He paused for a moment. You have grounds for great optimism but don't run up a flag. Nothing is certain until the coins are finished and have received Royal Assent. This exchange sealed our affectionate later enjoyment of Sir Humphrey in the programme Yes Minister.

I recently came across an article, written in 1969, in which Christopher said:

the work of a great many artists who are geniuses is never recognised and probably eventually disappears. But if one is a coin designer, one's work lasts possibly long after death, everyone becomes familiar with it and it forms a small part of the history of the country for which it was designed, and one becomes famous. Not because one is a genius, or a saint or a monster, but simply because one is a coin designer.

When our last child, a son, was born in 1968, Christopher added the name Decimus to Christian Adrian. The Deputy Master of the Mint, by now known to us as Jolly Jack, became his godfather.

A New Royal Mint

Hundreds of millions of bronze coins needed to be minted in readiness for D-Day. Moreover, the distribution of the newly minted coins needed to be carefully controlled since every city, town and village in the United Kingdom would need sufficient stocks of each denomination – that there might be local shortages of new coins on D Day was a disaster too dreadful to contemplate.

Plans went ahead with some urgency and in April 1967 it was announced that a new Royal Mint was to be built at Llantrisant, ten miles or so to the north-west of Cardiff and set in rolling green countryside on the edge of the Rhondda Valley.

Work began in August 1967 on the construction of two large concrete-clad buildings, one for the treatment of blanks and the other for the striking of those blanks.

This first phase was opened by the Queen in December 1968, when she switched on the coining presses to begin production of decimal bronze coins.

During 1969 the new mint, with its modern facilities for the bulk handling of blanks and the automatic feeding of lines of coining presses, achieved weekly rates of output in excess of 50 million coins, or twice as much in a week as a century earlier the Mint had produced in a year. Blanks were supplied from Tower Hill and selected contractors and, as planned, the new mint was responsible for the bulk of the stockpile of decimal bronze coins. In time for D Day, the new Royal Mint at Llantrisant had struck over 2,000 million decimal coins: on 15 February 1971, no-one could complain of a shortage of change.

The old mint at Tower Hill continued in operation. After 1972, however, few coins were struck in London and, once the new mint had become largely self-sufficient, production in London of blanks and coin was brought to an end. The last coin, a gold Sovereign, was struck at Tower Hill with due ceremony in November 1975, by which time many of the staff, along with the Mint's historic numismatic collection, had already left London for Llantrisant.

The Change to Decimal Coinage

The changeover to decimal currency was no small task: the public and businesses required all the necessary information to make the changeover as smooth as possible, and new coins of decimal denomination were to be developed and struck in preparation for use. The sheer volumes of coins required for that changeover meant that the Royal Mint needed to move location from Tower Hill to a new production facility. In 1968 the new Royal Mint site in Llantrisant, South Wales was opened by Her Majesty the Queen and the first of almost six billion coins required for decimalisation went into production.

The first of the new coins, the 5p and 10p, entered circulation in April 1968. They bore new heraldic designs, yet corresponded exactly in size and value to the shillings and florins and so were able to run easily alongside them as their decimal twins.

The Story of Decimal Coinage

Not all the coins would be that familiar though and in 1969 the new 50p, the world's first seven-sided coin, replaced the 10-shilling note – a very new and very different reminder of the looming changeover.

To overcome confusion during the changeover, as well as running the old and new currencies alongside each other, publicity and information campaigns were frequent.

Numerous leaflets and posters were distributed and a series of television broadcasts helped to explain the new system.

The BBC broadcast a series of five-minute programmes known as Decimal Five and ITV broadcast Granny Gets The Point, a short drama were an elderly woman is taught to use the new decimal system by her grandson.

Thus, on Decimal Day itself the country was well prepared: D Day came and went, negotiated far more smoothly than anyone had ever dared to hope and the new coins took their place in numismatic history.

The Story of Decimal Coinage

Since decimalisation the coinage has been reviewed several times and has continued to evolve in step with the times. The 6d was finally de-monetised in 1980 and the ½p disappeared in 1984. The 20p was introduced in 1982 and the £1 coin made its debut in 1983. The 5p and 10p were re-sized in 1990 and 1992, which meant the demise of the shilling and florins, while the smaller 50p coin entered circulation in 1997. This means that, from 1992, every coin in circulation has carried the head of the reigning monarch, something that has not happened since medieval times.

Refreshing the Decimal Coins

Coins are important visible symbols of the nation and the original decimal designs well reflected British heritage. In 2008 though, 40 years after the first decimal coins entered circulation, it was time for rejuvenation.

The process of choosing the new designs to replace the familiar heraldic emblems on Britain's circulating coins began with a public competition. How people would respond to the call to change the familiar decimal designs was by no means clear. But the response was quite simply overwhelming. The comeptition generated more than 4,000 designs from over 500 people – the largest response to any public competition organised to change the British coinage.

Specially invited artists, Royal Mint engravers and artists from other European countries vied with people of all ages and sections of society. The brief allowed those taking part a free hand to prepare a coherent series of designs' and while they were encouraged to explore heraldic emblems and motifs, the door was left open for other ways in which to symbolise Britain.

Each and every one of the designs was examined by the Royal Mint Advisory Committee and it took over a year of deliberations and several meetings before a series emerged that seemed to best capture the mood of the time.

Matthew Dent had seen the competition advertised in his newspaper and threw himself wholeheartedly into the project exploring a number of options before finally developing his ideas for a heraldic set:

I felt that the solution to the Royal Mint's brief lay in a united design – united in terms of theme, execution and coverage over the surface of the coins. I wondered about a theme of birds or plants, buildings or costal scenery but how to share four nations over six coins? The idea of a landscape appealed to me; perhaps this landscape could stretch off an edge of one coin and appear on the edge of another; an English landscape could merge with a Scottish one, this could blend with an Irish one, which could disappear into a Welsh one. Then I decided to look at heraldry. Perhaps the six coins could make up a shield by arranging the coins both horizontally (as with the landscape idea), but also vertically in a sort of jigsaw style. This piecing together of the elements of the Royal Arms to form one design had a satisfying symbolism – of uniting the four countries of Britain under a single Monarch.

It may seem curious to some that, originally, there had been no intention to include the £1 coin when planning new designs for the UK coinage. In its 28-year history, the £1 coin has, in three series, represented the four constituent parts of the UK in sequence. Moreover, a second £1 coin bearing the Royal Arms on its reverse had been issued in 1988. In consequence, it had already featured a total of 14 reverses in its lifetime and seemed likely to feature many more in its future. For that reason, a new reverse for the £1 coin somehow seemed unnecessary. And yet, after thrilling the Royal Mint Advisory Committee and coming through many trials, the set of new reverses, as exciting and innovative as they were, seemed to lack a final, unassailable unity. There was much debate until, finally, as reported by the delighted artist, it was realised that the £1 coin, a coin that has such a distinguished history, was an essential part of the transformation.

The result is a set of coins firmly rooted in the heraldic traditions of the British coinage yet beautifully contemporary.

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