Lsd – another memory of the seventies

The BBC have just published an article on their “On this day” series (15th February) about the year 1971 – the time of “D-Day” and the change to decimal currency from the old shillings and pence. A link to this article appears below. (Comment for Metric Views contributed by Phil Hall)

It was a well managed change and carried out with conviction on the part of those responsible. It wasn’t without its critics and there was some hostility from ordinary people. I recall it fairly well and viewing the video clip on the above web page showing news reports broadcast on the day of the changeover, reminded me of some of the difficulties people complained about. Some of the people the reporter spoke to actually admitted they couldn’t cope with checking their change and were prepared to trust the trader to get it right!

I find this quite astonishing when you consider how easy decimal coinage is compared to the old £sd. One would have expected that people used to a system with 12 pence to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound would have no trouble counting up with (effectively) a scheme involving only a single number and where the conversion between pounds and pence is trivial.

However after thinking about it further, I also remember that a lot of people tended to continue to think of money in shillings and pence for some time afterwards. Whenever they encountered “new pence” they tried to convert back in an effort to assimilate it in terms they ‘understood’. This in fact is probably the mistake some shoppers were making when handling the new coinage. They assumed it was necessary to convert back before doing the arithmetic. No wonder they had trouble with it!

It was only as a result of the complete disappearance of the old penny and shilling from financial transactions that people began to think properly in the new system and forget about the old one. Only then were they in a position to fully appreciate the benefits.

This is in complete contrast to the way metrication has been handled. People are still bedevilled by a situation where they can’t let go of imperial so that they can concentrate on using metric in the manner in which it is meant to be used. As things are, metric units are just another set of measures that are used for some things but not others. The unnecessary difficulties of conversion make metrication seem to many a futile exercise undertaken for no obvious reasons and with no obvous benefits. However, in the many Commonwealth countries that have successfully completed the metric changeover few would welcome the return of imperial measures. And in Britain and Ireland, having made the successful changeover to decimal currency, few would now willingly revert to £sd.

4 thoughts on “Lsd – another memory of the seventies”

  1. I notice this quote from the old BBC report on decimalization of the currency (from the link provided in the post):

    ‘Chairman of the British Bankers’ Association decimalisation committee, Bernard Sharpe, made clear old coins would not last.

    “There is no case whatever for the retention of the sixpence in a decimal currency system, except for sentimentality for the ‘dear old tanner’,” he said. ‘

    Makes me think of the current issue of retaining the pint for draft beer and bottled milk. A similar attitude towards them as towards the old sixpence would send the pint packing in a thrice.

    Once again, the core lesson of the successful decimalization of currency in the UK (or of metrication in Australia, South Africa, etc.) is completely lost on the current government.

    Perhaps this anniversary of decimalization is an opportunity to talk to the media again to remind people that the same approach is needed now to finish metrication and end the muddle once and for all.


  2. It was interesting to see the parallels between some of the potential issues given at the time and the reasoning used today to avoid conversion to metric – at least the potential for the untimely death of a monarch isn’t being used this time around!

    The sixpence is a good example of why we should dispense with the old as quickly as possible though – it took 9 years to withdraw it and although I was too young to remember D-day I do remember wondering why on earth something called “sixpence” was only worth two and a half!


  3. Would decimalization have been less problematic if Britain had used the “ten-shilling” approach like Australia and New Zealand, rather than keeping the pound?


  4. On viewing an old TV series recently released on DVD I was struck by the interesting historical perspective unwittingly captured by it. The series “Public Eye” about a private enquiry agent (Frank Marker) was made around the late sixties/early seventies spanning the era of decimalisation of UK currency. Although fictional it seems a reasonably good reflection of the times.

    I was intrigued by the testament it gave to how well that change-over was handled. Marker often engaged in money talk with his clients and when he was shopping for himself. His daily charge of “6 guineas” a day became “6 pounds 30 new pence” and eventually just “6 pounds 30”

    There was also a hint of those who, at first, resisted it by continuing to talk in old money. On the same line of thought another TV series about the police (Juliet Bravo) broadcast in the early eighties also contained an interesting moment about metrication. A police seargent asked a local farmer of he could supply some potatoes. He asked for some 20 kg bags. The farmer replied by converting it to cwt. “You haven’t gone metric then Sid?” said Seargeant Beck. To which the farmer gave a reply that indicated he was hoping that if he ignored it, it will all go away!

    Such is the contrast.


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