11 February 2021
Tom Hockenhull, Curator: Medals and Modern Money, British Museum, provides an insight into 'D Day' and the UK's decimalisation project, explaining how discussions on decimalisation began as early as the 17th century.
On a grey, drizzly Monday, 15 February 1971, Britain went decimal. Ten years in the planning, 'D-Day' upended a currency system that had been unchanged for more than a millennium.
Celebrating the publication of a new book, Making Change: the decimalisation of Britain’s currency, here are a selection of little-known facts about how it happened.
Decimalisation had been discussed since the 17th century
Image: Silver 1 franc/10 pence pattern-coin, 1867.
Early advocates of decimalisation included Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723) and the influential economist Sir William Petty (1623–87) who, in 1682, proposed a system to ‘keep all Accompts in a way of Decimal Arithmetick’.
However, the opportunity was not taken and in 1704 Russia became the first country to decimalise under the reforms of Peter the Great (reigned 1682–1725). There were concerted efforts to implement UK decimalisation during the mid-19th century. At the International Monetary Conference convened in Paris in 1867, representatives from several nations were invited to discuss how they might introduce a decimalised international currency.
Rather out of politeness than genuine enthusiasm, the British Government dispatched a Treasury official and Thomas Graham (1805–69), Master of the Mint, with instructions merely to observe the proceedings. Unbeknown to the government, Graham in his enthusiasm for the project had prepared by having the Mint produce pattern decimal pence/franc pattern coins which he shared with the other delegates along with his proposal for a decimal system.
The Government reluctantly agreed to investigate and it duly convened a Royal Commission. This Commission, however, poured cold water on the proposal, as it would require the withdrawal of all the UK gold coinage.
Making Change: the decimalisation of Britain’s currency by Tom Hockenhull is available from Spink Books
Published by Spink Books, in association with the British Museum
Hardback, with illustrations throughout, 198 x 129mm, 64 pages
RRP: £15, ISBN: 978-1-912667-57-4
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