Coins of England and Great Britain

('Coins of the UK')

by Tony Clayton


1 - The Change to Decimal Coinage


Maundy Coins <<-- : -->> Decimal Half Penny
Coin Values Index Page

Pictures of Decimal Coins


Decimalisation Day


D-Day was February 15th 1971. On that day the United Kingdom changed from the centuries old tradition of using 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound to a new decimal 100 new pence to the pound.


Options considered


There had been much debate as to the best way of implementing the switch.

Australia used a dollar valued at ten old shillings, making the new cent equal to 1.2 old pence, a small change in value.

An alternative was to go to a pound-mil system, with a mil equal to 0.24 old pence, a latter-day successor to the farthing.

Another was to keep the penny and have a new unit at 100 pence (eight shillings and fourpence).

However, in the UK the pound was considered to be particularly important because of the UK's international trading status. In addition, having a new penny worth 2.4 old pence was less of a problem as inflation had made its purchasing power insignificant. As a temporary measure a half new penny was introduced, but as will be seen this had a short life. There was even a pattern quarter penny made in aluminium, but this was not proceeded with.

It was realised at the time that the decision was made that the life of the halfpenny would be very short, but it was felt necessary despite the considerable extra cost of having to mint the coin. Banks never accepted transactions involving an odd halfpenny.


The Timetable for the Change


The change was made gradually over three years, in a number of stages.

  1. In 1968 new shillings and florins were issued as 5 new pence and 10 new pence coins. The older shillings and florins continued to circulate long after decimalisation until the size of the coins was reduced. Theoretically silver coins from 1816 could still have been found in change, but the active withdrawal of silver in the years following the change in 1947, followed by the combination of a dramatic rise in the price of silver with devaluation in 1967 meant that silver coins rapidly vanished from circulation.
  2. Blue plastic wallets containing the new 5p and 10p coins dated 1968, along with 1/2p, 1p and 2p coins dated 1971 were put on sale. These wallets are still very common.
  3. In October 1969 the 50 new pence piece replaced the 10 shilling note, which ceased to be legal tender on 22nd November 1970.
  4. The old halfpenny was demonetised on 1st August 1969.
  5. The half-crown was demonetised on 1st January 1970.
  6. The remaining decimal coins became legal tender on 15th February 1971. Maundy coins (and silver threepenny pieces of Maundy design, i.e. with a crowned three on the reverse) were revalued as being in new pence at the same time.

The changeover was so rapid that the old penny and nickel brass threepence pieces had been removed from circulation by the end of 1971, although I know of one shop in the Yorkshire Dales which continued to use the old currency for a long time on the basis that 'this new-fangled stuff will never catch on'.

The old penny and threepence coins ceased to be legal tender on 31st August 1971, just over six months after D-day. It is no longer possible to exchange them for current coins at a bank.


Later Developments


The sixpence, which was allowed to continue circulating at 2½ new pence, was eventually withdrawn at the end of June 1980. I am indebted to Brian Dominic for the following quote from John Glover's book "London's Underground": "The adoption of decimal currency on 15 February 1971 posed a few problems for London Transport, which had favoured the £ Sterling being halved in value and divided into 100 pence - what today might be termed a '50p pound'. With their extensive use of coin operated machines, the Board took strong exception to the proposed introduction of ½p coins, the lack of any coin between 2p and 5p, and the lack of a close relationship of old values and coins with the new. It was all too difficult for them, and it was indeed at London Transport's behest that the 2½p (sixpence) was retained in the coinage for the time being."

The term 'New Penny' was dropped in 1982 on the grounds that after ten years it was no longer 'new'. In that year a new denomination, the 20p coin was introduced. It has proved very popular, and is one of the most frequently encountered coins in change.

The pound coin was first issued in 1983. Again, there was a little resistance to the change from note to coin, but cessation of production of the pound note rapidly overcame the objections and the coin is now very well established. The notes were demonetised on 11th March 1988.

The half penny coin was last minted for circulation in 1983. In 1984 the denomination was only issued in Mint and Proof Sets and in December 1984 the coin was demonetised, as inflation had rendered it an anachronism.

In 1985 a new portrait came into use, designed by Raphael David Maklouf, although the portrait on the Maundy coins was unchanged.

Commemorative two pound coins were first issued in 1986, but although legal tender they rarely circulated (some are appearing in change now that the bimetallic circulating coin has been introduced, but as they are about twice the weight of circulating coins, banks have difficulty handling them).

Crown sized commemorative coins valued at 25 pence continued to be minted, but after the Royal Wedding issue of 1981 later 'crowns' were valued at five pounds. This is a source of confusion, but the way to be sure is to know that if they are five pound coins they have the value on them.

It was intended that a new two pound coin of the same diameter but thinner than the commemorative versions be introduced in November 1997, but due to technical problems (vending machines rejected them), the introduction was delayed until 1998. This new coin is bimetallic, being the first such coin to be issued in the UK since the tin farthings and halfpennies of the late 17th century. It is the subject of an urban legend, in that a rumour is going the rounds that those coins where the queen is wearing a necklace are rare. This is most definitely untrue, but hoarding of these coins means they not often found in change.

In 1998 a further new obverse portrait was introduced, designed by Ian Rank-Broadley, which is still in use nearly ten years later.

In 2008 a new set of reverse designs has been revealed, which, in the words of the Royal Mint, 'are a contemporary take on traditional heraldry reflecting the nation's rich history'. These designs apply only to the denominations from 1 penny to 1 pound, and I have been told that both the old and the new reverse designs will be put into circulation dated 2008.


Metal Change


In 1992 the metal used for the one penny and two penny coins was changed from bronze to copper coated steel. The use of a pure copper coating means that the colour of mint coins is slightly different. Also, as the density of steel is less than bronze and the weight was unchanged, the newer coins are noticeably thicker than the older ones.

The versions of these coins issued in the 1992 Mint and Proof sets are said to be bronze - only the circulation issue coins of that date were steel.

In 1998 the 2p (and possibly the 1p) temporarily reverted to bronze because of technical problems at the Royal Mint.

In 2011 the 5p and 10p coins will change to being made of plated steel as the lower denominations. Perhaps the 20p and 50p will follow, but the sharper corners of these seven-sided coins may mitigate against this.


Shrinkage


As a result of inflation the coins based on the old system, the five pence and ten pence, were increasingly seen as oversized for their value.

In 1990 a new smaller version of the 5p coin was introduced, and the old large ones along with the shillings that were still to be found were demonetised at the end of that year.

The same technique was used for the 10p coin in 1992, with the old size 10p and florin being demonetised at the end of June 1993. Frustratingly, the new 10p is similar in size to the old large 5p, and very occasionally you get fooled!

The next was the 50p coin, which was reduced in size in 1997. This also reduced the enormous stock of the larger coins held in banks due to a reduction in demand after the introduction of the pound coin. A similar problem with the pound coin now that the circulating two pound coin has come into use did occur only to the extent that new one pound coins were not issued for circulation dated 1998 and 1999.

A new series of 'normal' non-commemorative designs were released in 2008 for all except the two pound coin. As these were not announced until well into the year, coins up to one pound dated 2008 come in both the original 1968/1971 designs and the new 2008 design. The 2008 50p with Britannia reverse had a very low mintage - I have only seen one in circulation.

Starting in 2009, an enormous variety of coins of various denominations are being issued in connection with the 2012 Olympics in London.


The Future


The penny and twopence coins have become ever more insignificant in value in everyday transactions. However, these two denominations comprise the largest bulk of new coins minted at the Royal Mint, no less than 71% in 1998-99. The reason for this is simple - they are hoarded because of their low value, with pockets and purses being emptied of these relatively heavy coins each day.

Australia and New Zealand have both abandoned the 1 and 2 cent coins, with no significant effect on either trade or inflation. Cash transactions are rounded to the nearest 5 cents, while credit card transactions and cheques can still be written for odd cents. How soon will the UK bow to the inevitable and demonetise the 'coppers'?


Legal Tender


The following applies to England and Wales:

20p and 50p coins are legal tender up to a total value of 10 pounds.
5p and 10p coins are legal tender up to a total value of 5 pounds.
1p and 2p coins are legal tender up to a total of 20 pence.

Therefore you cannot insist on paying your Income Tax (or other unpopular bill) in 1p coins!

While five pound coins and old monometallic thick two pound coins are technically legal tender, banks do not accept them. As a result you might find it difficult to find traders willing to accept them.

I gather that Scotland does not have any legal restriction, other than that payment should be presented in a reasonable manner. Tendering a large sum in pennies might not be considered 'reasonable', but the boundary between reasonable and unreasonable is not defined!


Acknowledgements

See my Coins Index page for acknowledgements


CSV File of Values

Download a CSV file of the values of decimal coins.


Links

Maundy Coins <<-- : -->> Decimal Half Penny
Main History Index
Values Index
Pictures Index

Help and Advice


Coins of UK - 1 - The Change to Decimal Coinage
Copyright reserved by the author, Tony Clayton
v145 24th November 2013
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