The British monetary system underwent what was described as the biggest operation ever in the history of banking when decimalisation was introduced in 1971. Banks were closed for four days while the transition took place, phasing out old coins that had their roots in Roman times.

The abbreviations for pounds (£), shillings (s) and pence (d) were of Roman origin: the £ symbol was based on the first letter of "Libra", the Latin name for pound; the "s" came from a Roman gold "solidus" coin and the "d" denoting the old penny came from the Roman "denarius". Only the £ symbol survived Decimalisation Day.

The first use of the words solidus and denarius to denote shillings and pence was in 1387, as cited in the Oxford English Dictionary. Other terms came from 18th and 19th century English slang, such as "bob" for a shilling, "quid" for a pound and "tanner" for a sixpence.

 

Pre-decimal currency

The Sterling coins and notes were generally larger than the ones in circulation today. The coin with the least value was the farthing, worth a quarter of a penny and discontinued in 1961.

The half-penny coin was referred to as a ha'penny and measured an inch across. The penny, depicting Britannia was large and heavy, its size disproportionate to its low value. All the smaller coins were known collectively as "copper" due to their colour.

There was also a coin worth three pence - known as a "thruppenny bit" - with its distinctive 12 sides. Next was the sixpence, a small silver coin known as a "tanner" and the shilling, which was worth 12 pence. Twenty shillings added up to £1. These coins were collectively known as "silver".

The two-shilling piece was a florin, which continued in circulation alongside the new 10p, its equivalent value after decimalisation until 1993. The half-crown was worth 2s 6d (30 pence) - also known as "two and six". There were notes for ten shillings - known as a "ten bob note" - £1, £5 and £10.

Shillings

 

Decimal currency

In February 1971, Britain "went decimal" - and currency that had been in use for hundreds of years was suddenly obsolete. Prior to this, there were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in £1. With decimal currency, the £1 comprised 100 new pence - the whole currency was based on simple multiples of 10 and 100.

New 5p and 10p coins were the same size as the old one shilling and two shilling coins that had been launched earlier. The changeover was completed on 15th February, when the new half-penny, one pence and two pence coins were introduced.

Following a public campaign to save it amid claims it was part of the British heritage, the sixpence (worth 2.5p in decimal currency) survived until 1980. The ten-shilling note was withdrawn from circulation and the £1 note was phased out to be replaced by a coin.

 

The Royal Mint

Through all the changes the Royal Mint, working with HM Treasury, has been responsible for making and distributing the coins around the UK. It has been in existence since the ninth century, although the exact date of its launch is unknown.

By the mid-13th century the monarch’s mint, within the Tower of London, had a clear organisational framework, consisting of a hierarchy of officers. Over the coming centuries, it became increasingly formalised and well-established. In 1986, the Royal Mint celebrated 11 centuries of existence.

Every time old coins are phased out and new ones introduced - such as the £2 coin - this affects retailers, particularly those with self-scan tills, who must ensure their coin slots accept the new money denominations. Every retail business must move with the times to survive.

British Money

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