Did You Know?
- Coins and Decimalisation
Until 15 February 1971, currency in Scotland (and the rest of the UK) was not based on the decimal numbering system (dollars/cents, francs/centimes etc) but on 12 pennies to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound. Here is a brief history of coinage before that date - and what it consists of today.
Pounds, Shillings and Pence
The "penny" originated as far back as the 8th century when a silver coin was minted (in England) which was one 240th part of a pound weight of silver. There were thus "240 pennies to a pound". The symbol which was later adopted for the penny was the letter "d" which stood for the Roman coin "denari". The silver coin became a copper penny in 1797 and then a bronze coin in 1860. Even a silver coin worth a penny was relatively valuable and it is thought that the first "halfpenny" was just a silver penny cut in half. But a copper coin of that value was introduced in 1672 (devaluation of the currency by then would have made the silver in the coin worth more than the face value).
The copper "farthing" was worth a quarter of a penny. It had been withdrawn from circulation in 1956 (with its picture of a wren on it) before decimalisation.
The shilling coin is thought to have been introduced in Saxon times but it only became worth twelve pennies in the 16th century. It was at that point that 240 pennies and 20 shillings to the pound became established. The notation which evolved represented the currency in the "£sd" format, eg. £10.15.6 (Ten pounds, 15 shillings and six pence).
The oddly shaped nickel-brass threepence piece, with twelve sides, was first minted in 1937. It is thought to be the first non-circular British coin. It replaced a small, silver, threepence piece which had been popular for placing in Christmas and birthday cakes. Many of the old coins survived, just for that purpose.
It was King Henry VIII who first introduced the gold "crown" worth five shillings, which later became a silver coin. A "half-crown" coin was also introduced, later becoming cupro-nickel (which has a silver appearance). As decimalisation approached, the half-crown was withdrawn as it had no place in the new decimal age.
Scottish coinage followed a similar development to that in England, though Scots coinage was often in short supply and of uncertain value compared with the English, Dutch, Flemish or French coin, which were preferred by the majority of Scots. By the time of the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, an English pound was worth around 12 Scottish pounds. For a time, the Scottish banks (who had led the way in introducing banknotes at the end of the 17th century) issued "dual currency" notes expressed as "One pound Sterling/12 pounds Scots".
Unbelievably, the first step towards decimalisation was taken in 1849. A new coin was introduced then - the florin, worth two shillings - which was worth one tenth of a pound. But the project got no further and so when computers came in the scene in the late 1950s and 1960s, they had to be programmed to deal with pounds, shillings and pence. Most systems converted values to pennies for internal working and converted them back to £,s,d when printed out or displayed on a computer screen. But gradually, a decimal currency was seen to be more efficient. Of course, there was an emotional resistance from some to the loss of the traditional monetary system.
Computer systems, banks and retailers had to prepare for the conversion well in advance, not just for new and updated programs but also to train their staff in the new coins. As with the run-up to the Millennium, nearly 30 years later, all the hard work and preparations paid off and the changeover took place smoothly.
New pennies and half penny coins were introduced but the old coins were temporarily assigned new values - the florin became 10 new pence, the shilling became 5 new pence and the old sixpenny coin filled a role as 2.5 new pence for a short while. To avoid confusion with the old currency, the term "New Pence" was brought into use with the letter "p" instead of the previous "d". Fairly rapidly, the general public dropped the word "new" and prices became what sounded like, for example "99 pee". This terminology has survived to this day.
Gradually the old pre-decimalisation coins were withdrawn, to be replaced by new 50p, 20p, 10p, 5p, 2p, 1p and ½p coins. The 50p and 20p coins continued the tradition established by the old of having coins which were not round. The half pence did not survive long as inflation eroded its value and over the years smaller sized 50p, 10p and 5p coins have been introduced. A pound coin (replacing the Bank of England one pound note) was introduced for the first time in 1983 - though the Royal Bank of Scotland has continued to produce one pound notes to the present day. Towards the end of the 1990s, a new two pound coin was slowly introduced in an attractive two-colour design made from two different metals.
British Coins Online has a large archive of Images of British Coins ordered alphabetically and by date.
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