Decimal Day was when currency in both Ireland and Britain switched from the old Imperial system
The ‘D-Day’ referred to here is not the Normandy Landings of June 6, 1944 when Allied Forces began on the road to finally winning World War II, but to February 15, 1971 when currency in both Britain and Ireland switched from the old Imperial monetary system.
Decimal Day in fact had been a very long time in arriving. Under the old currency of pounds, shillings and pence, the pound was made up of 240 pence denoted by the letter ‘d’ for Latin denarius, with 12 in the shilling and 20 shillings in a pound.
Yet, as far back as 1862, the Westminster Select Committee on Weights and Measures favoured the introduction of decimalisation to accompany the introduction of metric weights and measures. The Royal Commission on Decimal Coinage (1918-20) also examined various ways of achieving decimalisation, but again no agreement on a new system was reached.
In 1960 a report prepared by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, buoyed by the success of decimalisation in South Africa, prompted the British Government to set up of the Inquiry on Decimal Currency. The inquiry reported back in 1963 and the changes suggested were announced another three years later in 1966. Following this the Decimal Currency Board (DCB) was created to manage to transition, although the plans were not formally approved by Parliament until the Decimal Currency Act of May, 1969.
Under the new system, the pound was divided into 100 new pence, denoted by the symbol p. New coinage was issued alongside the old coinage. The new 5p and 10p coins were introduced in 1968 and were the same size, composition and value as the shilling and two shilling coins in circulation with them. In October, 1969, the 50p coin was introduced, with the 10 shilling notw withdrawn on November, 20, 1970. This reduced the number of coins that had to be introduced on Decimal Day and meant the public already knew three of the six new coins. Advice booklets were made available on all the new denominations.
There was a substantial publicity campaign in the weeks before Decimalisation Day, including a song by Max Bygraves called “Decimalisation”. The BBC ran a series of five-minute programmes called ‘Decimal Five’ and ITV repeatedly broadcast a short drama called ‘Granny Gets the Point’, starring Doris Hare, the actress in On The Buses, where and elderly woman does not understand the new system is taught to use the new system by her grandson.
Banks received stocks of the new coins in advance and these were issued to retailers shortly before ‘D-Day’ to enable them to give change immediately after the switch over. Banks closed from 3.30pm on Wednesday February 10, 1971 until 10am on Monday 15 to allow all outstanding cheque and credits in the balance system to be processed and for customer accounts to be converted. This process was done manually as most bank branches were not as yet computerised.
February was chosen for the launch because it was the quietest time of the year for the banks, shops and transport organisations.
In Derry, the switch over to the new system made the front page of the ‘Journal’. On Tuesday, February 16, 1971, the paper carried the headline ‘Derry’s D-Day Went Off Well’.
Of course this was the first edition of the ‘Journal’ that carried a decimal pricing. The previous edition had been at a cost of 9d, with the new price being 3p.
The paper said: “Decimal Day passed off without too many hitches in Derry yesterday. Among local traders and businessmen the general consensus of opinion was that the new system was running smoothly enough but, for some people, especially the elderly, are still not too sure, despite all the Decimal Currency Board’s education programmes.
“All traders are working on sterling and decimal systems initially and the majority are giving change in decimal money only.
“A bank official said yesterday that the traders seemed to realise that the quicker they take in the old money and get the shoppers accustomed to dealing in decimal, the better everything will be.
“He said that within a fortnight, three penny pieces and possibly six penny pieces will be out of circulation.
“In the city’s stories some customers had difficulties over price variations, but in cross-counter money transactions most people, although they had to take their time about it, knew the correct amounts.
“The elderly people were confused, said one store manager and this view was endorsed by other businessmen.
“A spokesman for the drinks trade said prices would vary slightly up and down. One organisation that reported the change over was going ‘wonderfully well’ was Ulsterbus.
“The local depot manager, Mr W Ferris, said that although they had been slightly apprehensive thing’s worked out well during the day. They had been worried because many of the fares in Derry are within a short range and to make sure conductors were well stocked up in decimal money, inspectors were on hand to keep them supplied.
“As a double precaution, and because decimal money was going so quickly, another two men were employed to go around and see that inspectors were not going short. Conductors were accepting old money and giving the new money in change.
“By 3 o’clock, we were getting decimal money back from users,” said Mr Ferris.
“Asked about fare changes, he said that all school children had been circularised about fair changes in advance. The old 4d and 5d fare were now 3p. Ulsterbus was not using the new 1/2p coin, because, among other reasons, banks would not accept these in lodgements. Other fares have been amended, but Mr Ferris stressed that Derry has the lowest minimum fare of 2p in the Six Counties.
“One factor that has contributed to the freedom of confusion in the city is that staffs and management here have had training courses in decimalisation.
“One local bank manager said ‘I thought the education programme had done a great job and the public by and large had heeded it. There were others however who had not read the Decimal Currency Board’s booklet properly and put it in a drawer and forgotten about it. One lady came into the bank today and asked us when Decimal day was.’ “