The radical and bold step towards a new, future-ready decimal currency took years of preparation, but in 1971 The Royal Mint triumphed in the monumental challenge of striking the billions of coins required for decimalisation.
Fifty years on from this historic moment in coinage and cultural history, we asked Senior Research Curator Graham Dyer, who was involved in early decimalisation discussions, to share his perspective. Here’s what he had to say …
Tuesday 8 August 1961 may not be a significant date in the history of decimalisation but it is the day when, as a young eighteen-year-old, I joined The Royal Mint at the old Tower Hill site opposite the Tower of London.
By good fortune I was immediately posted to the General Section, a slightly unprepossessing name for a small but important part of the Mint that handled pretty well everything that did not fall directly within finance, purchasing, despatch and what we now know as HR. For the next two years I served my apprenticeship as an assistant to Alan Dowling, the brilliant and hard-working head of the Section. And within weeks, through him, I became involved in the Mint’s contribution to the work of the Halsbury Committee, appointed towards the end of 1961 to advise the Government on how to decimalise the British currency; and also in the associated decision by the Deputy Master, Jack James, to develop in strict confidence the designs needed for the new coins.
Among my early tasks was to look out the procedure followed in 1952 for obtaining and approving the designs for the first coins of the Queen’s reign. To Alan Dowling’s amusement I referred to this and similar excursions into the Mint archives as ‘research’ and, were he still alive, he would smile at my current designation as Senior Research Curator. But I was in my element, helping in various small ways, and I remember in particular one morning when he used me as a sounding-board as he gathered his thoughts on the possible specifications of the new decimal coins. More arduous, perhaps, was the mounting of hundreds of photographs of artists’ drawings for submission to members of The Royal Mint Advisory Committee, then so ably chaired by Prince Philip, but whatever I was asked to do gave me a rewarding sense of participation in something truly historic, something that would impact on every household in the country.
In the summer of 1963, however, my direct association with this preparatory work for decimalisation came to an end when, to fill a sudden vacancy, I became Librarian & Curator and took charge of The Royal Mint’s fabled Museum and its awesome collection of coins. I still undertook the occasional task for Alan Dowling but my involvement was now somewhat distant. And I became all the more detached after deciding that I needed to take special leave of absence to obtain a university degree, and, as I waited for my planned departure to the London School of Economics in September 1967, it was perhaps understandable that I felt somewhat remote from the official announcements that Britain would decimalise on 15 February 1971 and that there would be a new mint in South Wales.
It was not in fact until April 1971 that I returned to Tower Hill, by which time D Day had come and gone, and the new mint at Llantrisant had been in full production for two years and more. In search of my degree I had therefore missed many of the trials and tribulations of one of the most momentous periods in the history of the Mint, a gap in my Mint career that to be honest I regret much more now than I did then.
Yet while I was away I had been an interested observer of events, and an occasional visitor to Tower Hill, and all these years later I can look back at that period from a personal as well as an historical perspective. And perhaps the first and most important thing that comes to mind is that what we expected would be an enormous upheaval in people’s way of life, that for the elderly would cause confusion and distress, passed off with virtually no trouble at all. For this the Decimal Currency Board, with its meticulous planning and publicity, must take the lion’s share of the credit and many years later I had the opportunity to say as much to the amiable and immensely able Noel Moore, who had been Secretary to the Board. He deflected the compliment by saying that it had evidently been ‘over-planned’, but for me his response only served to emphasise the undoubted success of an operation that at the outset had seemed to bristle with problems.
Within the Mint we were fortunate to have two people of outstanding ability in Jack James, a truly intimidating personality, and Alan Dowling, his hugely competent and sensible lieutenant. Others, of course, made important contributions but at the risk of being invidious I want to single out my colleague and friend Joe Cussen. It was one thing to produce millions and millions of new coins, but on D Day they had to be in all the right places across the country - this was Joe’s job and he handled the distribution of the coins so efficiently that at a relatively young age he was awarded the MBE. His achievement was brought home to me on D Day itself, which found me in a tiny village in Suffolk: that morning I caught the local bus to Sudbury and I remember a sense of a job well done as the driver gave me change for my fare in new decimal bronze coins.
My final word, however, must be for the new Royal Mint at Llantrisant. Faced with the task of producing hundreds of millions of coins in readiness for D Day, with a deadline set in stone, with new buildings, new equipment and new bulk-handling systems, and with a largely inexperienced workforce the new mint worked wonders. And without doubt our colleagues from fifty years ago deserve every praise for their contribution to the smoothness of the historic and complex transfer from £sd to decimal coinage.
Graham Dyer, OBE, FSA
Senior Research Curator