Decimalisation took place on 15 February 1971, when the United Kingdom moved from the centuries-old system of pounds, shillings and pence to a new, future-ready decimal currency. In 2021, we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of this important moment in the nation’s coinage history, and one of the biggest challenges The Royal Mint has ever faced, with a new 50p coin. Featuring a reverse design created by senior designer Dominique Evans, it looks back to the coinage that was replaced on Decimal Day.
The changeover was no easy task. Far from being an overnight switch, Decimal Day took months of careful planning. The sheer volume of coins required for the changeover meant that The Royal Mint needed to move location from Tower Hill to a new home with new production techniques, processes and machinery. Llantrisant, South Wales, was chosen as The Royal Mint’s new home and the new site in was opened on 17 December 1968 by Her Majesty The Queen.
A huge information campaign was also needed to communicate all the necessary information to the people and businesses of Britain. Leaflets and posters were distributed, and television broadcasts helped to explain the new system. The BBC broadcast a series of five-minute programmes known as Decimal Five, and ITV broadcast Granny Gets The Point, a short drama where a grandson taught his grandmother to use the new decimal system.
The opportunity to create the reverse designs for the whole new suite of coinage was offered as a public competition. More than 80 artists took part, generating around 900 designs, and Christopher Ironside was selected as the winner.
As an experienced artist with a diverse background, Ironside had worked on everything from stamps to stage design. He took six long years to perfect the designs in secret, working closely with The Royal Mint Advisory Committee. The resulting coins were ‘clear of clutter’, as had been stated in the brief, and celebrated traditional British symbols, including Britannia.
The 5p and the 10p were the first of the new coins to enter circulation and were introduced in April 1968. They featured new, heraldic designs but corresponded exactly in size and value to shillings and florins so they were able to run easily alongside them as their ‘decimal twins’. Not all the coins were that familiar though and the new 50p, the world’s first seven-sided coin, that replaced the 10-shilling note in 1969 was very new and very different, serving as a reminder of the looming change. To overcome confusion during the changeover, the old and new currencies ran alongside each other, while publicity and information campaigns continued. When Decimal Day itself came, the country was well prepared and the new coins took their place in numismatic history.
Since decimalisation, the coinage has been reviewed several times and has continued to evolve. The sixpence was finally demonetised in 1980 and the decimal halfpenny disappeared in 1984. The 20p was introduced in 1982 and the £1 coin made its debut in 1983. The 5p and 10p were resized in 1990 and 1992 respectively, resulting in the shilling and florin finally being demonetised, while the smaller 50p coin entered circulation in 1997.
In 2008, 40 years after the first decimal coins entered circulation, it was time for a refresh. Matt Dent created a suite of new designs for the coins from the 1p to the £1. The coins from the 1p to the 50p feature a picture-puzzle style design, and when the coins are placed together they form the shield of the Royal Arms – the same shield that appeared in full on the £1 coin until it was replaced with a new, 12-sided coin in 2017.