This short paper was offered to the Society in 2006 to commemorate the 158th anniversary
of the decimalisation of the British coinage, though in true British fashion decimalisation
was a case of “I’ve started, but I won’t finish just yet.”
Great Britain was very nearly the last country to adopt a fully decimal currency,
though as we all know, elements of it have been decimal since the introduction of
the Florin, carefully labelled “one tenth of a pound” in 1849. There was an enormous
fuss and bother in the years leading up to 1971, though in real terms the only difference
was that as the value of the penny got bigger, the size of the coin got smaller.
Once you had accepted the fact that less is more, everything else followed naturally.
Needless to say, there had been an extensive series of studies, focus groups, discussion
fora, committees and commissions, and consultation before the final changes were
introduced in 1971.
In 1608, Robert Norton translated a famous Dutch work by Simon Stevin: Disme: the
Art of Tenths, or, Decimall Arithmeticke which proposed that the currency should
be divided into decimal fractions. The idea was taken further in 1619 when Henry
Lyte published a book with an almost identical title which additionally proposed
that decimal currency should be linked with decimal weights and measures.
By 1682, there was an almost irresistible demand that “something should be done.”
Sir William Petty put forward a suggestion that there should be five farthings to
a penny, instead of four, so that we could “keep all accompts in a way of Decimal
Arithmetic, which hath been long desired for the ease and convenience of Accompting.”
Unfortunately, he chose to give the name "Quantalumcunque" to his publication, which
undoubtedly ensured that it never faded away from exposure to the light of day.
The Great Recoinage of 1696/7 would, you might think, have given the decimalists
a wonderful opportunity to work their ways and, indeed, their lack of success was
not for the want of trying. An anonymous broadsheet of 1695 entituled (lovely word,
that!) "A letter from London to a Friend in Westminster, proposing some Particulars
relating in the Coyn" suggested that a “William Royal” should form the tenth part
of a pound, a “Ropee” should form the hundredth part, and a farthing should be the
thousandth part. This was apparently the first time that a proposal envisaged a thousand
minor units to the pound, but certainly not the last.
Unfortunately the Americans beat us to it. Much quicker off the mark, they introduced
a decimal system for their new currency in 1792 in order to make it as different
as possible to the colonial pounds, shillings and pence. So they chose the equally
colonial Spanish dollar as their major unit. The Americans did, however, introduce
one new feature to decimal currency which we, in due course, were to slavishly adopt:
the half cent. It has to be said, though, that not all Americans were committed decimalists:
the State of Massachusetts only got round to abolishing the shilling as legal tender
The perfidious French went next. They used to have a sensible, logical, currency
system: 12 deniers equalled one sol, and twenty sols equalled one livre. Now, what
could be more straight forward than that? It even had the right abbreviations, LSD.
Then came the revolution and, as with all revolutions, it had to be revolutionary.
So out went LSD and in came centimes, decimes and francs. All quite simple, really,
one sol became five centimes and twenty of them became one franc instead of one livre.
This must have been a good idea, because in the period up to 1815, a surprisingly
large number of European countries adopted the same standard. Either it was a good
idea, or the presence of a large contingent of French troops bivouacked in the local
Treasury concentrated the minds of these various Governments.
Having missed the opportunity with the Great Recoinage of 1696/7, our decimalists
only had to wait until the Great Recoinage of 1816/7 for their next chance to get
in on the ground floor, so to speak. Mr J Wilson Croker expressed the view, in the
House of Commons, that “it would be almost unpardonable for the legislature at this
time to re-enact and legalise anew these barbarisms in the division of our coin which
were attended with great inconvenience.” In spite of the fact that Mr J Wilson Croker
appeared to be neither Spanish nor French, it didn’t work, and the size and weights
of coin stipulated at the time lasted until the 1990s. That must constitute getting
it wrong on a fairly convincing scale.
The decimalists didn’t give up, though, and it was only another eight years before
someone else had a go. Sir John Wrottesley introduced a motion in the Commons to
“inquire how far the coin of the realm could be adapted to a decimal scale.” Sir
John wanted the pound to be divided into ten double-shillings, each of 100 farthings.
Very original. This was exactly the same as our anonymous author of 1695. And much
the same thing happened. No, that isn’t strictly true. In response, the Chancellor
of the Exchequer agreed to unify the currencies of Britain and Ireland, so that there
would no longer be thirteen pennies to an Irish Shilling. Now that was an improvement.
By 1832 the computer boffin and IT whizkid Charles Babbage had climbed onto the decimal
bandwagon, recommending change in his book On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures
but this was obviously of much too much practical use to be practical.
It was left to a future Governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring – was the governorship
a reward or a punishment, one wonders – to make the final move. In 1847 he proposed
that there should be a new coin, the Queen, at ten to the pound, and another new
coin, the Victoria, at one hundred to the pound. The patriotic argument obviously
won the day, and the Chancellor agreed to introduce decimal currency “gradually.”
The Queen was introduced in 1849, though rechristened “One Florin, One Tenth of a
Pound” with the aim that at the very worst it could do no harm, and that “the present
system could go on if that failed.”
But as we know, it didn’t fail, and the second part of the change was introduced,
on schedule, only 122 years later, once the population had become used to the new