Great Britain’s Decimal Day, Feb. 15, 1971

Great Britain’s Decimal Day, Feb. 15, 1971
Finally, it had taken more than a century of discussion, to have reached this point. But after following many studies and committee reports, the announcement from the British Chancellor of the Exchequer came in March 1966 that the United Kingdom would decimalize the pound.
The change would occur in five years' time on February 15, 1971, soon to be known as Decimal Day, or D Day, not to be confused with the World War Two D-Day. Since ancient times, Britain's pound comprised of 20 shillings, each shilling being equal to 12 pence. A total of 240 pence made the British pound sterling. But, as of February 15, 1971, the pound would be comprised of 100 pence.

For sometime before calculators, the old system was a more logical one: half a shilling is 6d, a quarter of a shilling is 3d, and a third is 4d. After the announcement to decimalize, the first notable change that stamp collectors started to see was the withdrawal and demonetization of the 1/2d stamp on July 31,1969.

In decimal terms, the 1/2d would be equivalent to less than a quarter of a new penny. There was no future for the old half-penny, and both coin and the stamps were withdrawn from service. On June 17, 1970, the Post Office issued the first British decimal-currency postage stamps: three large-format Machins in denominations of 10p, 20p, an 50p.

These denominations could be used interchangeably with pre-decimal currency, because they were directly equivalent to 2sh, 4sh, and 10sh. This served as an easy transitional stage or step. Today, we might have difficulty considering a 10p a "high value."

But in 1970, 2sh would have bought you a pint of beer in a local pub. With the basic domestic first-class letter rate at 5d, there were limited uses for these stamps. Even overseas airmail rates would have fallen short, as the rate to Australia, for example, was only 1sh9d.

Most of the Pre-Decimal Day uses of these decimal stamps were seen on double-rated airmail letters sent overseas, or paying special services, such as registry, special delivery, or rates for heavy parcels.

As 1971 approached, all was ready for the full conversion to decimal. Up to this point, pre-decimal rates had prevailed. With Decimal Day unveiling on February 15, a full set of new decimal Machins was to be issued, an all the postage rates would shift to the new decimal rates.

The domestic price adjustment was dramatic. The basic first-class rate went from 5d to 3p, an effective increase of almost 50 percent. The second-class rate saw a similar dramatic increase. Both registry fees and express fees increased by a third from 3sh to 20p.

The international rate changes were minimal. Altogether, there was much change and a great deal of potential confusion, because the currency, rates, and stamps were all changing. It was critical that the British Post Office performed at its best.

However, a complication soon arose. On January 20, 1971, a national postal strike was called. Postal workers walked off their jobs, and the postal system was brought to a virtual standstill. Less than a month to Decimal Day, and the Post Office was shutdown. In an effort to keep the economy moving, the crown did not enforce its postal monopoly. Private carrier services sprung up all across Britain.

Despite the on-going strike, some small sub-offices, usually connected to a retail shop, remained open, and some of these offices processed mail to the extent that they could. From these, one can find FDCs with genuine Post Office cancels.

The strike was settled on Sunday, March 7, 971, and the postal workers returned to their jobs the next day, March 8. When the postal system came back to life, the stacks of FDCs that had been prepared prior to the strike being settles, were processed, but with the addition of a special handstamp explaining the delay.

Following the strike, the postal system quickly returned to normal, but with the addition of the new decimal rates and stamps that, for the near term, would coexist with the old pre-decimals. Rates could be met entirely with the new decimal stamps, or with sufficient pre-decimal stamps, or a combination of both. Occasionally, the math associated with calculating the full rate on a cover could become a bit of a challenge.

What is most remarkable is that overall, there appears to have been little confusion with all of this change. The British public made the transition with very little difficulty, though there were a few bumps along the way. The decimal transition came to a close on February 29, 1972, twelve and one-half months after Decimal Day. Thereafter, all pre-decimal stamps were demonetized and would no longer be honored.

However, some did pop up on occasion, some shortly after the demonetization, and some not so soon afterwards. Even today, an occasional pre-decimal stamp might pass through the mail, but all considered, the transition was remarkably smooth. The United Kingdom had been able to cast off an ancient system for its currency, and has yet to look back in any form of regret.

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