On This Day: First 50p coins cause instant confusion

OCTOBER 14, 1969: The first ever 50 pence coins were introduced on this day in 1969 – and caused instant confusion as Britain began its journey towards decimalisation.

It replaced the 10-shilling note – although it would be used alongside the old currency until 1971 when the 240p-per-pound system was replaced by a simpler 100p pound.

But, despite its novel seven-sided shape, the 50p coin was often mistaken for both the old half crown and new 10p piece while the two systems coexisted.

One Londoner told the Evening Standard newspaper that he accidentally left a 50p coin in a saucer full of 10p pieces as a tip for a waiter.

'Fortunately the waiter was dead honest and told me. But I suspect there'll be a lot of cases where that doesn't happen,' he said.

To add to the confusion, the heptagon had the image of Britannia on one side – just like the old penny, which had remained the same since the early 18th century.

Others simply did not like the design.

Retired Army colonel Essex Moorcroft formed the Anti-Heptagonists, who objected to the coin as 'ugly' and 'an insult to our sovereign whose image it bears'.

MPs also joined shopkeepers, bus workers, housewives and the elderly in protesting against the piece and demanded that either it or the 10p coin be changed.

However, its bold design also won many plaudits and generated tremendous excitement when it was introduced.

A British Pathé newsreel showed the copper-nickel coins being made, with the distinctive design stamped on them at the Royal Mint at Tower Hill, London.

The process was supervised by Lord Fiske, chairman of the Decimal Currency Board, who revealed that that the 50p piece was the only heptagonal coin in the world.

It was the third decimal coin to be introduced after the 5p and 10p pieces were all launched in 1967.

At that point, there were three other new coins yet to be minted – the 2p, 1p and half pence pieces.

The government held off introducing them since, unlike the others, they did not roundly convert to the old pounds, shillings and pence – symbolised by £sd.

The 2p piece was worth worth 4.8d, 1p was the same as 2.4d and half penny was the equivalent of 1.2d.

And, later, many people complained that these coins gave shopkeepers the excuse to raise many of their prices.


[On This Day: Decimal currency introduced across Britain]


Decimalisation was introduced as a bid to boost the economy and allow Britain to follow suit with the currencies of other major countries.

The old system – in which a pound contained 20 shillings and each shilling was worth 12 pence - was also much harder to mentally add up sums of money.

The first proposal to decimalise Sterling was made in 1824 after the French adopted a franc made up of 100 centimes.

That and subsequent other requests were, however, rejected by Parliament.

By the late 1960s, Britain and Ireland stood alone as countries using what many others considered an antiquated system.

So the decision was made to change and the Decimalisation Act was finally ratified in May 1969.


[On This Day: Queen opens Scottish Forth Road Bridge]


Decimal Day – when the old currency stopped being legal tender – took place on February 15, 1971.

Since then, a number of changes have been made to the coins in use.

A 20p piece introduced in 1982 and a one-pound coin replaced a note in 1983, while the half penny was withdrawn from circulation in 1984.

The 5p and 10p coins - which were the same size and value as the one-shilling and two-shilling pieces respectively – were each made smaller in 1993.

A similar change was made to the 50p piece in 1998 – although, luckily, it is now differently sized to the current 10p coin.

Britannia was dropped from newly minted 50p coins in 2008 – sparking outrage, although she will still continue to be seen on millions of others in circulation.