In honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday celebrations taking place over the weekend, we’ve taken a look back at one of the major things that has changed during the Queen’s long life and her reign over the United Kingdom, which began on June 2nd, 1953.
One of the most notable changes that has taken place in the UK during the Queen’s lifetime has been something that affects everyone, for good or ill – the national currency. The money used by UK citizens to fund day-to-day life has undergone some marked changes during the Queen’s life, and looks set to continue changing after she celebrates her official birthday.
The Queen was born on April 21st, 1926, although she actually has two birthdays – one on April 21st and a second on a Saturday in June; this second date is known as the ‘Official Birthday’ and will come on June 11th in 2016.
At the time of Elizabeth II’s birth, the UK’s then-currency was a far-cry from the current iterations featuring pounds, pence and complex integrated security measures.
In the period before 1971, there were actually 240 ‘old pennies’ in a single pound, which was worth the same as 20 shillings. There were half crowns (8 of which were worth 1 pound) and crowns, which due to their weight and size were generally reserved for commemorative purposes. 12 ‘old pennies’ made up 1 shilling and just to complicate matters further, there were also farthings, 48 of which made up a single shilling.
Because so many pennies were required for a single pound, there were a number of variations on the base penny, including the ‘halfpenny’ and the three and sixpence pieces; in the latter case, a mere 40 were required to make up 1 pound.
Although the pre-decimal system had been in place in the UK (under this name and others) for centuries, the decision to switch over to the decimal system that all are familiar with today was repeatedly delayed by officials who feared that such a radical change to the nation’s ways of counting coin would baffle the public.
By the time of the 1960s, however, most of the world’s Commonwealth nations had already adopted decimalisation, putting the UK in danger of falling behind the times on the global marketplace. While the committee that ultimately succeeded in introducing decimalisation was created in 1961, the actual switchover didn’t take place until 1971, as a vast amount of preparation was required to ensure that the change went as smoothly as possible.
Dual-pricing was introduced in a number of shops and businesses and three years before the switchover, the Queen opened the new Royal Mint press in Wales, which was the source of billions of coins that would facilitate the transition.
In addition to bombarding the public with information on the changes they would need to be aware of, the late 60’s also saw the introduction of some familiar faces in UK coinage, namely the 5p and 10p pieces, which were actually larger than their current iterations to match with the shilling and florin respectively, which were still in use.
The campaign itself was appropriately leaflet and poster-heavy, with simple comparison images between old and new monies doing their bit to keep to public up to speed with how the planned changes would come into play.
In the year that the Queen turned 45, 1971, the UK also celebrated Decimal Day on February 15th. It was by all accounts a roaring success, thanks in no small part to the years of preparation that had gone into the switchover.
There was not an immediate jump after D-Day to the everyday coinage that is prevalent today; in addition to decimal adding machines being in use to help people with calculations, the 20p was not introduced until 1982 and the 50p piece was resized in the late 90’s. The 5p and 10p were also downsized during the 90’s, while in 1983 the first £1 coin arrived to replace the defunct £1 note.
The £2 was initially a commemorative unit and didn’t enter circulation proper until mid-1998; the release had been planned for late-1997 but issues with vending machines delayed the launch for a number of months.
One notable addition that has stuck around since D-Day began has been the 2p coin, although as with its 1p cousin, there have been calls for these lowest-denomination offerings to be scrapped due to the perception of them being unnecessary.
One thing that is at no risk of being removed from circulation are banknotes bearing the Queen’s portrait, which have been around since before her ascension to the throne in 1952 and coronation in 1953.
The first appearance of Her Majesty on money was actually when she was a princess of less than 10 years old and was featured on the 1935 Canadian $20 note.
Notably, Canada and a number of other countries beat the UK to the post when it came to putting the Queen on national currency, as many Commonwealth nations featured Elizabeth II on their banknotes during the major years of 1952-3. The Canadian editions sparked some controversy, however, when it was discovered that the arrangement of shading on the Queen’s portrait appeared to show a ‘Devil’s Head’ inside Her Majesty’s hair.
The UK finally caught onto the trend in 1960, when the Queen’s countenance made its way onto the now defunct £1 note.
In addition to the literal and figurative faces of coins changing throughout the lifetime of the Queen, the value of UK banknotes has shifted notably throughout the 20th century; the £100, £200, £500 and £1000 notes all went out of circulation by the end of WW2.
As much as the pound’s form has changed throughout the lifetime of the Queen, it seems set to make further changes in the future, both to its composition but also to the fundamental appearance of banknotes.
In the former case, September will see the arrival of the first English polymer banknotes, in the form of the new £5 note. Polymer pound banknotes are actually already in use in Scotland, but the widespread rollout of this new iteration of the pound is expected to be of great benefit to the circulation of the currency.
This is for number of reasons, the first being the simplest – a polymer banknote is at least twice as durable as a paper one and can even survive the dreaded accidental trip through the washing machine.
Additionally, the fact that these new notes come packed with security features is set to greatly reduce the number of counterfeits that manage to make it into circulation.
Despite all of this good news when it comes to the contents of people’s wallets, the Bank of England (BoE) has warned that new polymer banknotes may stick to each other for a short period when they first arrive later in the year.
The environment is also set to benefit from these new notes, which are more durable but also smaller, thereby reducing the overall amount of material used to produce each individual note.
In addition to a new £5 arriving in 2016, 2017 will bring a new polymer £10 and the improved £20 is set to be in use by 2020.
The faces featured on UK money have been a contentious issue of late, with the disparity between male and female historical figures (excluding the Queen) being of particular focus.
This criticism seems set to rumble on, as while the new £10 is set to have Charles Darwin replaced with Jane Austen, Elizabeth Fry on the £5 will be taken off in favour of Winston Churchill. For the new £20, Scottish economist Adam Smith is to be swapped out for artist J.M.W. Turner.
The UK’s banknotes are not the only part of the currency that is evolving; there have been repeated arguments made that the one pence piece is being rendered increasingly obsolete by card payments and the rounding up or down of prices.
A strong counter argument to the abolition of ‘£1.99’ price tags, however, is that rounding up the price would likely send inflation soaring and could lead to retailers making customers worse off, which would be especially damaging if wage growth didn’t also increase accordingly.
Even if the lowest common denominators don’t make the cut, the currency we spend does seem set to remain physical for the time being – although whether coins and notes survive for another 90 years remains to be seen.
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