Around this time of year, it was once traditional on Stir-up Sunday to put a sixpence in your Christmas pudding as you stirred it. Whoever found the coin in their serving would have good luck for the coming year.
Try doing that now. Unless you have a family heirloom Christmas sixpence.
On Monday 15 February 1971 — also known as Decimal Day — Britain banished sixpences and shillings altogether. We awarded ourselves a sensible 100 pennies in the pound, instead of the 240 we’d been used to for… well over a thousand years, it turns out. The old system of currency was based on the idea that a pound of silver could make 240 silver coins.
The pounds, shillings and pence were known as “lsd”. The “l” comes from libra (Latin for a pound) and the “d” comes from denarius, the Roman coin. The “s” started as a solidus but eventually became a shilling, first minted in the reign of Henry VII.
With twelve pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, it was much harder to do your mental arithmetic. Add in the fact that you also had coins that represented an almost random selection of numbers, and it was a challenge. Threepenny bits might be easy to grasp, as were sixpences, but florins (two shillings / 24 pennies) and half crowns (two and a half shillings / 30 pennies) were harder to get your head around.
To prepare the nation for the massive breakthrough in easier mathematics, the UK set up the Decimal Currency Board. The Board ran a public information campaign in the years before the switchover to drum into our heads that we were to have pounds and pennies, still, but no more shillings.
Subversively, the shilling lingered for a while. It had a direct counterpart in the new 5 pence piece, and was allowed to stay in circulation.
The “lsd” lingered in pockets, too. The owner of the King’s Head pub in London was not enamoured of the march of mathematical progress and for over twenty years showed the prices of and charged for drinks in old money. I remember going there in about 1985 and paying nine (shillings) and sixpence for something.
But the sixpence died. There is no decimal coin equal to two-and-a-half new pence. So if you want to stir some luck into your pudding and can’t, comfort yourself with the thought that at least you don’t have to count in twelves any more.