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What was a sixpence? Gill Halifax on the 50th anniversary of decimalisation

Blog | By Gill Halifax | Feb 10, 2021


A sixpence bought a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, a paper full of chips and a large ice cream. 50 years ago, on February 15th 1971, decimalisation arrived...

A sixpence bought a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, a paper full of chips and a large ice cream.

For sixpence, you could buy a Dandy and a Beano and still have twopence left for a small ice cream. You could use it in the first parking meters and it would pay for binoculars at the theatre. Even theatre programmes cost sixpence.

Bus conductors called it a tanner and two sixpences made a bob – a shilling – a whole shilling, as some children’s books called it. Visiting aunties gave you sixpence; sometimes a whole shilling, if you’d behaved well.

Then came decimalisation, on 15th February 1971. A precocious little boy called Sebastian was heard on the radio each morning, singing, ‘Do your decimals now,’ and explaining how they worked.

For a short time, the sixpence was retained as legal currency, but the massive devaluation caused by the change in coinage robbed it of power and then of its usefulness.

I have no academic knowledge of economics, but I’m greatly experienced in the practical variety enforced on every householder, car driver and citizen.

And I have found that the buying power of sixpence is now the equivalent of a pound. I find this strange, simple calculation oddly comforting.

If a pound is sixpence, the 50p piece is threepence. How suitable that it has sides like the old threepenny bit. Other words that have gone are the florin (10p), the half-crown (now the equivalent of £5) and the penny.

Divide the price of your purchases by 40 and you arrive at the price you would probably have paid in 1960 or thereabouts. A good lunch in a decent pub, for example, costs about £25 now. In The Good Food Guide for 1963 – kept out of interest – a good meal in a pleasant restaurant was about 12/6 (62.5p).

My first car cost £140 in 1963, second-hand. Now the equivalent is around £5,600. Petrol was then 4/6 (22.5p) a gallon; it’s now £9 a gallon.

What does the pound coin do? It buys a little time in a parking meter, as a sixpence used to do. It can be used in a cut-price shop for sets of soaps. A reel of cotton, if you can find one, costs more than a pound.

A one-pound coin really isn’t much use and, once broken, gives hardly any change. Six big pennies were worth something. In one flat I lived in, four pennies heated enough water for a bath.