Decimal Coinage – 1855!




[handwritten copy and typescript received from Royal Bank of Scotland]

 Coombe, CROYDON, Nov. 10, 1855

If I am taking an improper liberty in addressing a few words to you as Commissioner on the subject of decimal coinage I can only beg you to put this sheet into the fire and excuse the interference.  I may assume that no one disputes the facilities for calculation which a decimal system would confer.  The only question is (as it appears to me) whether the advantages, though permanent, would not be dearly purchased by the immediate inconveniences and disturbance of existing ideas, habits and bargains.  On this ground the problem to be solved ought not to be merely what plan would be best in a scientific point of view, but what system, complete in itself, can be introduced at a minimum cost of alteration of coins or calculations.  It is to this point alone that I wish to direct my remarks not pretending to advance anything new but simply to lay before you as strongly and as concisely as I can the reasons which I think may be advanced in favour of a plan different from that recommended by the Committee.

If instead of the pound sterling we should adopt the half sovereign, under a new name (Royal for instance) as the unit of our currency, we should obtain the following results, viz:

As to gold coinage
  1. Retention of the established gold standard;
  2. Retention of existing gold coins unaltered;
  3. Easy and direct conversion of all existing bargains in Pounds sterling, or proportional Rates.
As to silver coinage
  1. Retention of the shilling – our unit of wages as the second “coin of account” in the Decimal scale.
  2. Retention of all our old silver coins, viz. crowns, half crowns, shillings and sixpences, unaltered, except in the name of the last coin.
  3. Withdrawal of the florin – 4d – and probably 3d. pieces.
As to copper coinage
  1. By the issue of one new coin = 1/10th of a shilling or 1/5th – to be called a “Royal penny” we should complete the decimal scale for ordinary calculation.
  2. By the gradual withdrawal of all existing Pence we might familiarise the public with the use of the “Royal Penny” before the final step was taken.
  3. This would finally be affected by a Proclamation that on and after a given day all the existing half-pence would be taken at a depreciation of 4 per cent. And that thenceforward all calculation would be made in Royal shillings and pence – of ten to a shilling, any fractional parts of a penny being calculated at tenths of a Penny and might either remain permanently in circulation at that value (which would have some advantages) or might be afterwards gradually withdrawn and pieces of 5/10th of a Royal Penny might be introduced.  I am however, of opinion that the half penny (with its new value and a new name) should be retained because it would afford the means of almost exact comparison between the new copper coinage and the old.

We should thus, by the introduction of only one new copper coin and a hardly appreciable change in the value of another be in possession of a complete decimal coinage admitting in all its component parts, gold, silver and copper, easy comparison with all our old coins best known among the mass of the people.

Of course the Royal Penny would have its value of “ten to a shilling” marked upon it, and all the new “half-pence” should be marked either “4 mils” (if that name is to be used at all) or “4/10th of a Penny”.

There are some other considerations relative to the future introduction of any silver coins in the decimal scale, which I will not discuss in order to spare your time;  but there is one point which I think constitutes the chief defect of the Florin plan on which I will add one remark.

The tenth of a florin, too large for copper, too small for silver, would I fear cause great confusion, whether we adopted it as a coin or merely as a nominal unit in the scale.  It could not be readily or exactly compared with either our present silver or copper money, while any one could understand that the Royal penny was worth 5 farthings or was one tenth of a shilling.

Believe me,

Yours faithfully,



Overstone Park, Northampton, 21st Nov. 1855

My dear Sir,

Some delay has occurred in replying to your letter of the 10th instant – the fact is it reached me when I was on a visit in a house full of company and distraction.

I am really obliged to you for your communication; as I am really anxious to avail myself of every assistance which can be derived from the suggestions of intelligent and thinking persons – At present I have no definite views of my own on the much vexed question of Decimal coinage – my duty is to try all things in the hope that I may ultimately seize the truth.  I am like a person peeping over the edge into an apparently impenetrable jungle before he makes the attempt to cut a direct and practicable path through it.

The great difficulty in the question seems to me to be this – Between the farthing and the £ there now exist 960 steps.  If we decimalise our coinage there must then exist between the highest and lowest coin 1,000 steps.  Hence an unavoidable discrepancy of 4 per cent.  How are we to deal with this and to obviate its inconvenience?  If we decimalise upwards from the farthing we necessarily disturb the £ as the integer or unit of account – the objections to which are serious and formidable.

If we decimalise downwards from the £ we necessarily disturb the value of all the copper coinage – the coins in use with the poorer classes – to this again the objections are formidable and these constitute the arguments against what is called the Pound and Mil scheme.  Now what will be the effect of the plan which you recommend.  If I understand it correctly it will involve both classes of objections.  First It will disturb the £ as the integer, by rendering it necessary that we should double its nominal amount.  Second It will involve the same disturbance and depreciation of the copper coinage which forms the serious difficulty of the Pound and Mil scheme.

If I am wrong in this view of your suggestion I shall be glad to be corrected by further explanation.  I feel that I am only a learner at present; and I hope to retain the docility of a pupil.

But I feel a further difficulty in this matter – with respect to which I shall be grateful for assistance and instruction.

For calculation and account keeping the Decimal system has manifest and undeniable advantages.

But for the retail transactions of the Market for the sub division of material things the binary system is most naturally adapted and has advantages equally undeniable.  Now coins are instruments created for the purpose of adjusting these retail transactions.  Can you then abandon the Binary division of these without great further inconvenience in the daily transactions of the Market.

Take a practical illustration –

A shilling will be one of the Moneys of Account of your system.  Take then any article at a shilling a pound.  How will you pay for it in its binary sub division.  Mark the convenience of the present coinage in this respect and compare it with your system or with any decimal system

1 lb = 1 shilling                          )  Observe these are all easily stated

½ lb = sixpence                                   )  in account and easily paid in coin

¼ lb = threepence                    )  upon the present system.  Would it

1/8 lb = three halfpence              )  be equally easy and convenient upon your

1/16 lb  = three farthings            )  system or upon any decimal system?

You will clearly understand that you are not to infer from these questions any opinion on my part.  Every advocate of each theory perceives and states the strong parts of his case – my duty is to see that the weak points of each case are not overlooked.  Moreover I feel that by promoting discussion I am …… into the only path which can ultimately lead to Truth – for much arguing – much discipline – many opinions are but Truth in the making.

I rejoice that you have turned your attention to this subject and I thank you sincerely for your communication.

Yours faithfully,



MANCHESTER, Nov. 26 1855

Dear Lord Overstone,

You have described quite correctly the effect of the plan proposed in my former letter for decimalising our coinage, viz. that it would disturb both the £1 as the primary unit of account and the farthing or halfpenny as the unit composing all other coins.  But I have a word or two to say in its defence.

In order to obtain a decimal system at all it is clear that 2 of our 3 coins of account must be changed, whether we decimalise upwards from the farthing, downwards from the £1 or (as I have proposed) both ways from the shilling – for this is really the effect of the plan, which however, would retain the gold standard.  Hence it follows that the disturbance does not attach to more cases than either of the only 2 other possible plans, if we are to retain any of our existing coins.  The question then is whether the nature and amount of the disturbance in each particular case are more or less objectionable, than in the other 2 cases.  And this is precisely the point in which the plan in question seems to me to have a clear superiority.

  1. We would not require to alter our gold coins at all, though we should count in half sovereigns or “Royals” instead of the £1 sterling as at present.
  1. We should make no change in our best known silver coins, withdrawing only the recent florins, 4d. and 3d. pieces and of these the shilling forms the standard for all minor retail transactions, weekly wages, etc.
  1. We should be able to retain a copper coin almost exactly identical in value with that most in use now, ½d. so that only one important attention would be necessary, viz. the introduction of the “Royal Penny” or 1/10th of a shilling.
  1. As to the mode of introduction of the new coin, it would be possible to retain all the existing coins (excepting as before the florin, 4d. and 3d.)  Conceivably with the usage of the new one, the penny piece should disappear and we should have all the coins necessary for a complete system.

– – – – – –

Compare this with (for instance) the £ mil.

  1. The gold coins would remain as before.
  1. We should lose our shilling unit of account for tho’ the coin might continue to circulate, it would only be as ½ florin a disturbance quite as great in amount as the counting in “Royals” instead of sovereigns and far more so when we come to the next step in the scale viz.
  1. The introduction of a new copper (or silver) coin of 1/10th of a florin = 2d.4 which is in my opinion the most objectionable point in the plan of the Committee.  I have long been so strongly convinced of the utter confusion that would arise from the use of this coin (which could not be readily referred to any of our well known coins) that I wrote some time ago to Mr. Brown suggesting that if the £1 unit were adopted it would be better to jump at once from the florin to the farthing or “mil”, 100 of which would compose the florin; so that from the florin downwards we should count as in America they count in dollars and cents and as in France they count in francs and centimes, making the 3rd coin of a/c occupy 2 places instead of one, thus £1. 2fl. 34 mils. = £1. 4s. 8 ¼d. very nearly and this still appears to me to be the only way of rendering that plan practicable.

Of the penny or farthing unit scheme I shall say no more than that it involves a change in both our gold and silver coinage, which would be worst of all.  Allow me to add a line or two on the remainder of your letter, though it refers entirely to a point which I did not touch, viz. the superiority of any decimal system to the one we have now, which admits of binary sub-division.  If our other weights and measures were in any way adapted to our present coins, so that the minor divisions of the one were represented by those of the other, your objection on this score would be conclusive.  But suppose that instead of taking as an example a rate of 1s/- to the lb. I take meat at 8½d. a lb. and want to buy 6d. worth of it, I should have an intricate calculation to make.  Of course, I do not mean that this would be otherwise under a decimal plan unless we decimalised all our tables.  But if this were done, there could be no longer any doubt.

With many thanks for your courtesy,

I am,

Yours very sincerely,


Footnote by Barbara Nightingale, 3 May 2003

The United States went decimal in 1792; France, during the Revolution; Canada in 1858; Switzerland and Italy in 1865; Belgium in 1868;  India in 1957; South Africa in 1961; Australia in 1966, and New Zealand in 1967. The introduction of decimal coinage in Britain did not take place until Monday, 15 February 1971. The pound continued to be the standard unit but was split into 100 new pence, instead of 240 old pennies.

Biographical Notes

WILLIAM ENTWISLE – See article on The Loyd Entwisle Bank


Began life as SAMUEL JONES LOYD. His forebears have been traced back to Thomas Lloyd in Carmarthenshire, who was buried at Cilycwm on 16 March 1735/6 aged 83. [“Lloyd and Loyd 1690-1990”, by Alwyne E. Loyd, December 1990]

Thomas’s great-grandson, LEWIS, changed the spelling of the family name to LOYD when he moved to Manchester in 1789. On 11 November 1793, Lewis married Sarah, daughter of John Jones, Banker and Tea dealer of 35 King Street, Manchester. After his marriage he entered the Bank, went to the London branch, 43 Lothbury, in the city of London and became a partner. He purchased the Overstone Park Estate, Northamptonshire, where he died on 13 May 1858. His estate, valued at nearly £2 million, was left to his only child, SAMUEL JONES LOYD, born 25 September 1796 at Lothbury.

SAMUEL JONES LOYD became 1st and last Baron Overstone of Overstone and Fotheringhay, both in the county of Northamptonshire, in 1850. He was “one of the great figures in English monetary history in the controversies leading to the Bank Charter Act of 1844 and for thirty years afterwards”. His correspondence was published in three volumes by the Cambridge University Press in 1971, for the Royal Economic Society.

President of the Royal Statistical Society from 1851 – 1853.

His only daughter, Harriet, married Lt. Col. Robert James Lindsay V.C., who assumed the surname Loyd-Lindsay on his marriage. He became Baron Wantage of Lockinge in 1885.

Lady Harriet Wantage donated stained glass windows dedicated to her father and her husband at All Saints Church, Wing. [See: Buckinghamshire Stained Glass]

Lewis Loyd’s brother, EDWARD, also moved to Manchester and became the senior partner of the Manchester Branch of Jones Loyd Bank in 1821. [See article on The Loyd Entwisle Bank] Edward’s daughter, HANNAH, married WILLIAM ENTWISLE. Therefore Lord Overstone was related to William Entwisle by marriage.

See also: Brawdy Books