As the period of mourning for Her late Majesty the Queen comes to an end, we thought it would be fitting to take a look at how the Pound Sterling has changed over the course of her long 70 year reign.
Banknotes with the Queen’s image
Back when the Queen ascended to the throne in 1952, the average wage was just £10 a week. The weekly national pension was £1.63, a house could cost as little as £2,000 and a pint of milk was just 4p.
Coins were much more prominently used at the time and banknotes came in smaller denominations like £1 and 10 shillings.
Banknotes for Sterling had been in use in the UK since the late 1700s, however, until the 1960s, surprisingly banknotes didn’t feature the sovereign’s image.
On 17 March 1960, following the approval of the Queen to use her portrait, the new 10 shilling note went into circulation. Over the course of the decade, all notes would gradually be replaced with new designs featuring images of the Queen.
Monday 15 February 1971 was designated in the UK as ‘Decimal Day.’ On this day, the shilling was officially abolished and the old system of dividing the pound into 240 pence was consigned to history.
For a long time, the UK had been desiring to move to a decimal system. Many other similar currencies like the Franc and Dollar had made the change decades before.
Historically the Pound Sterling was a complicated currency with many different coins. Over the course of the early post-war years, a number of coins were removed from circulation including the Farthing and Half-Crown.
A huge publicity campaign was undertaken and by the time decimal day came, there were few problems. The UK population quickly adapted to the new simpler currency and the pre-decimal days were quickly forgotten.
Since this day other coins like the sixpence were removed and the £1 and £2 coins introduced.
Goodbye to the One Pound note
The £1 note had been a staple of British currency for nearly 200 years, first being introduced in 1797.
However, over time its value had receded. In the ’70s and ’80s due to rampant inflation, the average lifespan of a £1 note became less than a year.
Following consultation with retailers and suppliers, it was deemed that replacing it with a coin would be much better for all. Retailers were tired of having to manage the expense and effort of regularly dealing with and replacing tatty notes.
On 21 April 1983, the first £1 coin was introduced and on 11 March 1988 the One Pound note officially ceased to be legal tender.
10 years later in 1998, the £2 went into circulation following a wide consultation that concluded it would be an advantage to the economy.
70 years and 5 portraits
Over the last 70 years, we’ve seen multiple design changes to Sterling’s coins and banknotes.
There have been officially five different portraits of Her Majesty on the coinage.
The first was introduced in the 1950s and depicted the Queen as a young woman wearing not a crown but a laurel wreath.
The second was introduced at the time of decimalisation and featured the Queen now wearing a crown. It was seen at the time as the opportune moment to update the coinage given it was all being replaced anyway.
The third design was introduced in 1985 and was only marginally different from the previous design. In 1998 a fourth design was introduced with a much bigger and fuller image of Her Majesty.
The fifth and final design was introduced in 2015 and features the Queen wearing the crown she wore at her coronation.
Polymer notes take over
One of the biggest changes to sterling in recent decades has been the transition to Polymer banknotes. In just a couple of weeks, the cotton-based £20 and £50 banknotes will cease to be legal tender; thus, the UK currency will be all polymer-based for the first time.
Sterling is the most prominent currency to use all polymer notes. Australia, New Zealand and Canada are similar examples.
Polymer notes were introduced for two major reasons, to improve security/make forgery more difficult and to increase the lifespan of the note. Polymer notes are notably better for the environment and have a much longer shelf life.
A report by the Bank of England showed that on average a paper £5 note generally had 16 months in circulation whereas a polymer £5 note had 40 months in circulation.
How will currency change under King Charles III?
There will be no overnight transition to our currency. After the Queen’s accession to the throne, coins featuring the image of George VI still circulated for several years.
It’s almost certain that the Bank of England already has designs ready to be sent to His Majesty for approval in the coming months. What we can expect to see is a gradual replacement of both coins and banknotes over the coming years as they end their natural lifespan.
On an interesting side note, the portraits of the Queen always faced East and so following a centuries-old tradition, the new image of King Charles will show him facing West.