Thus some 100 years ago wrote F A Halsey of the American Institute of Weights and Measures, attempting to refute the arguments of those who favoured a decimal system of coinage. The shilling was, he thought, ‘the most wonderful denominator of value in the world’, but despite such advocacy decimalisation came in due time to assume an air of inevitability. And in February 1971 the United Kingdom at last changed over to a decimal system.
The shilling, however, in a real sense managed to survive decimalisation since, under the system eventually adopted, it had an exact counterpart in the 5p piece. For this new decimal coin, the weight and diameter of the old shilling were retained, and existing shillings were allowed to remain in circulation, those dating back to 1816 being re-denominated as 5p pieces. With the introduction of the small 5p piece in the summer of 1990 and the demonetisation of all earlier 5p coins from the end of December 1990, the shilling finally reached the end of its active life.
Whether some mysterious, unexpected truth will be discovered in the words of F A Halsey remains to be seen, though certainly there can be no question that the shilling has long been a very popular coin. In 1730, for instance, the Master of the Royal Mint wrote that, of the silver coins, shillings and sixpences were of the greatest use. A later Master, the distinguished chemist Thomas Graham, went even further, suggesting that the silver coinage could well be made up of shillings and sixpences alone. And that same year, 1859, the shilling was described by the Secretary of the Decimal Coinage Commission as the most important of the silver coins.
More shillings, indeed, were struck in the 19th century than any other silver denomination. In the years immediately before decimalisation in 1971 the shilling yielded pride of place to the sixpence but it remained a coin much in demand, with something like 1000 million in circulation as D-Day (Decimal Day) approached.