HC Deb 27 April 1847 vol 92 cc13-23

rose to move a Resolution, the effect of which would be the introduction of a decimal system into our coinage, and its adoption into our mode of keeping accounts. He was glad to have received much encouragement in a great variety of communications with which he had been favoured, all showing that the public mind was prepared for the changes he proposed; and that there was a general conviction of the great advantages of a decimal system of coinage, over the complex system now existing. Among many schemes, that which he was about to suggest met with the most general acceptance. He knew how strung was the feeling—the prejudice he might say—in favour of existing habits and usages; and that in this country, more than anywhere else, the question was less about the quo eundum est, than the quo itur. But still the recommendations of a decimal system were so many, and so obvious, that its introduction could not be long delayed. Every man who looked at his ten fingers, saw an argument for its use, and an evidence of its practicability. His suggestion was simply to divide the pound sterling into one thousand farthings, and this would give all the needful elements for a perfect system of decimal coinage. He would preserve the pound sterling as the integer or point of unity. It had been associated with our accounts, and with our currency, from almost immemorial time; and was in fact a very convenient starting post for decimal division. Professor De Morgan, and many other eminent men, concurred in the suggestion of dividing that pound sterling into a thousand parts, and accommodating our coinage to the centesimal and decimal divisions. The Arabic numerals so admirably adapted to a decimal system, seemed to point to that system as a necessary consequence of their introduction; for though the Romans seemed to have had some gleams of the advantages of a decimal currency, their numerals would not easily accommodate themselves to it, nor indeed to any arithmetical calculations. The decimal system had made great progress through the civilized world. At this moment, it was used by more than half the great human family. With three or four exceptions, it had been adopted by all the nations of Europe—in the vast Russian empire, from Kamschatka to the Baltic —from the Euxine and the Caspian to the White Sea—and through the wide regions of China, with its more than 300,000,000 of souls. In proposing this change, it was his object to interfere as little as possible either with the names or values of existing coins. He suggested no new copper coinage, but a very slight diminution of the value of the farthing, halfpenny, and penny, so that, instead of representing the 1–960th, l–480th, and l–240th of a pound sterling, they should pass for the l–1000th, l–500th, and l–250th parts. The gold coinage would remain without any alteration; and in the silver he should propose to introduce two new coins, namely, the two-shilling piece, which he suggested might be called a "Queen," and which would be the tenth part of a pound sterling; and another piece to represent the tenth of the queen, or the l-100th part of the pound sterling, to which he proposed giving the name of "Victoria" —in both cases designating the era in which the decimal system had been adopted. Thus in the gold currency, the sovereign would represent 1,000 farthings—the half sovereign 500 farthings, or half the pound. In the silver coins, the crown would represent 250 farthings, or the fourth of a pound; the half crown 125 farthings, or the eighth of a pound; the queen 100 farthings, or the tenth of a pound; the shilling fifty farthings, or the twentieth of a pound; the sixpence twenty-five farthings, or the fortieth of a pound; and the victoria ten farthings, or the 100th of a pound; and the copper coinage would still represent farthings, half pence, and pennies, being 1,000th, 500th, and 250th parts of a pound. They should on the first new issues be reduced to the extent of four per cent. that is to say, 1,000 instead of 960 farthings would go to the pound sterling. If a new system had to be introduced, there might be some advantage in calling the farthings mils or millimes, the victorias cents or centimes, the queens decs, dimes or decimes; but on the whole he was disposed to retain the ancient names, as they would at once present associations of value, and, as he believed, facilitate the early application and universal adoption of the system. The two new silver coins would be exceedingly convenient. The two-shilling piece, from its form and weight, would soon become popular, and in fact the most useful of all the silver coins. Having made some inquiries, he was able to say that its size would allow it to be a beautiful specimen of monetary art. Its value, the double shilling, would be understood by everybody; it would be about half a dollar, the coin which, perhaps of all others, is best known through the commercial world, and it nearly represents the Austrian florin, which has a wide circulation. The victoria would be the smallest of the silver coins, representing the 100th part of the pound sterling, or 2⅖d. of existing currency, which to the popular mind would be nearly allied to 2½;d. This coin is about the value of the vellon rial of Spain, which is the point of unity of the Spanish currency. It has been objected that it would be too small for common use; but he begged to remind the House, that it would not be much smaller than the silver penny in the time of Edward the Third, which was then the only currency in the realm—the only recognised coin of the land. Our pounds, shillings, and pence, in the Saxon period, no doubt represented an unvarying quantity of silver, the penny being twenty-four grains, the ounce twenty pennies, and the pound twelve ounces, the weight and the tale being identical; but gradual depreciations brought down the pound sterling from 5,760 to 1,614 grains, the present standard, so that the value of the currency had been reduced, nearly three fourths. At and after the Conquest, down to the time of Edward the First, the penny weighed twenty-two and a half grains. Edward the First reduced it to twenty-two grains, and Edward the Third to twenty grains; and he first coined two-pences and fourpences, that is, half greats and greats, weighing forty and eighty grains. The present weight of a silver penny is about 6⅔ grains; so that the new coin would weigh about eighteen grains, which, he repeated, would be about the size of the whole currency of England in the fourteenth century. The introduction of a decimal system in France, with whatever resistance it had been originally met, was now a matter of universal congratulation. No man could be found in that country who did not acknowledge its benefits. It had supplanted a currency of pounds, shillings, pence, and farthings—the livre, sol, denier, and liard. These had been replaced with francs and centimes; and though sometimes the old names were heard, they introduced no confusion; and the National Assembly, by the establishment of the decimal currency, was everywhere recognised as having conferred an immense benefit upon the country. From France the good example had spread to Italy, where many of the States had adopted a decimal system. In Lombardy and the Venetian provinces, it was introduced in 1823, and accounts were kept in lire (value about 8d.), or soldi, being l–10th, and centesimi, being l–100th of the lira. Ducats and zecchins were heard of in conversation, but not employed in accounts. In Sardinia, the decimal system of francs and centimes was adopted. In the Roman States, the scudo, being worth about 4s. 4d., was divided into 10 paoli and 100 bajocchi, so that they enjoyed a complete decimal system of currency and account. In Tuscany, though the phraseology of pound, shilling, and pence, lire, soldi, and danari, is retained, the lira is practically divided into 100 cents. In Naples, all is decimal accountancy, the ducat being ten carlini—the carlino ten grains. Holland, a country like our own strongly wedded to antique doctrines and usages, abandoned her ancient currency in 1811, and adopted the decimal system, dividing the florin, equal to 20d., into 100 cents, and coining the Willem, equal to ten florins. The old silver coinage is already beginning to disappear, and the gold of the former coinage passes by weight instead of tale. The Dutch colonies had not been slow to follow the example of the mother country. Belgium, immediately after her separation from Holland, introduced the French decimal system of coins, weights, and measures, though at first the public accounts were kept both in florins and francs: the use of the florins continued only a short time; both coins and calculations had disappeared, and francs and centimes were now universally adopted and with universal approval. The Zollverein, which had to accommodate itself to a very great variety of coins, weights, and measures, made an important step towards a decimal system by recognising no weight but the centner of l00lbs. Prussian, and no coins but the dollar of thirty groschen, and the florin of sixty kreutzers. Several of the Swiss States had introduced the decimal divisions, by making the Swiss franc represent 100 cents. Decimal coinage and decimal accounts were universal in the extensive Russian empire, with its 70,000,000 of inhabitants, the rouble, consisting of 100 copecks, being established over all the territory. In Greece, one of the earliest results of the revolution was the adoption of a decimal currency, the only coins of account being the phœnix or drachma (of about 8½d. sterling), and its hundredth part, the lipta. Portugal and the Brazils both enjoyed a decimal system, their milrei being divided into 1,000 reis, precisely as he proposed to divide the pound sterling into a thousand farthings. Through the United States of America the decimal coinage prevailed— the dollar with its 100 cents—and the same system had already made its way into Mexico, Central America, and many other transatlantic communities. He had already stated that the whole Chinese population reckoned by tens, and that a decimal mode of calculation and account had existed in that empire from the remotest times. Even into the Ottoman dominions the decimal system was penetrating. In Egypt, all the coinage of Mahomet Ali represented decimal divisions, there being in copper the one and the five paras; in silver, the ten and twenty paras, the one, five, ten, and twenty piastres; and in gold, five, ten, twenty and 100 piastres. In Persia, too, the decimal coinage prevailed; ten floose make the danim, ten danims the mahmoudy, and 100 mahmoudies the tomand. Without going farther, and wearying the House with other details, he thought he had established his case, and showed the ease with which his suggestions might be adopted. Would Great Britain stand alone with her complicated and entangled system, so unintelligible to foreigners, and often so embarrassing to her own subjects? Every European country except Spain, Denmark, and Sweden, had given us satisfactory evidence of the benefits of the change he suggested; and it was little honour to us to lag behind the civilized world. All the puzzles and perplexities of compound addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, would be got rid of by the simplicity of decimal calculation; all interest would be reckoned by the simplest processes of multiplication; and a short experience of the advantages of a decimal system would produce only a feeling of wonder that we should have so long toler- ated the existing state of our coinage, currency, and accounts. He did not at present propose a change in our system of weights and measures. That change would naturally follow upon the improvements he now suggested. The Resolution he had to propose for the approval of the House was— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, requesting that She will be graciously pleased to authorize the issue of Coins representing the value of two shillings, being the tenth of a pound sterling, and two pence and two-fifths, being the hundredth part of a pound sterling, such Coins to be called Queens and Victorias, or any other name which to Her Majesty may seem best.


seconded the Motion. The subject had been for twenty-two years before the House. Mr. Davies Giddy and other gentlemen made a report to the House many years ago, recommending the adoption of the decimal system; and, after all that had taken place in Europe since that period, the larger portion of the Continent having adopted a decimal currency, no further delay ought to take place in introducing it into this country. He did not complain of the Mint Master for not bringing the subject before the House—"present company were always excepted." But former Mint Masters had been lax in their duty, and were not sufficiently aware of the fact, that to save time in trade and commerce was to save money. He should be happy to see an inquiry take place into the subject as to the effect of adopting a decimal system of keeping accounts. For himself, he had no doubt whatever that every merchant who now kept five clerks would be able to do with one less under a decimal system of coinage and weights and measures. The consequence of the present system was, that, in the higher classes in this country, he scarcely ever met a man of property who understood accounts. He did not think this subject was best dealt with by a debate, for it had not yet sufficiently received the attention of the community. An American merchant told him, that no one who had been in an accountant's office in this country had any idea of the saving of time and trouble in the American system of decimal accounts, compared with the cumbrous and intricate system of this country. The people of England were accustomed to look upon the Chinese as a nation of barbarians; but the decimal system had been in operation in that country for many centuries, and there was not an accountant in England who could calculate so quietly as the Chinese with his ten balls. The decimal system would make a calculator of every villager, which would probably be of some use in saving them some farthings. He hoped the Government, so far from throwing any obstacles in the way of so desirable a change, would afford every facility for the introduction of the decimal system.


said, that the mover of the Resolution, the hon. Member for Bolton, and the seconder, the hon. Member for Montrose, did not agree in what they recommended to the Government. The hon. Member for Bolton recommended the Government immediately to issue two descriptions of coin; and the hon. Member for Montrose recommended a Committee of Inquiry as to the best mode of introducing a decimal system; but his opinion was, that neither recommendation ought to be adopted. He was not by any means insensible to the advantages which were to be derived from a decimal system—a system which had been adopted more or less in a great many countries of Europe, and which had afforded very great facility in keeping accounts. It was a system which, if adopted by common consent in this country, would be found to effect a very great improvement in that respect; but he would remind the House that there was hardly anything with respect to which the minds of people, or perhaps their prejudices, were more difficult to change, than the coinage of their country. In France, the decimal system was adopted; but in many parts of that country, after the fiery ordeal of the Revolution, the people maintained the old denominations of coin. [Dr. BOWRING: Not of weights.] No, not of weights; but he was proceeding to show that no violent attempt ought to be made to introduce a decimal system. The introduction of such a system ought to be effected gradually, and in such a manner that the people might gradually become accustomed to the use of that description of coinage; and if that were done, he had no doubt that they would finally adopt it. He was not, however, prepared to go the length of establishing such a coinage at once; and with respect to the inquiry alluded to by the hon. Member for Montrose, he would state that it was not necessary, as the commissioners appointed to inquire into the standards went fully into that question, and pointed out how the change could be made with little difficulty, unless as regarded small copper coins. The first step in the adoption of such a system was to establish the tenth part of a pound, which would be 2s.; and the first step might therefore be, to strike a two-shilling piece, to which he should have no objection. It might be advisable to strike a two-shilling piece; and if the people of the country became used to the two-shilling piece, it would be a most important step towards the introduction of a decimal system. If the coinage of a two-shilling piece could do no good in that way, it would do no harm, as the present system could go on if that failed. If the prejudice were found to be so strong after the introduction of the two-shilling piece, there would be no harm done by that attempt. After that statement, he did not see that it was necessary for the hon. Member to press his Motion; and if he did, he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) should feel it his duty to move the previous question.


congratulated the hon. Member for Bolton on the partial success of his Motion, and thanked him for the information contained in it. It was satisfactory to hear from the hon. Members opposite that there was such a prejudice in the country in favour of old customs and old institutions. He regretted that the Master of the Mint had not spoken, as Ireland, which was in everything an exception to other countries, had departed from the decimal system, and the Irish tenpenny was long since departed; so that, perhaps, the Master of the Mint might be able to throw some historical light on the subject.


said, that it would have been much more officious than official in him to have expressed any opinion on this subject before the Chancellor of the Exchequer had spoken. He (Mr. Sheil) had not omitted to give it the best consideration in his power; he felt the importance of substituting, if it was possible, simple for compound arithmetic. He wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer from Ireland in October last, and received from him an answer, from which he should read an extract:— I have no objection to the system of a decimal currency. But you must not, as your proposal does, take the penny as the basis, and make your coins multiples of a penny. The unit of British currency, the basis upon which everything else depends, and by reference to which the value of every other coin is determined, is the pound sterling. We should get into inextricable confusion if we departed from this. A pound sterling is 123 grains and a fraction of gold of given pure-ness; a shilling has no value from the silver it contains, but as the l–20th part of a pound sterling—the actual coin is not intrinsically worth so much. So a penny does not derive its value from the Copper it contains, but as the l–120th part of a pound. If, therefore, we are to adopt a decimal system, the first step is easy enough—a two-shilling piece would be the tenth part of a pound. The difficulty begins with a penny, or the next coin, whatever you may call it, below the two-shilling piece. I will not pursue the subject further, having pointed out what must be the beginning, if such a system is to be entertained at all. I am confident that when you consider this subject in its more general bearings, you will sec that it is not a matter lightly to be dealt with; and any scheme which is to overturn the confirmed habit of a country for centuries, and the confirmed mode of keeping accounts of all kinds, requires the most serious consideration before it is attempted, and the greatest care in adjusting all its details. He also communicated with Mr. Trevelyan, who enclosed to him some exceedingly able observations made by Mr. James Penning-ton. Mr. Pennington, it was right to state, was not favourable to the introduction of a decimal system. After stating M. De Morgan's plan, published in the British Almanac of 1841, and originally suggested by the celebrated Mr. Babbage—the plan, indeed, which his hon. Friend had to-night propounded—Mr. Pennington proceeds to state— In this way a decimal currency and a decimal coinage might no doubt be established; but mark the consequence—a labourer, whose wages were tenpence a day, and who at the end of a week might be in the possession of sixty pennies, or 240 cents, (alias farthings), would find that he could obtain for his 60d., or 240 farthings, not 5s. in silver, but only 4s. l0d. Again, a shopkeeper, who had been in the habit of selling an article for 3d., and who expected that when he had sold four of these articles he would have received money of the value of 1s., would find that he had received five per cent less than the sum he had calculated upon. In short, bickerings and misunderstandings in all dealings of less value than a shilling would continually occur. Such were Mr. Pennington's objections; and he (Mr. Sheil) had submitted them to the consideration of two gentlemen of the highest mathematical ability. They did not concur with Mr. Pennington. It was clear that new contracts would be made in the new currency for labour and everything else, and that these objections could not then arise. They could apply to antecedent contracts, where it was necessary to connect the old currency with the new, and there could be little difficulty in doing that. The sovereign would be retained— the new coin, worth two shillings, call it a royal or a florin, would be the tenth of a pound. On the reverse the value might be engraved. That new coin would be subdivided into ten other coins, each of which would be subdivided into ten farthings or cents. Then the royal, or florin, would be worth one hundred cents; half a florin, or a shilling, would be worth fifty farthings, or cents; sixpence would be worth twenty-five farthings, or cents; threepence would be worth twelve cents and a half. On all these coins, with the old name, might be engraved the value in the new coinage; and in the common transactions of life, with the aid of the new tables, no difficulty would arise. There would be no error in the conversion of threepences, sixpences, ninepences, and shillings: the only one would be in the intervening sums, and it would amount to only the fraction of a farthing. He, however, thought that nothing should be precipitately done. The new coin worth two shillings should be first put into circulation, and when once the public were familiar with its use, another step might be taken, and ere long the decimal system might be safely introduced.


said, that in America, when the alteration from the old system to the decimal system was at first introduced, there was a little difficulty experienced in carrying it out; but as soon as that difficulty was overcome, the advantages of the decimal system in facilitating calculations and preventing mistakes, were found to be very great.


considered that there could be little doubt of the advantage of a decimal system of currency with regard to the keeping of money accounts; and wherever such a system had been adopted, its simplicity had recommended it to favour. But, unless the Government were prepared to adopt a compulsory measure, such as had been enforced in the United States, and to call in the existing coinage, he did not think that the people of this country would voluntarily adopt a decimal system. He understood that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was not prepared to require that the public and all other accounts should be kept according to the decimal system; and, if this were the case, he wished to ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether he might not produce a great deal of confusion, and afford great facilities for fraud, by striking a 2s. piece, which would be so similar in size and weight to the half-crown piece, and as to the value of which ignorant persons might easily be deceived. He wished to remind the right hon. Gen- tleman of the inconvenience which was occasioned a few years ago by the issue of threepenny pieces soon after the coinage of groats. There was so slight a difference between the size and appearance of the coins, that the threepenny piece was not unfrequently passed for a groat.


expressed his readiness to accept the offer made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and observed, that within the last few days he had received a communication from a nobleman (Lord Ashburton, as we understood) who had had great experience with regard to the two systems of coinage, and who stated that he considered the time had arrived when the decimal system should be taken up by the Government of this country.

Motion withdrawn.