Change for the worse?: The advent of a new 10p piece this week marks the end of our pre-decimal coins. Some think metal money itself is on the way out. Tim Kelsey reports

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IN EARLY 1971, the producers of Crossroads did something unusual. They dramatised the coinage. Viewers of the soap opera watched its characters struggle, in 11 episodes, with the concept of a decimal currency. This was in the run-up to 15 February 1971: Decimalisation Day.

The Government had mounted the most expensive publicity campaign to date. But the British public, for whom the issue had provoked considerable passion, was resistant to the change. The Government appealed to the makers of Crossroads for help.

Twelve years later, changes to the coinage still aroused strong opposition. The introduction of the pounds 1 coin sparked Fleet Street indignation. The Daily Mail demanded its withdrawal: 'The Pound Britain Doesn't Want' read one front page headline.

This time, however, there has been scarcely a whimper: on Wednesday, a new, smaller, 10p coin comes into circulation; but the final farewell of what was the two-shilling piece, sole survivor of the pre-decimal currency, has prompted no outcry.

Coin experts agree that the British no longer seem to care about the coinage. Richard Lobel, head of Coincraft, one of the country's biggest coin dealers, forecasts the death of the coinage itself within 10 years, and the removal of the 1p and 2p from circulation within five.

'The coin has in the past been a symbol of the health of a nation,' he said. 'Rome's finest silver coins were struck when Rome was a great empire.

'They've prostituted the coin in modern times. Take the new 5p. Does picking that up give you any pride in being British? People would have more pride if the coins looked better.'

Even the 5p coin, so tiny that many elderly people cannot hold it, found few outspoken enemies among a resigned public.

Once, the coinage was deemed an important component of British identity. Lord Randolph Churchill, politician father of Sir Winston and one of the currency's great defenders, was wildly applauded in Parliament when he asserted that 'there is some unfathomable mystery' about the coinage. Two centuries earlier, Sir Christopher Wren found, not much to his surprise, that a tract he published considering the advantages of a decimal coinage attracted few readers.

The 10p, alias the florin, enjoys a history as distinguished as that of the crown, the farthing or the threepenny bit. Its ancestry can be traced as far back as the Emperor Diocletian, who introduced the denarius in AD 298.

The forerunner of the present coin was introduced in 1849, when it was made of silver and worth about pounds 4 in today's money. The Victorians nicknamed it the 'Godless' florin because the Royal Mint omitted to stamp on it the legend DG (Dei Gratia). That was quickly rectified.

In 1816, the British had reluctantly accepted the concept of a token coinage that had an intrinsic value far below that of its denomination. It was a big step, one that ran counter to the orthodoxy of centuries. But it did not involve a change in the character or design of the coins themselves. It was not until 1947 that the Mint stopped using silver in coins and turned to cheaper cupro-nickel.

The new 10p is a shrunken clone of its immediate predecessor. The lion passant, which first appeared after decimalisation, still stalks across the front, while an older Queen Elizabeth II grimaces benevolently on the reverse.

Many wish the Mint had shown more imagination and insist that this coin, like the rest of the coinage, is an unattractive token of value. 'The modern designs are terrible,' said Mr Lobel. 'It's not just nostalgia. In the past the currency had strength to it, and character.'

The Mint said that it decided against a change in design because it feared that this would make the introduction of the new coin less comfortable and more controversial. 'Nobody is ruling out a design change at a later stage,' said Graham Dyer, librarian and curator at the Mint. 'It is difficult to programme a beautiful coinage.'

The 10p has gone the way of the rest of the coinage: lighter and smaller. In 1860, 24 chunky copper pennies made up a florin, weighing 449.4g. By 1971, the florin was still accounting for 24 pennies, although this time they were bronze, with their accumulated weight down to 226.7g.

After decimalisation, when the number of pennies in the pound fell from 240 to 100, the florin was no longer a florin, it was a 'ten-pee piece', broken down into 10 copper pence with a weight of just 35.6g.

Rumours abound that the 50p piece is soon to be cut in size. It is a rumour the Mint fostered by publishing a new consultative design several years ago, although it now says it has no plans for the 50p. It also claims that it has no intention of phasing out the 1p and 2p pieces.

To accompany the new 10p, the Mint is, however, issuing a new 1p and 2p. They will look the same, and be the same size, but they will be made of copper-plated steel rather than copper. The rising price of copper has made producing the existing coins more expensive than their face value.

Still, the decline in the number of coin denominations, and in their weight, is encouraging the view that the coinage may not have much of a future. Inflation, of course, is most to blame. In 1887, pounds 1 bought what pounds 44 buys today.

Philip Attwood, curator of British coins and medals at the British Museum, disputes Mr Lobel's view that 'within a decade, perhaps, the coinage will be dead'.

He said: 'The need for a coinage has lessened but I can't envisage a system where it can be abolished altogether. I can't see metal discs coming to an end.'

It is estimated that it has cost between pounds 30m and pounds 100m to adapt vending machines to accept the new 5p and 10p. The cost of doing away with coins altogether would be far higher.

'I suppose in years to come everyone might be using plastic things in a hole in the wall, but I can't see that for years and years,' said Mark Rasmussen, head of English milled coins at Spink & Son, the leading coin dealers.

Experimental alternatives to the metal and paper currency have so far met with failure. In the 1960s the Mint produced a series of plastic coins. 'The conclusion was that the British public were not ready,' said Mr Dyer. 'They were so light, just like tiddlywinks. They were all round, and in different colours, which is one option you don't have with metal. The problem was acceptability. It is cheaper than metal.' The problem was also forgery: it is much easier to counterfeit plastic than metal coins.

Plastic notes have been taken more seriously. The Isle of Man produced a plastic pound note several years ago, but abandoned it because the printing ink started to run. The project ran into early controversy after it was revealed that the name of the plastic used was Tyveck, which in Manx means 'outhouse'. The Australians also made a plastic note, but found that people missed bundling paper in their pockets.

There is more of a motive in replacing paper. The average note survives for only about nine months in circulation. The coin, on the other hand, can survive almost indefinitely. There are powerful interests behind the survival of the coin. The Mint, of course, is one. More than half its turnover comes from making coins for export. It supplies more than 100 countries. No nation seems to want anything but metal. And, despite criticism among UK experts, many want nothing more than their own version of the maligned British coins.

The government of Ghana was so impressed by the 50p that it insisted the Mint use the design as the basis for the cedi, which it did. There are more than 900 cedis to the pound sterling. Put another way, pounds 1 would buy you more than pounds 450-worth of lookalike 50p pieces. No one seems to have cashed in yet.

Those whom one might expect to be among the most vocal supporters of the coinage - the coin collectors - show surprisingly little interest in its survival. 'We have a client who buys coins from us and he always pays in cash,' said Mr Lobel. 'I asked him why and he said he likes cash because he feels it is more personal than anything else.' But, he adds, many others do not care. The vast volume of modern coins in circulation, and their ugliness, do not make for good or valuable collections.

Despite the lack of interest in the death of the florin, there are those who have faith that the historic British passion for the coinage is only dormant, and capable of revival.

Perhaps the threat of the ecu will do it. One 50p coin, which was issued by the Mint in June to commemorate the UK presidency of the EC, bore the motif of a conference table on one side. It has worried many of those who have seen it.

'The resistance to European monetary union shows that people have an attachment to their coinage,' said Mr Attwood. 'If the pound and penny weren't there, there might well be a psychological impact. Perhaps this is why there appears to be no politician ready to preside over the demise of the national currency.'

(Photographs omitted)