Christopher Ironside
Christopher Ironside

A family have been recalling how their relative won a competition to design the coins which spearheaded the change to decimalisation in Britain 50 years ago.

In 1971 the UK changed to decimal coins. It was out with the old and in with the new as Britain played catch-up with other countries.

However, the preparation started much earlier than that and in 1962, my grandfather Christopher Ironside received a phone call.

At the time he taught life drawing at the Royal College of Art and my grandmother was pregnant with my mum.

Christopher Ironside with his wife, Jean Ironside
Christopher Ironside with his wife, Jean Ironside

He had been chosen out of a handful of artists to enter a competition to provide designs for the reverses of the new coins and after the phone call he went to work.

From 1962-68 he worked in secret, forbidden to talk to anyone about it. Instructions were only given over the phone and large cloths were placed over his desk whenever friends visited.

After winning the competition, Ironside was asked to go to the Royal Mint. Yet instead of being congratulated, he was greeted with a strong gin and tonic. Ironside was told that the government was announcing the decision to go decimal but was insisting that it should be an open competition. So he had not won after all.

After a disheartening couple of days, Ironside decided he was going to enter this new competition and he would do it anonymously.

AUDIO: Kate Ironside, daughter of Christopher Ironside, talks about how the coins nearly did not come into circulation

The designs took over my grandparents’ lives. For the design of Britannia on the 50p coin, my grandmother was used as the model. My grandfather would ask her to sit in whatever chair was nearest, holding a ruler to replicate Britannia’s trident.

His hard work paid off and his new designs were chosen.

For decades his designs and sketches were kept under my grandparents’ bed until my brother, cousins and I came along. We would always jump on their bed which got my grandmother a little bit concerned about the designs’ safety. She later donated his work to the British Museum, which we were able to see when I was younger.

In 2008, Matthew Dent’s designs replaced my grandfather’s, although his coins are still in circulation.

My grandfather said: “The work of a great many artists who are geniuses is never recognised and probably eventually disappears. But if one is a coin designer, one’s work lasts possibly long after death, everyone becomes familiar with it and it forms a small part of the history of the country for which it was designed, and one becomes famous. Not because one is a genius, or a saint or a monster, but simply because one is a coin designer.”