Monday July 27 2020
The archive at the Red House tells the story of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears: their lives together, their creative work and how they formed part of a wider creative circle. Like any archive, however, its content is broad and unpredictable: the story of a life is also the story of that person’s times, and social history will always elbow its way into the story. Britten, living from 1913 to 1976, saw a huge amount of social change: he was born into the age of the wind-up gramophone and died a few months after Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs had set up the Apple Computer Company. A wide range of events leave traces in Britten’s papers and one of the archive’s fascinations is to see his professional career intertwined with events in the wider world (for example, when he and Pears visit Shostakovitch in the USSR in 1965, Pears notes that the Russian is keen to visit England the next year in order to watch the football World Cup). One such event happened in the early weeks of 1971: the UK’s switch to decimal currency.
Discussions about swapping the UK’s system of pounds, shillings and pence (L.s.d.) for a decimal version had gone on for a long time, with Parliament first discussing it in 1824, but real movement began with the report of the Halsbury Committee in 1963. The Decimal Currency Act of 1969 made the change official. For Britten, however – as was probably the case for many people – the issue only seems to have become a live one in early 1971, when the changeover was imminent. The date of 15th February 1971 had been chosen for decimalisation, the early part of the year being seen as appropriate because it was the least busy economically (the Christmas bulge in purchasing had passed, and most people would not travel or holiday until the winter ended). In Britten’s financial receipts for early 1971, we see him responding to the coming change: his account with Aldeburgh Bookshop shows that on 7th January he bought what the bill describes as a “decimal table”, and on the 22nd a ready reckoner – both presumably to convert amounts in the old currency to the new, and vice versa.
Meanwhile, the businesses with whom Britten dealt were also getting ready for the change. On 31st January, Carter’s garage in Aldeburgh issued Britten a bill on which it was noted that the following month’s bill would be in the new, decimal currency with transactions in early February converted to the new form. His monthly bill from Aldeburgh Bookshop issued at the end of February sees transactions in L.s.d. throughout the first half of the month, then in pounds and new pence for the second half: a reminder of the work that businesses all had to do to keep things functioning during the changeover.
The switch was most challenging for banks: after they closed at the end of Wednesday 10th February, they did not reopen until Decimal Day on the following Monday, to allow all outstanding cheques and credits in the system to be processed, and for customers’ balances to be converted into decimal amounts: the vast majority of this work, in those days when computers were few and far between, being carried out manually. (It is a tribute to the efficiency with which this was carried out that the archive does not contain any indication that Britten had to question his bank or query any bill.)
In the early 1970s there was a lot on everybody’s mind, with decimalisation just one among many hurdles. One of Britten’s financial documents from early 1971 hammers this home, a list of expenses submitted by his assistant Rosamund Strode. The period covered is January – February 1971 and, as she notes, this includes some expenses that were charged in old money and some in new; she converts the former to decimal format in order to generate one single figure to claim. She notes that the majority of the expenses relate to travel to and from London, acting as a courier during a postal strike: the authentic note of the UK in the early 1970s. The railways at least were working, although in that period of power cuts, three-day week and general unrest it was probably only a matter of time before that ceased to be the case.
Decimalisation was not merely an administrative burden: for enterprising organisations it could be a source of publicity and income. In Britten’s 1971 receipts is a letter from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, asking him if he would make out his first cheque in the new currency to the Trust: he, and other celebrities, were asked to write the BTCV a cheque for one new penny, so that their signatures could be auctioned off in aid of the Trust. Annotations on the letter indicate that Britten did this: somewhere, presumably, his signature from the cheque survives in a private collection. These were, of course, the days before we were familiar with expressions such as phishing and identity theft: although presumably the purchaser would only receive Britten’s signature and not his complete bank details, the letter sees no need to spell out how his identity will be protected.
Another of Britten’s first recorded transactions in decimal currency, again on 15th February 1971, is a donation to an appeal launched by the Mayor of Aldeburgh. During the Second World War, Mrs Jane Knight-Hepburn had helped to rescue a soldier on Thorpeness Beach: this had entailed driving over a mine-field, for which she was awarded the George Medal, and the Mayor’s appeal was to help buy her medal for the town.
It’s pleasing that on the day of this important change that would affect everyone in the United Kingdom going forward, Britten ended up marking an earlier episode in the life of his town, and an illustration of how the seemingly mundane financial receipts that he and Pears kept in case they were audited end up illustrating all sorts of aspects of their lives and of the town they lived in.
Through all of this, the composer’s work went on, and the Aldeburgh Bookshop bill that covers the decimalisation day makes this clear. On the day after the currency change, 16th February 1971, Britten spent 20 new pence buying a copy of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice. Next month’s bill shows him buying Thomas Mann’s letters. The wheels are beginning to turn and the process starting that would result, two years later, in Britten’s last opera: another illustration of how the seemingly mundane files of receipts in the archive show traces both of Britten’s working life and the wider social developments around him.