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The Tradesmen's Farthing Tokens of Britain

Traders' tokens formed an illegal "money of necessity," and were issued in England, Wales, and Ireland in the seventeenth century. They were the small change of the period, and were extremely useful to the people who issued and used them. They would never have been issued but for the indifference of a Government to a public need, and their issue forms a remarkable instance of a people supplying their own needs by an illegal issue of coinage, and in this way forcing a legislature to comply with demands and requests at once just and imperative.


The first major coinage of tokens was that which occurred in the 17th Century

Tokens are essentially democratic; they were issued by the people, and it is of the people that they speak. They record, with few exceptions, the names of no monarchs; they speak of no wars or events of great Parliamentary importance; they were not issued by Governments or Cabinets, nor by Peers or Members of Parliament, but by the unknown and small traders of well-nigh every village and town in the country, and by officials such as Mayors, Portreeves, Chamberlains, Overseers, and Churchwardens in boroughs, villages, and districts, as well as in larger towns, parishes, and hundreds. The reason of their issue was to supply a public need, and when that need had been recognised by the Government and steps taken to supply it, the issue of tokens ceased, and they passed from the exchange of the shop and the market into the cabinets of the numismatist. The issue commenced in 1648 and only extended to 1679, so that the entire series forms one very short chapter of thirty years in the history of that most troublous of times in our country's history, that immediately following the execution of King Charles I. The want of small change had, however, been seriously felt in England for a long time preceding their issue. It had been considered beneath the dignity of the sovereign to issue coins of any metal baser than silver, and owing to the increased value of silver the unit of currency had become more and more minute in size and consequently inconvenient for use. The counters struck at Nurnberg became current for reckoning in England about 1328, but were forbidden currency by statute in 1335. In 1404 the first mention of tokens that is known occurred (as was pointed out by Dr. Evans) in a petition from the Commons to the King to make some remedy in the mischief among poor people occasioned by the want of small coinage and by their use of foreign money and tokens of lead. These lead tokens were issued in great abundance; they are referred to by Erasmus as of common currency, but it is very seldom they bear the name of either issuer or place of issue. Elizabeth issued patterns for a regal coinage in copper, but the matter went no further, and no current coins appear ever to have been issued by the Queen in the baser metals. Her Majesty, however, did grant permission to the city of Bristol to strike tokens to be current in that city and ten miles around. The date of the license is not exactly known, but it must have been towards the close of the sixteenth century, for on May 12, 1594, the Mayor and Aldermen were required to call in all the private tokens (presumably of lead) that had been issued without authority, and it was ordered that none that had been issued without license from the Mayor should be current in the city. These Elizabethan tokens bear on the obverse C.B. (Civitas Bristol), and on the reverse the city arms, and are very rude in their execution. The license appears to have continued to apply to that city, as in the seventeenth century but one private person in Bristol issued his token; the city continuing to issue tokens year by year of similar character and style and with similar device to those issued by license of the Queen.

A copper coinage was contemplated by the Commonwealth Government, and patterns were struck both in copper and pewter, but no authorized issue of them ever took place, and beyond the royal tokens, known as Harringtons, and referred to later on, no attempt was made to supply the great national want of the period. Extracts from the State papers of the time show us that the subject was often considered in the Councils of State, as, for instance:

1649, May 30.--Council of State. The business of farthing tokens is to be considered to-morrow.

1650, Aug. 9.--A decision arrived at. Farthings ought to be issued. They should be struck by the Mint and be of full value.

1651, Aug. 10.--A lengthy report was presented to the Council of State by Thomas Voilet, from which it may suffice here to make a few extracts. [See the full document here.] The report commences by stating that money is the public means to set a price upon all things between man and man, and experience hath sufficiently proved in all ages that small money is so needful to the poorer sort that all nations have endeavoured to have it. It continues to recommend small pieces as ministering of frugality, whereupon men can have a farthing's worth and are not constrained to buy more of anything than they stand in need of, their feeding being from hand to mouth; it recommends it on the ground of charity, saying that many are deprived of alms for want of farthings and half-farthings, for many would give a farthing who are not disposed to give a penny or twopence, or to lose time in staying to change money whereby they may contract a noisome smell or the disease of the poor.

It then refers to the imperial money of Rome constantly being ploughed up in men's grounds, and to the copper money of the Continent, especially Sweden, and goes into some elaborate details of great interest as to the profit to be derived by the Government from making such farthings of tin and copper, and as to the appointment of special treasurers and officers to see to this new issue.

In 1652 a further discussion as to the engines for minting metal took place, and then constant references [see Calendar of State Papers] occur as to the issue of tradesmen's tokens and corporation pieces, complaints against the issues and proposals to stop the issue; but nothing was finally done until 1672, when a Royal proclamation was issued for making current his Majesty's farthings and halfpence of copper, and forbidding of all others to be used. [A further proclmation was made on 05 December 1674 enjoining the prosecution of those continuing to issue coins of base metal having a private stamp on it.]

This proclamation was universally obeyed throughout England, Scotland, and Wales, except (as far as can be found out) in the city of Chester, which continued to issue its tokens until 1674, a course which resulted in legal proceedings being taken against the city by the Crown. The issuers petitioned Sir William Williams, the then member and Speaker of the House of Commons, who interceded with the law officers of the Crown, and proceedings were stayed on condition of the offenders complying with the provisions of the Act. [Heywood's "Tokens of Cheshire," p. 66.] The same state of affairs appears to have also existed in Norfolk, and the city of Norwich petitioned the Crown, and a pardon was granted and the tokens were then called in by public bellman.

The issue of tokens in Ireland continued until 1679. They were struck in copper, brass, and bronze, and occasionally in lead, but the majority are in copper, and were issued of three denominations--penny, halfpenny, and farthing. They are generally circular, but some of them are square, heart-shaped, diamond-shaped, and octagonal, and this is more often the case with those issued by corporations and towns. The execution of them is frequently pleasing in character and style, but is never of any exceptional artistic merit. The engravers for the mints, especially Rawlins, who under the Commonwealth fell into great poverty, and from having designed the regal coins and seals was glad to be employed upon these tokens, are in some instances the authors of the designs, and these are then distinguished by the initial of the artist's name. In many cases it would appear that local artists were employed, and that they travelled on from town to town, something in the manner of the ancient Anglo-Saxon moneyers, designing tokens for the various villages and towns through which they passed. There is a similarity of design, both in style, lettering, and device, and a correspondence of mintmarks in the tokens of many adjacent places, which appears to point to some such manner of working, and in many towns the dies are still preserved, and traditions of the place of mintage. Many were, however, struck in London, and consequently names of both issuers and places incorrectly spelt. Taken as a whole series they are homely and quaint, wanting in beauty, but not without a curious domestic art of their own, and the inscriptions and devices upon them throw some interesting side-lights upon the folk-lore, manners, habits, and customs of that period of thirty years.


There were two further "outbreaks" of token coinages. The first of these was in the latter part of the 18th Century. The official copper coins in circulation had become very worn and were not being replaced with official pieces, the last of which were struck in 1775. Furthermore, counterfeit pieces were rampant. In 1787 the Anglesey Copper Mining Company began striking tokens which were necessary for trade, and others soon followed suit. Most companies in most towns struck them and the 18th Century Tokens began to be traded in widespread fashion. They were made illegal when the new copper coinage of 1797 was issued. However, not long after, in 1811, there was once again a need for small change and, as there were no official copper coins struck after 1807, the 19th Century Tokens began to emerge. So great was the need for coins that silver pieces were struck also, and the Bank of England also issued silver tokens. These coins were made illegal when the new coinage of 1816 took place.

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