17th century tokens


Until 1672, all of the coinage issued by the Crown in England was of gold and silver. By law, the face value of the coin corresponded to its precious metal content, which meant that the lower denominations, if they were not to be of more than their face value, had to be exceedingly small and were easily lost. The cost of striking them was scarcely less than that of the large pieces so that it was in the interests of the Mint to issue as little small change as possible, and the lowest denomination remained the halfpenny.

The lack of small change for daily use caused difficulties, particularly for the poor, which had resulted in lead tokens and jettons - reckoning counters - being used as a sort of small change with a limited local circulation. James I had realised the advantages of a copper coinage and in 1613 had granted a patent to Lord Harrington for the issue of farthing tokens of copper. Similar patents were issued in the reign of Charles I but abuse by the patentees and the small size of the Harrington farthings, which led to them being easily forged, drove desperate traders to issue their own tokens. From 1648, Corporations, tradesmen and occasionally private persons, all issued tokens.

These 17th century tokens were usually circular, worth a halfpenny or a farthing and made of copper or brass. They were minted by the issuers or more commonly by professional token-makers, who operated in London or travelled the country. The normal type contains an inscription continued from obverse to reverse, of which the following is an example: IOHN.CLEER.OF.WINCHESTER GROCER.HIS.HALF.PENY. The design on the obverse takes various forms. Sometimes it is the arms of the company, such as the Grocers' or Tallowchandlers', to which the issuer belonged, or the product of his trade, or the arms of the city or town corporation. When a sufficient number of tokens had been collected by a tradesman they were returned to the issuer and exchanged for silver or notes.

The interest of 17th century tokens to the historian lies in the information they provide on people's occupations and customs and on their local authorities and trades guilds. Tokens continued to be the small change of the country till a regal copper coinage was started under Charles II in 1672 when the Royal Proclamation, announcing the new currency, forbade their use.