14th December 2014. Yes, we went to the monthly Coin & Banknote & Small Antiquities Fair at the National Motorcycle Museum this morning. It had been quite a while since our last visit, and, interesting as they are, we had already acquired enough enough cheap, worn coins for the time being. But, it was a nice sunny morning, so what the heck. Vintage banknotes don’t mean a lot to me, and Small Antiquities are all very well, but are usually quite expensive, and I really daren’t get interested in anything else at my time of life. So we looked for something else, and behold! There was a copper token issued in Birmingham, my home city, in 1812, by the Birmingham and Sheffield Copper company. It wasn’t in very good condition as coins & tokens go, so it was quite cheap – £2 I think. So what were they for? Well of course, I already knew what tokens are for; even I take my car through the car-wash about once a year. What I meant, was: why were they issued? Within half an hour I had found four more, all relative to Birmingham.
By the way, if any numismatist or tokenologist happens to see this page, I apologise for getting the obverses and reverses jumbled up, which I surely have. But they are not as obvious as having, say, Napoleon III on the front, and the Imperial Eagle on the back, as on his coins. There’s obviously a long-standing convention of which is the front & back of a coin; I just don’t know what it is.
Anyway, the thing was, they were all dated 1811 or 1812. What was going on at that time? The 1792-1815 French/Napoleonic Wars of course, not to mention a little fracas with the United States of America. Google soon explained everything. If I’ve got it right, it’s something like this.
It boils down to the fact that we did not have enough low-denomination coinage in this country. In fact, there had been a chronic shortage of low-denomination coinage for a very long time – well over a hundred years, and probably several centuries. Therefore, tokens – de facto unofficial coins – had come into existence, produced by various groups of people, to fill the gap. Of course, minting coins had almost always been a Royal or Government prerogative, so ‘coins’ produced willy-nilly by other bodies, were very irritating to the power-that-be.
However, the population of the country was rising steeply, and (you will not be surprised to read this) there was an ever-growing disparity between the relatively small number of rich people, and the ever-increasing multitude of poor workers. It was the latter who desperately needed coins of small denomination to buy the frugal quantities of stuff they needed in order to survive. But the Royal Mint had always concentrated on coinage in silver and gold.
Still, as early as 1672, King Charles II had attempted to provide small value copper coins, but these proved to be ‘not worth the paper they were printed on’, to borrow a phrase. This was because it had always, always, ever since coins came into existence, been the case that a coin had to be worth the monetary value ascribed to it. But Charles II’s copper halfpennies did not contain a halfpenny’s worth of copper; and his farthings (a quarter of a penny) did not contain a farthing’s worth of copper. So they were, ipso facto, merely tokens. People didn’t like them one little bit. So more substantial, independently-produced tokens continued to flourish. To cut a long story short, we leap ahead to 1797…
In that year, King George III caused new pennies and twopenny pieces to be made to intrinsic value. That is, the copper in the coins was actually worth one penny, or two pence. Incidentally, they were made by the Matthew Boulton factory here in Birmingham, with pioneering steam-powered presses, in an early example of mass-production. Because they were actually ‘worth their weight in copper’ they were quite substantial.
The ‘Cartwheel’ two pence of 1797. 41mm diameter, 55.6 grams.
The new penny weighed one ounce (= 28.4g), and the twopenny piece was two ounces. This, in 1797, was actually what one ounce (or two ounces) of copper actually cost. So everything was all right again. The copper coin was actually worth its weight in copper. Hooray! True, the twopenny piece was quite large & rather unwieldy, so the public (ever a source of satire) called them ‘cartwheels’, though we assume they were grateful enough for some trustworthy lower-denomination coins?
Alas, the path of calm, stability and rectitude did not last very long. As remarked above, we had been at War with France (yet again) since 1792. One assumes a lot of copper was required, along with tin, to make bronze, because cannon guns were cast from bronze, and very many of them were needed for the war. Upshot was, that copper kept going up in price. Almost immediately, the superb state-of-the-art 1797 coinage was actually worth more than its face value!
What could be done? Well, one thing was to adjust the weight of the coins to reflect the new value of copper. So they were made lighter, while still retaining their face value. Now this is really the point at which this page should end, because I am getting way out of my depth. However, fools rush in… 8^)
Above is a halfpenny of 1799, issued under the new ‘intrinsic’ regime, bought today for £3, because it’s rather battered & somebody has cleaned one side of it, so it’s numismatically pretty well a write-off, but it serves our purpose well enough. It weighs 11.8 grams. Based on a 1797 penny, it should weigh half an ounce, or 14.2g. So perhaps the value of copper increased by around 17% in a couple of years?
And by 1806, when we have a penny (and a farthing) to hand from today’s expedition, we get:
The farthing (a quarter of a penny) weighs 4.5g.
And the penny weighs 17.9g, four times the weight of the farthing, as expected. However, this 17.9g penny has decreased in weight by 37% from the 1797 figure of 28.4g. So copper has increased in price by no less than 58% in 9 years.
As the Napoleonic Wars did not end for another nine years, the conclusion is inescapable: the low-denomination copper currency of Britain fell into disarray, so once again, tokens made their appearance, all of a sudden, in 1811/12. They are well catalogued on line, naturally; but it has been very enjoyable to do a little research into the few cheap coins and tokens we brought back from the Coin Fair. I don’t say we have got it quite right; but if you read this and it inspires you to have a look around on line yourself, I hope you will get as much entertainment from it as I have done.
Incidentally, the 5 one penny tokens illustrated at the top of the page weigh between 23.9g and 28.4g, so it’s quite clear they were generally intended to refer back to the original 1797 coin issue. Naturally, tokens were issued in other values too, especially half-pence. However, some were of higher value, and the Birmingham Workhouse actually issued a copper coin of the same design, but with a value of SIX pence – therefore it would have weighed about 166g, well over a quarter of a pound, and correspondingly large in diameter.
Page written 14th December 2014.