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Early British Tokens

By Mike Grogan    |   Tuesday, 27 February 2001

Early British tokens are a fascinating corner of numismatics. Issued at four distinct times over three centuries, they answered a desperate need for small change among the working classes and rural population as the Industrial Revolution developed. The tokens illustrate life in these times, as lived by the vast majority of people in Great Britian. This article will introduce the tokens [...] offer dealer recommendations [...] and books for further study.

17th Century Tokens

Seventeenth century tokens were in use from about 1648 to 1672. They are usually copper or brass farthings and show the name of the merchant or town issuing them. The tokens relieved a need for small change in everyday transactions among the working class and rural citizens. The tokens are often crudely made but have a primitive charm about them. There are hundreds of varieties.

The standard reference is Trade Tokens Issued in the Seventeenth Century by Boyne, edited by Williamson. This book is expensive and hard to find [...] out of print, but much easier to find are 2 excellent basic books by Seaby, British Tokens and Their Values and/or British Copper Coins and Their Values Part. 2.

18th Century Evasion Tokens

Evasion tokens were in use from about 1771, most were made between 1795 and 1798 (According to Cobwright). Again small change was desperately needed for everyday transactions and human ingenuity is always prepared to meet a need – at a profit! Counterfeitting was practiced but strictly illegal and harshly punished. An alternative was the Evasion series of tokens, also called Imitation Regal Coinage. These were light weight copies of genuine coins but with nonsense legends like GEORGE RULES, BRUTUS SEXTUS, or CLAUDIUS ROMANUS on the obverse and BONNI FACE, BRITISH TARS, or BRITIANS ISLES on the reverse. This evaded the counterfeitting laws and, since most people were illiterate the tokens circulated freely. It was estimated at the time that travelling the toll roads one could expect that 2/3 of coins received in change to be counterfeit! The Evasion tokens were often made with shallow dies so they would appear accepted in circulation. Hundreds of varieties exist.

The standard references for these are The Tradesmen's Tokens of the 18th Century by Atkins and Evasives 1993 by Cobwright. Both are hard to find. The Seaby books listed on my 17th Century page are useful for this series. A most knowledgeable dealer for these, and British tokens in general, is Bill McKivor.

Contemporary Counterfeits

Whether or not you consider these to be tokens depends on definitions, but they are so frequently encountered in the world of 18th century copper that a brief mention seems appropriate.

The shortage of genuine halfpence was so severe that the Royal coinage was widely counterfeited, despite serious penaltys for anyone caught. Prior to 1771 counterfeitting copper was a misdemeanor, and those caught were chastised with exemplary severity, meaning whipped. In 1771 counterfeitting copper became a felony punishable by up to 2 years in prison – and in some jails of the time that could be a death sentence. These coins/tokens had the same designs and legends as official coins but were thin, lightweight and crudely executed. Often very shallow dies were used to make them appear well accepted in circulation. Many are dated with years in which no Royal halfpence were struck. Struck in both Britian and the American colonies, these illustrate once again the desperate shortage of small change in these times.

18th Century Condor Tokens

Royal copper coinage was issued sporadically and grudgingly from 1672 to 1775, when it stopped altogether. Copper prices were rising and the monarchs thought copper an unworthy metal to display their image. Evasion tokens circulated freely but did not meet the increasing need for copper coins to pay wages and make change as the Industrial Revolution accelerated.

The Parys Mine Company in Anglesea, Wales found their own solution. In 1787 the company began to use their own abundant copper supply to issue handsome full weight Druid tokens that were eagerly accepted by the local population. This idea was quickly adopted by other industrialists like John Wilkinson and Charles Roe and a new series of British tokens was thriving. Soon towns, merchants, political organizations, and wealthy individuals were issuing tokens – usually copper halfpennies, pennies, and farthings – to meet an ever increasing demand that would last until the next Royal coinages of 1797 and 1799.

The tokens are named for James Conder, an eighteenth century cataloger who also issued tokens to advertise his drapery business in Ipswich – thus we have Conder's Conders. The tokens were made in thousands of varieties and designs are often intricate and beautiful.

19th Century Silver

As wages and prices rose during the Industrial Revolution, small silver coins became scarce. The last major Royal issue was in 1758 and countermarked Spanish dollars and Bank of England tokens could not meet the increasing need for small silver coins. Private banks, factory owners, private traders and workhouses began issuing 6 pence and shilling tokens in 1811 – at a profit. An average shilling token might contain 10 pence worth of silver at a face value of 12 pence. They were declared illegal in 1813, sending many issuers into bankruptcy as their tokens were presented for redemption. These tokens are all scarce to rare and are often found harshly cleaned or heavily tarnished.

The Seaby books listed on my 17th century page are useful for this series also. The standard reference is The Silver Token Coinage 1811-1812 by Dalton. It is out of print but an excellent book. Tokens of Those Trying Times by Mays is in print and includes the Dalton book as an appendix!

19th Copper Tokens

Royal issues of copper coin in 1797, 1799, 1806 and 1807 drove the earlier tokens out of circulation but due to rising metal prices, no more official copper coins would be produced until 1821. Predictably, penny and halfpenny tokens were issued again in large quantities from about 1811-1815. These tokens exist in hundreds of varieties. The designs are very machine age and illustrate the mechanics of the Industrial Revolution.

he Seaby books listed on my 17th Century page are again useful for this series. A new standard reference has just been published and is readily available – British Copper Tokens 1811-1820 by Withers.

19th Century Unofficial Farthings

Tradesmen's tokens were declared illegal by the British government in 1818, but recurring shortages of regal copper coins, especially farthings, caused their reappearance under the guise of advertising tickets (the British term for advertising tokens or storecards). Actually, some Scottish and Irish merchants openly defied the law by placing the word FARTHING on their tokens – a practice that was emulated by many English merchants, as it became evident that the British government did not intend to enforce its statute.

These copper or brass tokens were issued in great variety and abundance by merchants throughout the British Isles between 1820 and about 1870, at which time they were no longer needed, because of the increased production of copper coins by the regal mint. The tokens in this series have been designated as unofficial farthings by the British catalogers. They are the size of US small cents, and are as varied and interesting as their contemporaries across the great pond – the US Civil War tokens.

The standard references for this series are Unofficial Farthings 1820-1870, by R.C. Bell (out of print).

19th Century Private Tokens

Prominent collectors and dealers began a tradition of producing high quality tokens for sale, advertising, or as gifts to friends or business associates. This tradition began during the late 18th century and continued into the 20th century. These tokens are rare, but not widely collected. The closest to a standard reference is Tickets and Passes by Davis and Waters, out of print, but a 1974 reprint can be found with a bit of looking.

Dedicated to the memory of Michael Glenn Grogan 1947-2012.

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