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The Copper, Tin, and Broze Coinage of England
H Montagu, F.S.A, , 1893


The subject of the coinage of copper, tin and bronze pieces of this realm is fraught with interest and instruction. The earliest recorded coins are those struck in copper and tin by the Ancient Britons both before and after the arrival of Caesar. During the occupation by the Romans the Imperial Roman coins were current, and many of these were in later times struck in Britain, and both Carausius and Allectus, who may be described as British Emperors, issued a very considerable number of types of third brass Roman coins during their tenure of imperial power. After the departure of the Romans, the earlier kings of Northumberland, commencing with Ecgfrith, Aldfrid and Eadbert, and ending with Redulf and Osbercht, coined copper stycas, the material for may of which was produced by melting the Roman brass and billon coins. Eanbald, Vigmund and Wulfhere, Archbishops of York from A.D. 796 to A.D 895, issued similar stycas. After this period copper coins were wholly supplanted by silver pennies, to which were added in course of time silver halfpennies and farthings. The earlier pennies were often cut into halves or quarters, to represent halfpennies and farthings, for the convenience of small change. The silver or base silver coinage of smaller pieces continued until the early part of the reign of Charles II., and it was not till the year 1672 that any substantial step was taken towards a thorough reform of the coinage in the inferior metals, and towards putting matters in that respect into something like the satisfactory position which they now occupy.

There is no doubt that, in the reigns of Henry VII. and Henry VIII., and especially in that of Elizabeth, the inconvenience caused by the scarcity of small coins and the risk of loss of the very minute pieces struck in silver (or in some cases what was pretended to be silver), created a serious demand for a legitimate issue of such a currency as would satisfy the wants of the trading classes. Tokens of lead, latten and other base material, were issued by shopkeepers and tradespeople as a means of temporary convenience, but, naturally, to the great detriment ultimately of the general public. For some time previously also the people had made use of base continental coins, introduced into England by the foreign traders, the circulation of which many enactments passed for that purpose, had failed to restrain. Elizabeth had sanctioned the issue of base silver and afterwards of copper coins for Ireland, but hesitated to authorize a copper coinage for England. Patterns, however, are in existence which prove that in 1601 she had at last seen the necessity for some definite arrangement being made in that direction.

James I., as might have been expected, only seriously dealt with the matter when he found that a large profit to himself could be derived from the transaction; and the Harrington tokens issued in his reign, and afterwards imitated in the reign of his son and successor, are a standing reproach to all concerned. During the reigns of Charles I. and Charles II. numerous patters were struck and many projects discussed, with the view to the adoption of a general coinage of copper or tin for the benefit of trade and the poorer classes. The Harrington and other tokens had, owing to the immense difference between their nominal and intrinsic values, become the subject of most extensive forgeries. The manipulations of the patentees, and the half-heartedness and greed of the authorities, had rendered abortive any plan for the prevention of abuses in connection with these tokens. Town tokens and private tradesmen's tokens (now commonly called seventeenth century tokens) were issued and circulated in almost every petty town and village throughout the kingdom, to the great ultimate loss of all but the original issuers, and were, after several futile proclamations, only put down by more strict enactments in the reign of Charles II. James II. coined halfpennies and farthing in tin only for England, as did also William III. and Mary, during the first few years of their joint reign. In 1694, however, a better state of things was contemplated, and subsequently carried into effect, and thenceforth our inferior coins have been struck in copper or bronze. After the death of Mary the coinage was confided again to the care of patentees, who in the reign of William III., in order to increase their profits, appear to have cast instead of striking the copper pieces. In the reign of Anne no halfpennies were coined, though patterns both of these and of several farthings exist. Most of these were struck some years after the queen's death from dies prepared in her lifetime. The only coin which may have possibly been issued for circulation was the ordinary farthing of 1714.

George I. and George II. put matters upon a somewhat more satisfactory footing, and in the former reign, at all events, pure copper was used, and forgeries must have been very infrequent. In the latter, forgeries were again very rife, and many petitions to the King in Council were presented on the subject, amongst other remedies the one most advocated being the lowering of the denomination of the current coins, so as to assimilate as much as possible the nominal with the intrinsic value. In the reign of George III. the question of the copper coinage was the subject of more consideration than had previously been the case, and the numerous patterns issued show at once the industry and the talent of the engravers employed, amongst whom Droz, Pingo and Küchler stand foremost. It had always apparently been considered by the reigning sovereigns that the coinage in the inferior metals was a subject beneath their dignity, and George III. formed no exception to this rule. Most of the pieces occurring in his reign were struck at the Soho Mint, Birmingham, where Matthew Boulton, and afterwards his firm, Boulton & Watt, carried on a lucrative business. In this reign, also, first appeared copper pennies, and also a limited coinage of twopences in 1797. The latter, after some time, were found to be too heavy and cumbersome for use, and their coinage was discontinued after that year.

Towards the end of the last century the scarcity of ordinary current pieces caused the re-appearance of tradesmen's tokens in countless varieties. These were, however, most often of the weight and value of the current pieces, and created no further damage than that which must of necessity arise when the economical laws of currency are neglected. The kingdom swarmed with these tokens, and they were finally only overcome by the great coinages of 1806 and 1807.

The copper pennies, halfpennies and farthings of George IV., William IV. and of the earlier part of the reign of Victoria, the dies for which were engraved by that eminent artist William Wyon, left nothing to be desired. The workmanship was good, the metal excellent, and there were no complaints of any kind, and few or no forgeries.

In 1860 the present bronze coinage was initiated, the engraver employed being Mr. Leonard Charles Wyon; and this coinage has continued without interruption to the present day. The composition of the bronze is 95 of copper, 4 of tin and 1 of zinc, and the substitution of this for pure copper was recommended for the purpose of ensuring lighter weight, more durability and greater freedom from unpleasant odour. This step was not taken without very great consideration, as is evidenced by the numerous patterns struck at the Mint in 1857, 1859 and 1860.

Owing to the amount of work required to be done throughout the year at the Royal Mint, it has, in the past, been found utterly impossible to coin there all the bronze pieces which the requirements of the day have from time to time rendered necessary to be issued. Under such circumstances, the coinage of these has been at times confided under contracts to the care of Messrs. Boulton & Wattt and of Messrs. Ralph Heaton & Sons, of Birmingham, the productions of the latter firm being marked with a small H under the date on the reverse. Differing in this respect from the former practice, all coinages now executed by private firms are strictly supervised and controlled by the Royal Mint authorities, and all abuses are thereby avoided. A careful perusal of the Mint Reports, which are now annually issued, will show that much care is observed in connection with every detail of the coinage under the provisions of the Coinage Act, 1870, and the control of the Treasury. With the safeguards thus provided there need be no apprehension as to the future of our coinage so far as quality of material is concerned; and it is to be hoped that more attention may in like manner be devoted to the question of artistic design, a subject which of late years has been all but entirely neglected by Her Majesty's advisers. Whether or not the decimal system will sooner or later adopted in this kingdom is a matter of speculation; but, having regard to the fact that until recently very large numbers of French pieces of 10 centimes and Italian pieces of 10 centesimi for some little time passed current in this country as pennies, to the loss of the ultimate owners, and that the tendency of all modern improvements is towards universal interchangeability, it may be predicted that the time is not very far distant when some step in that direction will be taken by our authorities in connection, let us hope, not only without bronze coins, but also with those struck in the more precious metals.

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