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Remarkable Collection of 18th Century Political Tokens

We’re set to host a captivating auction on the 11th of October 2023, featuring a rare and exceptional collection of late eighteenth-century token halfpennies. These tokens are a fascinating window into the political upheavals that swept across Britain during a tumultuous period, marked by the loss of its North American colonies and conflict with republican France.

In the 1790s there was a dire shortage of small copper change which caused great difficulties in the small transactions of everyday life. With the average workers’ wage of around 8 or 9 shillings a week, how were wages to be paid, food and provisions bought, change given and importantly, largess to the poor be given? The answer to this problem was solved by an Anglesey copper mine that turned the copper it mined straight into coin – not by copying the regal issues, which carried the death penalty for counterfeiting, but by making its own coins – the same official weight but calling them ‘tokens’ that were redeemable in coin of the realm by the issuer.  The idea caught on and throughout the 1790s merchants and shopkeepers throughout Britain were having pennies and halfpennies made, calling them tokens or promissory change – to the extent that in this decade the coppers one might have had in one’s pocket would all have been these privately issued coins – the varieties of which numbered in their thousands, but each more or less the correct weight.

Very soon the advertising potential of the circulating coin was realised by the issuers and almost every trade was represented and every British town had several shopkeepers issuing their own coins – London had hundreds !

Thomas Spence, a schoolmaster from Newcastle had moved to London in 1792 where a couple of years later he set up a bookshop in at 9, Little Turnstile Lane, Holborn called the ‘Hive of Liberty’. He was a radical and became an active member of the Corresponding Society which agitated for ‘democratic reform’ of the British Parliament. Prime-minister Pitt saw all this as an instrument of French revolutionary subversion, and members of the group were arrested and Spence, although never found guilty of sedition, spent three short sojourns in Newgate Gaol!  Spence, recognising the propaganda potential of the circulating coin, had made a great number of token halfpennies, representing his social and political philosophy, which he sold at his shop. He produced a great variety of tokens and they could be ordered, struck from any combination of dies – it is recorded that visitors to his shop reported seeing thousands of tokens lying around in heaps !

Spence issued a whole series of halfpennies showing his portrait with prison sentence on one side and political themes on the reverse – He was vehemently opposed the ownership of land and promoted its ‘nationalisation’ – there is a marvellous reverse of two men dancing around a large bonfire which is made up of  blazing land deeds with the legend ‘The End of Oppression’, or another showing an American Indian standing, forlornly saying ‘If rents I once consent to pay, my liberty is passed away’. Or another showing an ass heavily loaded with large paniers labelled RENTS and TAXES with the legend I was an ass to bear the first pair’.   

He was also concerned with the freedom of speech and the individual – probably especially sharpened due to his brushes with the law. He produced a marvellous image of a Free Borne Englishman – a man standing in shackles with a padlock through his mouth, or another with a civilian being press-ganged into the navy by a sailor wielding a club with the legend ‘British Liberty Displayed’. A particularly pretty piece likens the average British citizen to a fawning Spaniel dog with the legend ‘Much Gratitude brings Servitude’. 

He was particularly pro the egalitarian aspects of the French and American revolutions and one token he produced shows a (French) Cockerel crowing over a (British) lion with the legend ‘Let Tyrants Tremble at the Crow of Liberty’. Or another showing an emaciated man in gaol, shackled and gnawing on a bone with the legend ‘Before the Revolution’. Or another titled ‘After the Revolution’ with a man sitting eating a full meal under the ‘Tree of Liberty’ and nearby three men dancing a jig !

Spence was arrested on the charge of High Treason and it is very likely for this piece he produced – showing the head of George III conjoined with that of an ass, titled ‘A Million Hog, A Guinea Pig, ODD FELLOWS , Certainly, he hated prime minister Pitt and produced a satirical farthing showing Pitt in janiform, one side as the devil with horns and the other side smugly leering titled ‘EVENFELLOWS – or another also in janiform showing Pitt weeping and Fox (his Liberal opponent) laughing – ODD FELLOWS, Quis Rides ?                                                                                                                                                            

These are just a few of the political tokens Spence produced and then in 1796/7, on the brink of bankruptcy and only after a couple of years or so of selling all these political tokens, he sold the dies to John Skidmore, a token manufacture and seller close by on High Holborn, who then continued to produce yet further combinations of the series for sale to the public.  Skidmore also produced political tokens for ‘the other side’ politically speaking and there is a particularly quaint token showing an overweight Englishman tucking into a plate of ribs with a plum pudding to follow and a mug of ale – whilst on the other side is a Frenchman gnawing on some frogs’ legs with a guillotine just behind him, titled ‘English Slavery’ and ‘French Liberty’  !

Although Spence produced by far the majority of political tokens at this time there were other views. William Mainwaring, a Birmingham button maker, produced a marvellously satirical and anti French token in 1794 – on the one side is the legend ‘MAY GREAT BRITAIN EVER REMAIN THE REVERSE and on the other side is a map of France surrounded by daggers, with fire in all corners, Fra-ance divided, ‘Honor’ trodden under foot, the throne upside down, religion divided, glory scored out and blood stains all over ! 

Lastly, there is one token in this collection which has particular interest and poignancy. This halfpenny, featuring a shackled African slave, was made for one of the early anti-slavery groups who again, realising the importance of the circulating coin, chose to use it in their efforts to have slavery abolished. The leading protagonist in Parliament was William Wilberforce and as a Member of Parliament and a friend of William Pitt he pushed for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. In 1787 he joined in setting up in London a committee for the ‘Abolition of the Slave Trade in the West Indies’ which exposed to the House of Commons the horrors and evil of this activity.  Early anti-slavery groups (we do not know who) in the late 1790s issued this copper token halfpenny to spread far and wide their message of the equality of man. ‘Am I not a man and a brother’.

All these token pence struck in the 1790s give a marvellous glimpse as to what was going on politically in the 1790s when Britain was at war with France. The Patrick Deane Collection will provide a fantastic opportunity to buy some of these 18th. c. halfpennies which are mostly in mint condition and were last sold in auction at the beginning of the last century. To view these halfpence please go to – if only to see the stunning variety of satirical political expression , the equivalent in copper of George Cruikshank’s work on paper !

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