Featured George III's Numismatic Menagerie (Part I)

Discussion in 'World Coins' started by John Conduitt, Sep 2, 2020.

  1. John Conduitt

    John Conduitt Well-Known Member

    Georgian London was an exciting place to be. The enlightenment was in full swing. There was a coffee shop on every street full of political ferment. The King was insane. True, there was no revolution like in Paris or America, but if you walked down the Strand one afternoon in the late 1700s you’d hear the roar of lions. You were passing Gilbert Pidcock's Exeter Exchange, home to a menagerie of exotic animals. You knew it wasn’t the Talbot Inn, also in the Strand, because they kept only camels.

    In many such places Londoners could find (and even pet) tigers, rhinos, monkeys, parrots, elephants, hyenas, kangaroos, porcupines – strange creatures few had heard of, let alone seen, but which Britain’s empire had brought to the streets of London. The zoo was yet to make an appearance, so entrepreneurs made large sums exhibiting such animals to the fascination of everyone. You could even hire a cassowary for the evening. That might sound eccentric, but a century before the rich had impressed their guests by showing off pineapples that were so expensive they didn’t dare eat them.

    The Anti-Royal Menagerie, 1812. A political satire based on the menagerie at Exeter Exchange, where animals are given the faces of politicians (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/66/Menagerie.satire.engl.jpg. More information: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1868-0808-12683).

    The coinage of the time was a similarly bizarre menagerie. This eclectic numismatic array came about not least because of a currency crisis. There have been many currency crises in the last three thousand years: the Roman debasement of the 3rd Century; the shortage of coins during the First World War. Often these resulted in new, innovative coins. But few have caused such an explosion of wide and varied coinage as found in Britain just either side of 1800. Some of the resulting coins have even been described as iconic. Not necessarily beautiful – they have George III on them, after all – but iconic.

    There were several ingredients in the gunpowder. The Industrial Revolution had begun, and it had begun in Britain. Demand for resources was high and rich people were plentiful. George III disliked war, but there was plenty of it – not least with the French and the American colonies. This demanded more resources. And when George III ascended the throne in 1760, the coinage was already in trouble. There were plenty of copper farthings and halfpennies, but little silver (the penny being a scarce silver coin mainly used for Maundy). The price of silver had risen considerably, leading to fewer silver coins being struck and some even being melted down.

    George II Lima shilling, 1745. Silver, 26mm, 6g (S. 3703). One of the more common issues of the time, presumably because they stole the silver to make it. (The silver was captured during the War of Jenkin's Ear against the Spanish, who’d been transporting it from Lima).

    In the first few years of George III’s reign, only one coin was minted with his portrait - the famous (and now expensive) ‘Northumberland’ silver shilling of 1763, with a mintage of just 3,000. (This was named after the Earl of Northumberland, who as the new Lord Lieutenant of Dublin distributed the entire mintage whilst parading the city’s streets). It’s thought other copper and silver coins were minted but using George II dies.

    Even at this early stage, counterfeiting was a problem. Despite copper coinage being so plentiful that production was halted at the request of merchants, more coins were forgeries than official. The laws were strengthened to deal more severely with copper counterfeits (as was already the case with gold and silver) but to no avail. The law only applied to copper coins when the forgery was an exact copy. The counterfeiters got around this by changing the busts (often not even using the king) and making up the legends, creating what were known as ‘evasion’ tokens.

    George III/Shakespeare evasion halfpenny ‘token’, 1771. Copper, 27.3mm, 7.23g. SHAKES-SPEARE. RULE BRITANNIA (Atkins 433). Shakespeare is facing left, as George II would have done.

    The government finally decided to do something about it. They ordered the Royal Mint to produce full-weight copper coins, which they hoped would be more desirable than the lightweight fakes and so replace them. From 1771, the Mint began producing farthings and halfpennies, the first featuring George III.

    George III farthing, 1st issue, 1774. Copper, 23mm, 5g. GEORGIVS·III·REX·. BRITANNIA (S. 3775). Is he sad about the forthcoming independence of the United States, or the state of the coinage?

    But it didn’t work. The counterfeiters simply melted down these heavier coins to make more fakes. The last farthings were minted in 1775, when the Mint claimed there were already enough in circulation. But there weren’t. Employers needed ever more to pay their employees.

    Demands for a usable silver coinage grew, but the Treasury did nothing. Silver was too expensive to mint the current coins, but the government wouldn’t reduce their size. Silver coins were produced in low numbers for those needing a present for a child’s birthday or Christmas. With no alternative, the public began using Spanish silver reales, as they did in much of the rest of the world – four-fifths of the world’s silver came from Spanish America, and almost all of it was in reales. By 1787 only 7% of circulating coins in Britain (copper or silver) “had some tolerable resemblance to the king’s coin.” Still nothing was done.

    George III evasion halfpenny ‘token’, 1796. Copper, 27mm, 7.28g. God Save the King. Be as you seem to be. Instead of George III Rex, we have ‘God Save the King’. Legends were often satirical or humorous. The bust, at least, bore a “tolerable resemblance to the king”.

    With little silver available, small change had to be copper. But the counterfeit tokens were underweight, and the government wouldn’t accept copper in payment for taxes. Parts of the country far from London didn’t even have a good supply of copper coins, since they could only be bought at the Royal Mint in London. With no small change, employers (whose businesses were booming) couldn’t pay their workers. It fell to the private sector to act.

    Enter Colonel Charles Mordaunt. Mordaunt had a cotton mill in Halsall, Lancashire. Like other businessmen at the time he had no shortage of money, but he had no small change to pay his workers. He’d already been speaking to a certain Matthew Boulton of Birmingham and his partner James Watt (the steam engine inventor) about the supply of a steam engine to power his mill, when in 1783 he wrote to Boulton asking if he might also mint him some tokens to pay his employees. (Boulton had been producing coin weights, so it wasn’t unreasonable that he might). In this letter, he requested one and two penny pieces with the Earl of Peterborough’s Coat of Arms on one side (his family crest), and Halsall written on the back. The penny was produced as described.

    Halsall penny token, 1783-1786. Copper, 16.4g. Arms of the Earls of Peterborough. HALSALL, D. (D&H Lancashire 1). This is the lowest rated Halsall Penny on PCGS. What do we call that? Bot Pop?

    Was this Matthew Boulton and the Soho Mint’s first coin? Nobody knows. By 1791 it had ceased circulating, probably because it was lighter than the vast array of tokens it spawned across the country. Most notable of these was the Anglesey Penny, produced in 1787 to pay workers at the Parys copper mine in Anglesey but used much further afield. At least they had a ready supply of raw material.

    Angelsey Druid penny token, 1787, Parys Mine Mint, Birmingham. Copper, 34mm, 29g. Druid's Head. Company cypher. (D&H 18). Features the somewhat amusing inscription: “We promise to pay the bearer one penny (continued on the edge) on demand in London, Liverpool or Anglesey.”

    Soon everyone was at it. Merchants, tradesmen and public institutions (such as workhouses) issued tokens, mainly as a form of local advertisement. These were marked as payable by the company that issued them and were well-struck in good copper, which made them reliable. Eventually, a magistrate was appointed in each shire to verify the copper content of the coins. These became known as 'Conder' tokens, after James Conder, a draper from Ipswich who catalogued the tokens.

    Tokens generally only circulated in the local area, which meant the variety was enormous. As well as advertising, they honoured local residents and made political statements.

    Eaton halfpenny token, 1795. Copper, 29.1mm. FRANGAS NON FLECTES (break not, bend). D. I. EATON, THREE TIMES ACQUITTED OF SEDITION, PRINTER TO THE MAJESTY OF THE PEOPLE (D&H Middlesex 301). Daniel Eaton was tried several times for publishing seditious material. He was sentenced to 18 months in Newgate Prison and an hour in the pillory, where he was cheered and showered with flowers. He occupied a shop at “The Cock and Swine” (the emblem on the reverse).

    Indeed, our friend Gilbert Pidcock issued a whole series of halfpenny tokens to promote his menagerie. They may even have served as entrance tokens.

    Halfpenny token issued by Gilbert Pidcock, menagerist and showman, c1795. Copper, 29mm, 7g. A two-headed cow, EXETER CHANGE LONDON STRAND. Toucan, TO THE CURIOUS OBSERVERS OF NATURAL PHENOMENA (D&H Middlesex 454). Pidcock had exhibited the two-headed cow at the Lyceum.

    And so the Georgian menagerie of animals had met the Georgian menagerie of coins. But could Britain and it’s vast Empire be run on the back of a ragtag bunch of privately-minted tokens? Surely that was where madness lay. Indeed, there was still a long way to go in George III’s 60-year reign, and the story of his coinage.

    Part II is here: https://www.cointalk.com/threads/george-iiis-numismatic-menagerie-part-ii.366096/

    COINage, George III: 60-Year Reign Marked by Madness, Sporadic Coins https://www.coinagemag.com/george-iii-60-year-reign-marked-by-madness-sporadic-coins/
    Guardian, Georgian Menagerie: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century London by Christopher Plumb – review https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/20/georgian-menagerie-christopher-plumb-review
    The Ormskirk and West Lancashire Numismatic Society, The Halsall Penny and Colonel Mordaunt’s Mill http://www.numsoc.net/halsall.html
    Last edited: Sep 2, 2020
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  3. Parthicus

    Parthicus Well-Known Member

    Very nice write-up @John Conduitt ! But I have one question: On the last token, how sure are we that the bird is a toucan, rather than a hornbill? Because, in my opinion, it looks much more like a hornbill than a toucan. (Toucans, family Rhamphastidae, are only found in the tropics of the New World, while hornbills, family Bucerotidae, are found in Africa and Asia; either would be exotic for 18th-century London.) Hornbills tend to have a much stronger down-curve to their bill than toucans, and the bird on this token has a very strong down-curve. Compare this illustration of different toucan species:

    with this collage I made of various hornbill species:
    lordmarcovan and John Conduitt like this.
  4. lordmarcovan

    lordmarcovan Eclectic & avid numismatist Moderator

    That’s a rather staggering statistic. I knew the situation was dire, and the stuff in circulation a hodgepodge, but had no idea it was that extreme!
  5. Robidoux Pass

    Robidoux Pass Well-Known Member

    Great history bundled into a precise presentation. Thanks for sharing.
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