Featured George III's Numismatic Menagerie (Part II)

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

  1. John Conduitt

    John Conduitt Well-Known Member

    (This post is continued from https://www.cointalk.com/threads/george-iiis-numismatic-menagerie-part-i.366092/)

    Back in the 18th century, mental health was not viewed with the sympathetic eyes it is today. Possibly suffering from bipolar disorder (his sentences might consist of 400 words and eight verbs), George III was labelled mad and derided. But looking at the coinage at the time, and the government’s attempts (or lack of them) to solve the currency crisis, he was not alone.

    In 1797, the government finally decided to solve the coinage problem that had plagued Britain for so long. Well, not so much decided to, as were forced to. War with the French depleted reserves and fear of a Napoleonic invasion led to a run on the Bank of England. Cash was withdrawn and hoarded. The government suspended the gold standard and the convertibility of bank notes to metal, and one and two pound notes issued by the Bank of England and private banks replaced higher-value coins.

    The Royal Mint began to strike one-third guineas (worth 84 pence) to fill the growing demand for smaller coins, but this was still unusable for the common worker. More silver coinage was needed quickly. With the Mint unable to address the problem, the Bank of England decided to step in. Their reserves were held in Spanish 4 and 8 reales (the coin British people had been using in the absence of anything else), so their solution was to counterstamp the reales for use in Britain, a practice that hadn’t been resorted to since Roman times. The stamped Spanish dollars (8 reales) were worth four shillings and nine pence (57 pence).

    The British summed up their feelings about this with the line: “the head of a fool on the neck of an ass.”

    George III emergency issue half dollar, oval countermark of George III’s bust (stamped in 1797 in London) on a Charles IIII of Spain, 4 reales (half dollar), 1791, Madrid Mint. Silver, 32.5mm, 13.5g (S. 3767). This coin evidently had quite a life before it was reissued.

    Still, this didn’t help the worker buying apples in the market. Small change was needed. So, the government decided to produce Britain’s first official copper one and two penny coins. To do so, they turned to Matthew Boulton at his Soho Mint in Birmingham. Not that they simply saw his excellent work and decided to give him a go. To get this far, Boulton had spent years lobbying the government – the Royal Mint (and it’s workers) were not at all keen on giving the task to a private company that could do a much better job than them, using machines instead of manual labour.

    Since his (possible) involvement in the Halsall Penny, Boulton had been supplying copper tokens to private British enterprises and coins to India on behalf on the East India Company. He’d developed the technology to produce coins more efficiently and of higher quality than the Royal Mint could – a natural progression given his background in steam engines. Indeed, his coins were the world’s first struck using steam power and by 1799 each press was producing one a second. He was even able to add an edge inscription at the same time as striking the coin, removing a step from the process. With all his innovations, he was able to produce more copper coins in 3 years than the Royal Mint did in one hundred.

    However, it was a requirement that the coin’s face value reflected the value of the metal. Two pence worth of copper was two ounces, and this meant the coin produced had to be the largest in British history. Their size, thick rims and incuse lettering earned them their nickname, Cartwheels.

    George III Cartwheel two pence, 1797. 41mm, 56.89g, copper, Soho Mint. GEORGIUS III D G REX. BRITANNIA Soho mint (S. 3776). This was the first time Britannia had been shown ‘ruling the waves’, as in the song Rule Britannia.

    Imagine the coins in your pocket were the size of bath plugs. Not surprisingly, they were unpopular, and production was halted in 1799 (although all are dated 1797). But that same year, Boulton was asked to mint farthings and halfpennies, which were very successful, as were lower-weight coins minted from 1806. The farthings were the first British coins to feature the denomination on them, and the first to have the date on the same side as the monarch.

    (For much more on Matthew Boulton, @Coinsandmedals has written extensively on CoinTalk https://www.cointalk.com/threads/was-boulton’s-soho-mint-immune-to-counterfeiting.358033/).

    This time, it seemed to work. By 1802, private tokens were no longer produced (shopkeepers even complained about the volume of coins being used). But as the value of copper rose, so did the incentive to mint tokens, and by 1812 tokens were plentiful and the official coinage was being melted down to make them.

    Similarly, the countermarked reales were being counterfeited, the fakers taking advantage of the difference between the face value and the metal value. The government again turned to Boulton and the superior technology of the Soho Mint to provide a coin harder to forge than a countermark. In 1804, he began restriking the reales, which were valued at both five shillings and one dollar. (The restriking continued beyond 1804, but that is the date they all carry).

    George III Bank of England dollar or five shillings, silver, 1804, made from a flattened Spanish 8 reales (dollar). GEORGIUS III DEI GRATIA REX. FIVE SHILLINGS DOLLAR; BANK OF ENGLAND (S. 3768). This was the first silver coin to feature Britannia on the reverse and could only be produced by suspending the Royal Mint’s prerogative to produce the country’s silver coinage. A test cut (checking for a bronze core) testifies to the nervousness of the embattled public to accept any coin at face value.

    This still didn’t properly address the lack of silver coinage – not enough were being struck and 60 pence was a lot of money when the average skilled worker earned 3 shillings (36 pence) a day. The Bank of England, who with Boulton appeared to be the only people with any ideas to solve the currency debacle, stepped in again in 1811 to produce their own ‘tokens’. These were called tokens because only the Royal Mint, not the Bank of England, was allowed to mint coins, but everyone treated them as coins. The two denominations (chosen not to clash with Royal Mint prerogatives) were 3 shillings and 1.5 shillings (18 pence), made at reduced weight by order of the Bank of England rather than the Treasury.

    George III 3 shillings, Bank of England token. Silver. GEORGIUS III DEI GRATIA REX. BANK TOKEN 3 SHILL (S. 3770). By this point, George III was deemed so unwell his son, George IV, had taken over as regent. The ‘Regency Period’ had begun.

    Then in 1815 came Waterloo. Napoleon was defeated and war was over. That didn’t mean the currency would finally stabilise – the Corn Laws were introduced to stop corn prices plummeting, which led to inflation and rioting. But with fewer distractions and more resources, the Treasury carried out their first thorough study of the coinage with the aim of providing a steady supply of coins. The 1816 British Currency Act re-established the Gold Standard, the Royal Mint procured steam-powered machinery from Boulton to install in their new premises at Tower Hill, and a huge recoinage programme got underway. Silver coins would now be lighter (and the face value made higher than the silver content) and tokens were made illegal.

    George III shilling, 1816. Silver, 24.00mm, 5.62g. GEOR III D G BRITT REX F D. HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE, a French maxim used as the motto of the British chivalric Order of the Garter, "May he be shamed who thinks badly of it" (S. 3970).

    As well as a huge amount of silver coinage, which included half crowns and crowns (5 shillings), the first gold sovereign since Henry VII was introduced (and the guinea dropped – the sovereign was worth £1, but the guinea had been worth 21 shillings or £1.05). The crown and sovereign featured the famous engraving by Benedetto Pistrucci of St George and the Dragon. Pistrucci's portrait of the King was more grotesque than ever, and became known as the ‘bull head’.

    The eclectic old coinage was taken out of circulation and ‘normality’ began. I can’t really say ‘resumed’, since what we would consider normality hadn’t existed for a hundred years or more.

    The sovereign was initially unpopular, as banknotes were more convenient, but notes of £1 were limited by law and the sovereign’s popularity soared. It was used in international trade and in other countries in the same way the Spanish dollar had been: a trusted coin with a known quantity of gold. British coinage had truly recovered and some.

    George VI, 5 shillings, commemorating the Festival of Britain in 1951. Copper-nickel, 38.61mm, 28.28g. GEORGIVS VI D:G:BR:OMN:REX F : D : FIVE SHILLINGS. St George slaying the dragon, engraved by Benedetto Pistrucci (S. 4111).

    Ok, I don’t have a George III sovereign or even a crown. But more than one hundred and thirty years after the sovereign was first struck, this 1951 5-shilling commemorative coin still features Benedetto Pistrucci's reverse design. Indeed, it has been so enduring it was used as recently as 2013 on a £20 coin commemorating the birth of Prince George, who may become George VII – 200 years and 4 Georges on from the original. And, since crowns were not demonetised when decimalisation was introduced in 1971, this 5-shilling coin, like all crowns minted since 1818 (and so featuring this design), remains legal tender with a face value of 25 pence. (I’m still waiting for one in my change, however).

    Given the lack of government interest in the coinage for so long, it’s ironic that Mad King George III appears to have been something of a numismatist. George IV even donated his collection to the British Museum https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/search?keyword=coin&keyword="george iv"&agent=George III, King of the United Kingdom&image=true&view=grid&sort=object_name__asc&page=1.

    But given the wide and wonderful array of coins the currency turmoil of his reign produced, maybe he wasn’t as insane as everybody thought. There’s nothing so crazy as a coin collector needing that fix…

    What pocket change looked like at the Battle of Waterloo

    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/
    Joint Centre for History and Economics, A monetary emergency in the UK during the Napoleonic period https://www.histecon.magd.cam.ac.uk/coins_march2013.html
    BBC, What was the truth about the madness of George III? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22122407
    Wikipedia, Twopence https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twopence_(British_pre-decimal_coin); Great Recoinage of 1816 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Recoinage_of_1816

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    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 12, 2020
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  3. Coinsandmedals

    Coinsandmedals Well-Known Member

    Excellent post! You summarized a ton of history in a very approachable way, and I love the bit at the end about good ole George needing a coin fix!! :)

    Odd fact, Boulton technically broke the law when he first started to produce the halfpennies and farthings. The pence and twopence pieces nearly wrecked the first Soho Mint, and in response, Boulton began redesigning the halfpenny and farthing in early May of 1799. Within the same month, it appears that he managed to work out the design issues that plagued the prior contract (e.g., the broad raised rims, plain edges, etc.). According to Doty (1998), Boulton began producing the final product in late May of 1799, but the contract was not granted until almost six months later, on November 4th, 1799. Strictly speaking, this was highly illegal, and I can only imagine the history of the Soho Mint would be different had the Royal Mint officials discovered what Boulton was up to. According to Boulton's records, he noted that in May of 1799, six of the eight presses were devoted to the production of pence, one to halfpennies, and one to farthings. His notes further detail that the presses were able to produce roughly 60 Pence coins, 80 halfpennies, and 97-100 farthings per minute!


    Doty, R. (1998). The Soho Mint and the Industrialisation of Money. London: National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution.
    John Conduitt likes this.
  4. Robidoux Pass

    Robidoux Pass Well-Known Member

    Wow! Interesting, and educational, recital. I've always liked the cartwheels, although because of their weight, so many of mine have rim bumps.

    Thanks for sharing.
  5. Cachecoins

    Cachecoins Historia Moneta Supporter

    Big fan of George and his coinage. Nice work. Thanks
  6. Nick Zynko

    Nick Zynko Supporter! Supporter

    John that was a fantastic post! You captured a complicated piece of English coinage history and presented it in a way that was an absolute pleasure to read. “The head of a fool on the neck of an ass.” - Most Brilliant description of a counterstamp-ever! I was extremely interested to read that George III was an avid coin collector. I viewed his collection at the British Museum via your link and was totally blown away. You would of thought the coin collection of the world's most powerful monarch of his time would be the finest examples in the world- they are far from it. But what is there is a type collection containing every important coin throughout the ages. A incredible set for all hobbyists to dream about. Thank you for a very fun and educational read !
  7. lordmarcovan

    lordmarcovan Eclectic & avid numismatist Moderator

    These threads got Featured, and deservingly so, but should have gotten many more replies and likes than they did. Great writeups.
  8. offa the saxon

    offa the saxon Active Member

    Brilliant and informative thread. Thank you for sharing
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