A Silver Lining?

Posted: 5th March 2021

Humber Museums Partnership - A Silver Lining?

In the nineteenth century, following the Coinage Act of 1816, Britain adopted the gold standard. Under this system, the government set a fixed price at which it bought and sold gold per ounce. Bullion could be taken to the mint and coined into sovereigns or guineas at this price. Banknotes could likewise be converted into a fixed amount of gold. Silver coinage began disappearing because the Bullion Act also reduced the weight and hence their silver content of shillings, crowns and half-crowns, while leaving the face value unchanged. The good quality coins were, therefore, melted down leaving only badly worn or clipped coins in circulation. The loss of silver coins created a small change problem and the void was filled by silver tokens. Taking advantage of Boulton and Watt’s steam press, the Bank of England began producing shillings and sixpences that were no longer full-bodied. These coins’ complex impressions made them difficult and costly to counterfeit. The security of these de facto tokens allowed the Bank to guarantee their conversion into precious metal. Since the market value of the silver in the tokens was also below the token’s market value, there was no incentive to melt them down and so they remained in circulation. Tokens were more durable than banknotes, which were only available in higher denominations upwards of £5 and had limited circulation.

In addition, locally produced tokens were issued privately by smaller and middling size businesses and traders at the start of the nineteenth century (1811-1814) in order to keep a wartime economy afloat during the struggle against Napoleon. The same principles employed by the Bank of England were employed by these manufacturers. The silver content of the tokens was significantly less than their face value. Consumers accepted these light coins, however, because the issuers guaranteed to redeem them on demand at their face value for either bullion or banknotes.

The motto ‘to facilitate trade’ frequently appeared on tokens, conveying the impression that they were issued by law-abiding and prosperous merchants. In fact, tokens attracted controversy and attempts were made to outlaw their use. There were two main risks associated with tokens. The first risk was that a sudden rise in silver’s market price would catch the issuer out because of the guarantee to redeem at face value. The second risk was the possibility of counterfeiting.

In the wake of several scandals, when silver’s price rose during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the government took an increasingly hostile view on tokens and threatened to ban their production. Mass protests against any anti-token laws took place during the Silver Token Movement (circa 1811-1814) in many towns in England during 1812. Yet within government there was an ally with the issuers in the form of James Maitlands, 8th Earl of Lauderdale (1759-1839) who realised how important these tokens were to the national economy and circulated detailed questionnaires to token issuers including those in Bridlington and Hull. The results of this survey demonstrated the token’s indispensable function in alleviating the chronic scarcity of silver coinage in the market. Despite the Earl of Lauderdale’s best efforts,
the battle was lost and the Local Token Act of 1812 (passed into law in 1814) effectively banned the production of local silver tokens.

Hull

Charles Rudston and George Preston operated a series of businesses in the premises of 26,27, and 28 Market Place Hull used by drapers, woollen merchants and hatters.

On the left you can see a contemporary print of Market Place and the businesses would have been situated on the right-hand side near the Statue of King William (also known as King Billy)

They issued six different varieties of their tokens valued at 1 shilling and six pence and six pence. This token design was unusual for featuring a tooth-border only seen in another token issued in Stamford of the same period.

Charles Rudston’s response to the questionnaire sent by the Earl of Lauderdale has survived as he wrote of the impact the lack of silver coinage has had on his business and that as he was unable to give change to his customers he was losing their custom. Rudston argued that if he had not produced these tokens then he would not have known what his business and ‘this populous town and neighbourhood would have done’ (quoted in O’Donald May, 1991 p109)

Bridlington

Until the arrival of the railway in 1846, Bridlington was divided in to 2 separate areas made up of Bridlington (often known as Burlington) and Bridlington Quay located around the harbour. Both places issued silver tokens

Robert Harwood and Isaac Cook, a saddler and grocer were neighbours in business and decided to jointly issue a shilling token in 1811. Cook’s response to the questionnaire also survives in which he states that four out of every five silver pieces of currency circulating in the Bridlington area are local tokens. Harwood and Cook issued tokens in 1811 and 1812 with the two different design.

In Bridlington Quay, James Stephenson, a grocer issued a shilling token in 1811. His shop which sold a wide variety of products including medicines and umbrellas was opposite the Britannia Hotel and featured a ship in the centre of the design.

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