English Token Money: A Brief History

English token money is perhaps an old example of peer-to-peer money – money created and circulated without a central authority. The system emerged for the first time around the English civil war, in 1642, and lasted until 1672. The Government stopped producing small change due to political turmoil and problems with counterfeiting, leading to an emergency in the supply of normal money. Merchants in need began to strike their own coins from copper, and other base metals. They were cheaply made, and their metallic content was worth far less than their nominal value, hence the name “token money.”

Tokens were issued by shop-keepers, grocers, coffee houses, inns and apothecaries in London and other major cities, and sometimes by civic corporations and town halls. There were thousands of different coins in circulation, and they were commonly accepted and used by the public. Most had a name and visual representation of the issuing business, and an address where the coin could be redeemed.

Tokens were not intended for general circulation; they were used within a circumscribed area by local people who knew and trusted the business who had issued them. Coffee tokens coincided with the emergence of the first coffee houses in London, new meeting places where artists and intellectuals exchanged news, gossip and debated politics.  The 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys passed his time in one of the first coffee houses in Cornhill, where he “found much pleasure in the diversity of company and discourse.”

Copper trade token from Stonyer’s coffee house, London (17th century)

The first wave of English token money came to an end in 1672, when the restored monarch Charles II took control of the money supply again. Some demonetised coins ended up in the New World, transported by migrant Quakers who resold them at face value.

18th Century Token Money and the Industrial Revolution

… if our Governmt will not make a new copper coinage we shall force them to it by coining for our Selves such copper penys

Matthew Boulton, a Birmingham metal-worker

Around 1790, the industrial revolution saw great numbers of workers moving into cities and wage labour for the first time. Industrial leaders needed small change to pay them with, and struck their own copper coins. The practice spread to smaller businesses, and was common again within a few years.

By the late 1790s, coins were being struck for collectors, as well as to advertise the wares of issuing businesses. Issuing coinage had also become a new kind of vanity project. The English radical Thomas Spence issued his tokens through his book-stall in High Holborn. His unpopular ideas, including abolishing the artistocracy, common ownership of land and children’s rights, landed him in prison for High Treason in 1794.

Token money disappeared once again in 1797, when George III gave a royal coinage monopoly to a single token issuer.

19th Century Token Money

The last period of the token money system started for similar reasons in the 19th century – a shortage of low denomination coins. This time coins were not only issued by businesses, but town halls, civic corporations and workhouses, for the relief of the poor. When token money was finally banned by Parliament in 1817, the Bill granted a temporary exception for workhouse tokens from Birmingham and Sheffield. Eliminating them, it recognised,

would be attended wit great Loss to the said Township … and to the Holders thereof, who are for the most part Labourers and Mechanics [factory workers], as with great Inconvenience to the Inhabitants

References

English merchant tokens

Samuel Pepys Diary December 1660

London Numismatic Club Meeting, 3 October 2006

Seventeenth Century Patent Farthings and Trade Tokens: Introduction

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