18th Century Token History


The first thing to cover in this section is the actual name of this token series. In Britain, they are known as 18th Century Provincial tokens. Collectors in the United States have adopted the name of one of the first catalogers of the series, one James Conder of Ipswich. James Conder put out his catalog in the late 18th century. His arrangement became the standard reference. James Atkins followed with an updated reference in 1892. Between 1910-1917 Richard Dalton and S. H. Hamer published — in sections — what has proven to be a masterwork. It has been updated through the years, with the latest printing being one done in 2004. The relatively small number of revisions, corrections, and additions made to “D&H” in comparison to the size of the work has been small, indeed. It is still the standard reference for the series.

In previous history sections the lack of small change, counterfeiting problems, and the reluctance of the British government to provide a good small coin for the masses to use has been discussed. A few other events made this lack of good small change far more important than it had ever been. Foremost of these events was the industrial revolution and its ramifications.

As society became industrialized — with the ability to manufacture machinery that made more manufacturing possible in other fields — the laborer saw an opportunity to leave the farm, and make a living wage for his family. There was thus a steady exodus from the provinces to mining or large manufacturing centers, where the need to pay wages was hampered by a lack of small coin. Some of the mines were located in out of the way areas, and there was literally no change available. In the cities, with more and more workers getting wages, more shops of all sorts were opened, bringing with them more jobs that needed wages to be paid. All of this began to accelerate at a rapid rate by the mid 1780’s.

George III had discontinued the making of copper coins in 1775. He found that they did not circulate. There were two main reasons. The huge number of counterfeit coins in circulation would be spent first — if the holder could get anyone to accept them. The nice, new, shiny penny would be saved — part of “Gresham’s Law”— that states that “Bad money drives the good money out.” The second reason they did not circulate was the counterfeiter — who would gather up the new issues, melt them down, and make 2 or 3 lightweight coppers out of one good one — thus doubling or tripling their money. Obviously, this latter only added to the counterfeits in circulation.

A third reason existed. The large cities often had enough — or even an abundance — of coin. That most of it was “bad” coin was a fact, but at least it existed. The small towns out in the “provinces” were often completely without coin. Money has a habit of flowing to the major trade centers, never to return.

In 1787, the Parys Mining Company, who mined copper ore — made a decision. They had the copper, and they had access to coining presses. Located in Anglesey, Wales, they were out of the mainstream.  Little coin of any kind found its way there. They decided to make their own. Beginning in 1787, they produced Penny and Halfpenny tokens, of the correct weight, nice design, and a edge legend that stated they were payable in Regal funds by them. They were avidly accepted by the workers, and loved by the merchants. The mines themselves were important — there was now a supply of copper in Britain that had not existed before. Planchets for copper coins could now be made locally, at reasonable cost.

Manufacturers and artists climbed on the bandwagon — producing designs that were not possible until improvements in coining manufacture due to the industrial revolution made it so. The need for correct weight coin existed — and there were lots of people willing to fill the need.

The idea caught on, and by 1795 thousands of issues of tokens could be found. Due to the improvement in the way tokens could be manufactured, the commercial tokens were not only of the correct weight, but could be made with wonderful designs. About 95% of the tokens produced were halfpennies. Penny tokens were generally produced in small number, with a couple of notable exceptions.

These tokens not only caught on with the buying public and merchants, but also created a groundswell of collectors determined to get one of each.

The collecting craze expanded to the point of many issues being made for collectors only — at a premium cost. It also led some manufacturers to the manufacture of “mules”— pieces made by using the obverse of one token, and the reverse of another — to make additional collector pieces. These were considered to be “spurious” issues — designed to cheat the public and fool collectors.

As well, the tokens usually came with a lettered edge. On a correct piece, the edge gives information on the issuer, and where he could be found to refund the token into Regal coin. Varieties were made using incorrect edge markings, giving collectors one more thing to find — and the user often nowhere to go to redeem the pieces.

Others saw the advantage of making tokens, as well. Tokens were produced to advertise, espouse political views and social problems.

By 1795, the supply of these tokens — real ones, spurious pieces, and medalets — exceeded demand. The quality had deteriorated to the point where something had to be done. The government finally stepped in, and called a halt to the tokens, issuing copper Two penny and One penny coins in 1797.

For a ten year period extending from 1787-1797 almost the only “coins” in circulation in Britain were the Provincial, or “Conder” tokens. As they were designed and manufactured by the public, they were not limited by any rules or regulations. Taken as a group, the tokens form a history of a people in a way never seen before — or since!! Through them, we can look in on life in late 18th century Britain. We can see how they lived and thought through their commerce, politics, advertising, and even view their architecture. Avidly collected at the time of their issue, many of these tokens survive in wonderful condition, pieces of history that can be held in the hand. Collectors today find them perhaps even more fascinating than they did years ago. The study of these tokens has proven to be rewarding to many, and the stories behind the tokens and the era are exciting to discover.

A great deal has been written about the Provincial, or “Conder” tokens. The primary reference is Dalton & Hamer’s “The Provincial Token Coinage of the 18th Century,” with descriptions and plates of thousands of tokens. As well, R. C. Bell has written five books covering different types of the tokens — Commercial Tokens, Specious Tokens, Private Tokens, Tradesman’s Tokens, Political Tokens, Social issues, Building Medalets, and the National, or Royalty issues of the period. In Bill’s bibliography, you will find a large number of references regarding this wonderful series.

Go to Conder token photos on Bill’s website.