(Those of you who have read some of my short essays will know I can go down odd byways, so if you are not interested in curious numismatic history, please go to the end and I think the punchline there will surprise and I hope please you.)
Fifty years ago the government, pandering to foreigners and people who could only count on their fingers, changed our simple currency of four farthings to a penny, twelve pence to a shilling and twenty shillings to a pound, which had worked well for over a thousand years and ensured that every child had to have a reasonable knowledge of mathematics to survive, to a boring system of one hundred pence to a pound.
But I am not going to revisit that controversial decision, rather I want to consider far more controversial coins, the penny and two-penny coins of 1797.
In the 1790’s England’s currency was a mess (so was Scotland and Ireland’s but not quite so bad). The problem was the Royal Mint, it had become stuck in its ways since it was Sir Isaac Newton’s day job, and it didn’t like copper coins.
This may seem odd, but it was true. It felt that coins should be gold or silver. There were plenty of them, in gold there were Guineas, Half-Guineas and Third-Guineas (no Sovereigns then as the pound was a value, not a coin). In silver there were Crowns, Half-Crowns, Shillings, Sixpences, Groats and Threepences. Twenty years previously they had been forced to make Halfpennies and Farthings (again the penny was a value not a coin) but these were not very good and since then the Industrial Revolution had happened.
This had led to the growth of cities and factories, where people to be paid regularly, and without small change it could be difficult. Giving three men a guinea and saying, ‘That’s your pay for a week, sort it out’, wasn’t very helpful.
There were two ways people tried to get by, one was for firms to issue their own money, this worked but caused it’s own problems, the second was forgery. This was so common that one turnpike company complained that half the coins collected one year were forgeries.
A real halfpenny of 1775 and a contemporary forgery
Finally, things had to change and so, the government ordered that a new coinage should be authorised, penny and twopenny coins. There was just one issue, that didn’t seem too much of a problem, the mint insisted that;
The intrinsic value of such [coins], workmanship included, should correspond as nearly as possible with the nominal value of the same.
In other words a Penny should be worth a penny in metal and manufacturing costs, which would have been fine but for two things.
First, vast deposits of copper had just been found in North Wales and Anglesey, Britain was now the main producer of copper in the world, and the cost of the metal had plummeted.
Second, instead of the coins being produced one at a time by a man with a screw press in the basement of the Tower of London, the contract to make them had been given to Boulton and Watt. The coins were to be made using the massive steam presses at the Soho Factory in Birmingham, the most technologically advanced place on earth, manufacturing costs were tiny.
All this seemed great, but it meant that to fit the criteria of the Penny being worth one penny, it would have to be massive. In fact so big that the suggestion made by Charles Darwin’s mad grandfather Erasmus Darwin could be brought to reality. The coins would be made so that, ‘One Penny should weigh On Ounce and each Two Penny piece Two Ounces.’.
The coins are beautiful, but big – and heavy. If you had one shilling and fourpence in your pocket it would weigh one pound (453 grams if you count on your fingers). They were nicknamed ‘Cartwheels’ in part from the broad border and in part from their weight. They were universally disliked and after 1797 they were replaced by coins of the same size we used until fifty years ago.
You would think that coins minted in only one year over two hundred years ago, and rapidly withdrawn would be very rare but they are not. For one reason, remember they weighed one and two ounces. A properly made one ounce weight cost more than a penny, and so they survived, in kitchens and small shops, on the scales as weights!
But you may remember, if you got this far, I mentioned slavery in the title of this piece. A few years ago I found this copper disc, I could see it had been a coin hammered flat, a withdrawn cartwheel penny no longer used as a coin, just a copper disc. Then I turned it over, and felt faint as I read the words crudely stamped on the back, perhaps the greatest slogan ever written.
AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER 1808
This was the motto of the abolitionists, and the date is the year after the Slave Trade was abolished. Tokens were routinely handed out at political meetings, was this made for a meeting celebrating the ending of the ‘the vile traffic in slaves’? or was it a meeting called to restart the campaign to finally abolish slavery throughout the Empire and later the World?
Whatever the truth, it still makes my hand tingle when I handle this tiny scrap of metal with its wonderful message.