Thursday, 2 August 2012

Industrial Trade Tokens


Something curious happened to the state of British coinage during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Firstly, one would notice the extended use of coins that were so worn that the bust image and particular details of the monarch were barely discernible - William III shillings from the late seventeenth century in particular. Something else happened too. During the late eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries, another form of currency began to appear alongside the official government-issued currency, especially if one was an employee of a large industrial company such as The Parys Mining-Company, The Devon Mines Travistock Company or The Birmingham Mining and Copper-Company (Cornwall). As a hard-working employee in the first industrialised country in the world, you might have found yourself being paid with company issued tokens instead of official government coinage - these tokens could only be spent in the company shop - this was called The Truck System.


(British currency during the late 18th c was in a poor state. To get in such an advanced state of wear, these coins would have had to have been in circulation for a long-time. These shillings mostly date from the late 17th to the early 18th centuries)


There was an ambivalence toward this practice. Industrialised areas such as the valleys of South-Wales were inconveniently remote from urban centers and hence independent shops. The company shops in the locality did provided a real need for goods for local workers. It was not unknown though for employers to exploit this need and artificially inflate the cost of goods or sell substandard quality goods to profit from the monopoly they had over their employees consumer needs. The Truck System and tokens were a reality for those living and working during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and they frequently turn up as detecting finds in Glamorgan - they reflect the narrative history of coinage from the period of industrial Britain. The Truck System was abolished by Act of Parliament in 1831, although it is likely that these tokens were probably in circulation for much longer.



(Early heavy industry in South Wales-The Dowlais Ironworks, Merthyr Tydfil 1840)


(Various trade tokens found in the Vale of Glamorgan including a 1811 Travistock Devon Penny, 1811 Bristol Trade Shilling, 1811 Birmingham Union Copper Company token with William Blake-like 'dark Satanic mills' depiction of the Risca Union Copper Company building and the ubiquitous Anglesey Mining Company 'Druid' copper penny)


Banks and industrialists both issued coinage during this period. Prior to this trade tokens were not unknown; copper farthing tokens are common finds for us dating from the mid seventeenth century onwards, but tend to be of a small denomination and issued by small traders. The main impetus for the private issue of tokens was that during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, silver and copper coins struck by the government were in very short supply; there was a period during the late eighteenth century where virtually no new coins were minted.  For example, shillings stopped being minted in 1787 and only re-emerge in 1816 (the last of the George III coinage).

Forgeries are another feature of this period; the authors have found a number of forged coins including George III shillings whilst out detecting. There was thought to be a gang of forgers operating in the Barry area during the late eighteenth century. An account concerning pre-industrial Barry describes the discovery by customs men of over 4,000 blank copper half-penny pieces on Barry Island during a period when it was a well known place for local smugglers to offload contraband. The authors have  found blank eighteenth century half - penny coins in Glamorgan, suggesting that even these blanks were accepted as small change at a time where such denominations were in short supply.


(George III shilling forgeries - early 19th century)

Tokens took a variety of forms and incorporated a variety of interesting designs and are common detecting finds in Glamorgan; the use of copper tokens was widespread and perhaps extended to acceptance in every day usage. Interestingly, tokens seem to survive better in the Glamorgan's liassic soils, which are not kind to copper, than their officially minted contemporaries.

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