A brief introduction to unofficial farthings


26 March 2018
f17-02943.JPG A brief introduction to unofficial farthings
Ed Fletcher discovers the history of unofficial farthings and their widespread use in the towns of Victorian Britain.

Ed Fletcher discovers the history of unofficial farthings and their widespread use in the towns of Victorian Britain.

Farthings, the most commonly exchanged coins to pass through the work-roughened hands of the poor in days gone by, blighted labourers’ lives during at least thirty reigns spanning more than 800 years. Few monarchs paid heed to pleas for small change, arguing that the cost of striking farthings amounted to four times the expense incurred when striking pennies, meaning that labourers had to make do with quarter and half segments of silver pennies (perhaps cut by local blacksmiths); or else put their faith in leaden discs which passed as farthings within closed communities.

As the centuries progressed, excuses for not striking farthings included a statement that mints were too busy striking higher denominations, or that the cost of silver bullion was rising too steeply for the Mint to afford striking farthing flans, or – on the very few occasions when silver farthings were struck – that labourers dropping and losing so many of the tiny coins that were in circulation that the Exchequer always failed to profit from providing silver coins for the poor.    

Profiting from farthings

In the seventeenth century, several monarchs of the Stuart dynasty, including James I, Charles I and Charles II, managed to squeeze profits from farthings for the poor by selling licences to make them to favourite courtiers who produced and sold flimsy, underweight copper, bronze and even pewter specimens. These proved all too easy targets for those forgers who made fakes that were even more underweight, resulting in a total loss of confidence by the poor in non-regal farthings.

Not until the reign of William and Mary were full-weight regal copper farthings finally struck, though even then in too small a number to satisfy the small change needs of an entire nation. Georgian kings added the costs of fighting foreign wars (against American Colonists and Napoleon) to their list of excuses for not issuing enough small change. 

The unofficial farthings period

  In the early years of the 19th century, the Royal Mint moved from the Tower of London to new premises on Tower Hill where steam-powered presses provided an opportunity to re-coin all of Britain’s money. This work commenced in 1817; but as in years gone by, farthings were among the last denominations to which the new Mint turned its attention.

Society’s least privileged people had to wait until 1821 before they could handle precision-made farthings from a steam-powered press and appreciate the superiority of the new workmanship. Jumping the gun in 1817, the government had outlawed all tokens, long before any new copper coinage reached the poor who needed it most. The poor and the shopkeepers who served their needs had no choice but to continue using tokens, however worn, no matter the severity of threatened punishments if caught.

Birmingham manufacture

Die sinkers and token manufacturers in Birmingham, witnessing the demise of their markets for bogus copper halfpennies, must have listened with interest to legal opinion in a number of court cases that copper discs having no denomination stated could not be regarded as token coinage. Their agents must have visited shopkeepers who had aspirations to expand their businesses, as well as a desperate need for farthings not yet issued by the Mint, and convinced them that Birmingham could supply neatly engraved and well-struck farthing-sized discs that would admirably serve as change, while at the same time promoting a particular shop address.

By the time regal farthings came on the scene in 1821, the benefits of using these discs, and the willingness of customers to accept them in change, carried many into local circulation. When the price of copper rose and supplies of regal farthings fell short of demand, as happened during 1849 to 1854, the private issuers were not constrained by any requirement to maintain a specific weight for their wares.

Promotional giveaways

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Firms with somewhat less pressing needs for farthings in their tills probably saw them as vehicles for advertising their company name and address; for illustrating the goods they made or sold; or the services they supplied. In modern marketing terms, they were often promotional giveaways. A silvered brass disc with a well executed image of a mounted dragoon might have been passed around and admired among neighbours who would have noticed the address of the shopkeeper on the other side.

Those that promoted ‘Half Guinea Hats’ or ‘Thirteen Shilling Trousers’ seem unlikely to have served as token farthings for the poor. Some collectors have suggested that they were used as giveaways and slipped by the retailers into hatbands and trouser pockets to remind customers of the address of the shop where the garment was purchased.

The Victorian age

Perhaps 2,000 of what modern collectors have come to call unofficial farthings were created during the reign of Victorian and her close predecessors. Issuers spanned England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and the goods and services they promoted visually included everyday needs such as tobacco, candles, tea, coffee, sugar, loaves of bread and clogs; as well as the stock-in-trade of firms seeking to attract customers from slightly higher up the social ladder: game birds, pocket watches, spectacles, barometers, saddlery, travel trunks and many other products of Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

   Queen Victoria’s bust graced one side of many unofficial farthings; a design that did not go unnoticed by the criminal classes:

 Sarah Hodgkinson, a domestic servant, pleaded guilty at Flintshire Quarter Sessions to obtaining 20 shillings from a shopkeeper by inducing him to accept as a sovereign a polished brass advertising token. She was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment. (Cheshire Observer, 1863)


Thomas Sharp, a boy not yet ten years of age, purchased two penny tarts for which he tendered a metal advertising medal, pretending he had handed over a genuine shilling.  As it was dusk, the shopkeeper failed to notice that it was in fact a silvered brass piece which the boy had previously rubbed for some minutes with silver polish. (Stirling Observer, 1860)

By the 1880s, regal farthings had become over-abundant in the nation’s loose change, as this news snippet from the Huddersfield Chronicle in1887 shows:

Foreign pennies and halfpennies are not the only copper coins sometimes difficult to get rid of. In many northern towns it has become almost impossible to find a use for farthings. With shopkeepers in those regions the half of 10½d is 5½d; and if a lady pays a draper 1s.11¾d and puts down a two-shilling piece, she receives a packets of pins or sewing needles by way of change. The fourth part of a penny is indeed a lowly coin; but it ought to be readily current anywhere in the kingdom. 

Note: As our eye-catching illustrations show, there are still unofficial farthings well-worth collecting if this brief introduction has aroused your interest. All images are used courtesy of Rare Coins & Tokens. See more for sale on their website.