01 July 2018
Our insight into the collections of the British Museum sheds light on the engraved coins of 18th-century Britain and the people who created them
The collection held by the British Museum’s Department of Coins and Medals comprises a chronologically and geographically wide range of monetary objects, from the earliest coins of the 6th century BC to coins minted in 2018.
Among the British collection are an intriguing group of coins which have been adapted in such a way as to transform a mass-produced, everyday object into a personal and individual token of memory.
These coins have been engraved with a range of designs and inscriptions that provide a window into the lives of 18th and 19th-century people.
Typically made using low value coins these tokens provide a fascinating insight into the values and experiences of poor people in Britain in this period.
As a group they are often referred to as ‘love’ tokens, but they express a far wider range of sentiments than this label would indicate.
Among the happier expressions of love are tokens which celebrate birth or betrothal. Illustrated above is a 1787 silver sixpence of George III (1760-1820) which has been smoothed and engraved to read ‘Wm Wyatt Born Feb 21 1804’. The birth of a child was a common subject of love tokens and was often accompanied by a heart pierced by arrows.
A more poignant use of tokens with birth dates comes from those left as part of the admissions documentation for infants abandoned at the Foundlings Hospital in London.
One example is inscribed with the name ‘Maria Augusta Handel’ and date ‘Born April 15 1758’. She was three weeks old on admittance to the hospital but happily documentary evidence shows that she was reclaimed five years later, thanks to the engraved coin.
These tokens were part of the hospital’s documentation until a system of issuing receipts for each child was introduced from 1764. Some tokens bear the date of birth of the named subject but also a later date that commemorates some important life event such as leaving home to go into service or an apprenticeship.
While engraved coins for births, marriages and even deaths are known, another group (particularly popular with Australian collectors) are coins engraved by those felons who were transported to Australia for various crimes.
Our second illustration is a copper penny of George III which has been smoothed on both sides and crudely engraved with a continuous inscription reading:
‘WHEN THIS YOU SE REMEMBER MEE AND BEAR / MEE IN YOUR MIEND AND LET THE WORLD SAY WAT THA WILL’.
This is a frequently found inscription on convict tokens – asking for kindness or forgiveness from loved ones. Here it is shortened. The full idiom is a version of ‘When this you see remember me and bear me in your mind. Let all the world say what they will don’t prove to me unkind.’
Another favourite was ‘When I am far beyond the seas pray look at this and think of me.’ The popularity of these pieces comes in part from the fact that many carry names and dates of convictions that can be traced in court proceedings and transportation records.
Even today coins and banknotes are used as a vehicle for subversion and political satire. Occasionally they are used, as in Ireland in 1970s and 1980s, to circulate the brand of sectarian or paramilitary groups.
The final example here falls into this category and carries an uncompromising anti-papal image.
The coin is a copper penny of George III issued in 1797, but which remained in circulation for several decades or more. This longevity makes establishing its date of engraving difficult.
In place of the head of the king is a crude gallows with a figure wearing cassock and mozzetta hanging from it. If these were not clues enough as to the identity of the figure then the engraver has helpfully inscribed ‘The Pope’ above it.