British Museum coins: Money and the siege of Mafeking

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01 April 2018
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Money is sometimes produced under surprising conditions, such as this coin used during the siege of Mafeking

In times of war emergency monies were produced, notes or coupons were printed for use within POW camps, and the defenders of besieged towns occasionally resorted to production of emergency currency to fulfil the need of the garrison or general population

This coin from the collection of the British Museum comes from the latter category, meeting the need a currency during a difficult situation.

In appearance this coin seems fairly typical of pieces minted for use in the British Empire in the early 20th century. It is a copper penny of Queen Victoria dated 1900 of the ‘old head’ type with a portrait engraved by Sir Thomas Brock (1847-1922). The aged bust of the veiled queen had first appeared on the gold and silver coins in 1893, but only migrated to the copper in 1895. This remained the design until her death in 1901.

On the reverse is the typical type of the period a seated figure of Britannia at centre facing right.

The element that makes this coin of special interest is the ‘MAFEKING’ countermark running diagonally at right in front of Britannia.

The coin was originally in the collection of Robert Hogarth, a diplomat in Africa and collector of colonial cultural material. He joined Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service and worked in Sudan, USA, South Korea, Cameroon, Israel and Botswana. The Department of Coins and Medals purchased his collection of African tokens, badges and medals through his widow in 2009.

Mafeking (modern Mahikeng) is the principal city of the North-West Province of South Africa, and was the setting for the most famous engagement of the Second Boer War (1899-1902).

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In the late 19th century the town, which was a regional administrative centre, lay on an important railroad between Bulawayo and Kimberley. For this reason it was chosen as a base by the British commander Colonel Robert Baden-Powell in which great supplies were stored. The defenders numbered around 2,000 and were protected by a network of trenches and gun emplacements built around the six-mile perimeter.

On 12 October, 1899 President Kruger of the Boer South African Republic declared war on the British and a superior number of Boer troops began the siege of Mafeking. In all the siege lasted for 217 days with the Boers happy to keep the British contained while they moved through the region unopposed.

On 12 May, 1900 a Boer attack succeeded in penetrating the town’s defences and taking the police headquarters building, but through lack of additional support the men were captured, driven off or killed. Five days later the siege was lifted when a flying column of 2,000 British troops under Colonel BT Mahon fought their way into the town. In the British imagination the siege was a badly-needed positive in a war that was in general going badly.

Baden-Powell was promoted to Major-General for his role in the defence, but other commanders believed that he was foolish to amass such a store of provisions in one place, and critical of his decision not to attempt to break out. 

It was in the confined conditions of the siege that our coin originated.

With communications to the outside world broken, internal solutions to the provision of a circulating currency were sought. The solution at Mafeking was the printing of 1, 2 and 3 shilling coupons, as well as ten-shilling and one-pound notes with facsimile signatures of Robert Urry, Standard Bank of South Africa (Mafeking branch manager) and Captain Herbert Greener, Chief Paymaster of the British South African police.

The ten-shilling note was printed from a woodcut, using a croquet mallet cut in half for the block with the drawings made by Baden-Powell. A better executed drawing of the howitzer ‘wolf’ by the Colonel was used on the one-pound note.

This information we know thanks to surviving records, however the countermarked coins are a different matter. We don’t know if they circulated as currency or not, the likelihood, given that they aren’t referred to in the records is that they were stamped as unofficial souvenirs of the siege.