Collecting tokens: politics pieces


14 May 2019
The current political climate has been described as historic, unprecedented and chaotic. But as Mike Roberts reveals in his guide to token collecting, Brexit is relatively simple compared to the discord and disagreement found in 18th-century Britain.

Halfpenny sized tokens issued at the end of the 18th century were used as local and national currency and for advertising purposes. Pieces resembling tokens were also issued to satisfy the demands of collectors at the time. In a series of five volumes published between 1963 and 1978 the pioneering author RC Bell turned what had hitherto been merely lists of tokens into tangible records of local, social and economic history. His sixth work, which finally emerged in 1987, entitled Political and Commemorative Pieces Simulating Tradesmen’s Tokens 1770 – 1802, published in a limited edition of 200 by Siegfried ‘Fred’ Schwer, is in many ways the most interesting of the whole set.

From a political point of view the United Kingdom has, over the last few years, been an interesting place in which to live. Imagine that the various Brexit machinations had been lampooned in tokens rather than just in newspaper cartoons. We would have had commemorative fifty pence pieces depicting David Cameron dressed as a condom, a gallery of Mrs Merkel, Messrs Macron, Barnier, Johnson, Farage and Rees-Mogg portrayed as heroes or villains depending on the issuer’s point of view, and a £350 million medalet featuring a bus and a reverse legend ‘Save the NHS’. A series with the legend ‘Enemies of the People’ would depict previously unknown High Court judges. And neither the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition has even been mentioned yet!

Politics on tokens

Well, the last century of the 18th century was rather like that. Britain had only recently lost its American colonies, the price of bread vacillated like a roller coaster, the King’s health was such that a Regent was on permanent standby, there was a Revolution taking place just across the English Channel, and throughout the country activists were demanding a wider franchise, Parliamentary reform, freedom of speech and goodness knows what else. ‘Sedition’ and ‘treason’ were being redefined, and pamphleteers found guilty were transported to Australia. And all of this was being depicted on tokens.

Bell’s book lists the tokens chronologically and then under sections such as ‘Royalty’, ‘Political’ and ‘Celebrities’ within each year. A handful of halfpenny sized pieces are now discussed to give a flavour of what is available to the collector.

The ‘madness’ of King George III, probably a rare familial disease now known as acute intermittent porphyria which also had physical symptoms, is well documented. But with concerns about the character of the Prince of Wales and instability in France, the restoration of the King’s health was an event to be celebrated. The issue of a token depicting the King on the obverse and a reverse legend ‘LOST TO BRITANNIA’S HOPE BUT TO HER PRAYERS RESTORED 1789’ in large quantities probably coincided with an elaborate procession to St Paul’s Cathedral on 23 April.

Although not without his faults, George III was considered by many to be a far better bet than his likely successor. Born in 1762, The Prince of Wales, George Augustus Frederick, was the King’s eldest son. Whilst clearly a bright, well-educated and cultured young man, he was profligate and unstable. At the time, and stating the position very simply, the Whig party tended to favour the Prince, whilst Pitt and the Tories were greatly relieved at the King’s recovery.

The Regent secretly married a Mrs Fizherbert. She was from a Roman Catholic family, and if the marriage had become public knowledge the Prince would have been barred from succeeding his father as monarch. A common token issued at the time depicts the Crown on the reverse with the legend ‘HE HOLDS IT FOR THE KING 1789’.

Domestic politics on tokens

But it is the tokens making reference to the domestic politics of the United Kingdom and events in France which illustrate in detail the radical and in the latter case revolutionary times. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, published in 1791 and 1792, suggests that popular political revolution is permissible should a government not protect the natural rights of its people. The appearance of this work at about the time of the development of ‘Constitutional Societies’ and the like throughout the country, demanding ‘universal suffrage’ (for men only and then only those who owned their own houses), the abolition of ‘Rotten Boroughs’ and other Parliamentary reforms, clearly caused alarm amongst the ruling classes.

Organisations were formed to defend the British Constitution and protect the status quo. In May 1792 a proclamation was issued against seditious publications. There were trials, imprisonments and transportations. Habeas Corpus was suspended in 1794. Many of these events are referred to in the tokens.

The Prime Minister at the time was William Pitt the Younger. His radical opponent was Charles Fox. A token issued by Thomas Spence shows a Janus head with Pitt to the left and Fox to the right. The legend ‘QUIS RIDES’ translates as ‘who are you laughing’. On the reverse is a heart superimposed on the palm of the right hand with the single word ‘HONOUR’ as the legend. This stands for Fox who devoted his heart and his hand to the cause. Without Bell’s explanation the message of the token would be lost.

The London Corresponding Society was formed in 1793 with Thomas Hardy as its secretary. Its main purpose was to promote parliamentary reform. Thomas Hardy was a shoemaker who was greatly involved in the administration and development of Corresponding Societies. Meetings were held in secret and letters written in code. Although by modern standards the parliamentary reforms being sought were relatively modest, the creation of a republic with the help of France as a second option was clearly not. Hardy was arrested on 12 May 1794. Many others, including Horne Tooke, were rounded up in the next few days. Habeas Corpus was suspended on 22 May, permitting the indefinite detention of suspects.

John Horne Tooke was born in 1736. He was educated at Westminster, Eton and Cambridge and was very active in the ‘Society for Supporting the Bill of Rights’. He, Hardy, and others were defended by Thomas Erskine in a series of trials in the late autumn of 1794. Bell gives full details of the differing approaches adopted by Erskine, one of the leading advocates of his day, in the various trials. They all resulted in Not Guilty verdicts and many tokens celebrating this were issued.

The first token illustrated depicts a bust of Hardy facing left with the legend ‘TRIED FOR HIGH TREASON / T HARDY 1794’. The reverse reads ‘ACQUITTED BY HIS JURY COUNSEL HON T ERSKINE V GIBBS ESQ’. A very similar piece was issued in relation to Tooke as was a more elaborate piece with a right facing bust and a reverse legend ‘NOT GUILTY SAY THE JURY. EQUAL JUDGES OF LAW AND FACT’ and the names of counsel. Erskine had his own token, labelling him ‘A FRIEND TO FREEDOM & RIGHTS OF MAN’ and he and the other defending barrister are celebrated in a far more elaborate piece which depicts them holding scrolls reading respectively ‘MAGNA CARTA’ and ‘BILL OF RIGHTS’ with the legend ‘ERSKINE AND GIBBS AND TRIAL BY JURY’. The reverse lists the names of the nine defendants including Hardy and Tooke.

The final pieces illustrated refer to the bloody goings on in France and a desire that history should not be repeated in Britain. First we have a token recording the execution of Louis XVI and his wife. Their conjoined busts appear on the obverse with legend ‘LOUIS XVI ET M. ANTOINETTE ROI ET REINE DE FRANCE’ and on the reverse ‘MURd BY THE FACTIOUS. LOUIS XVI. JAN.21. M.ANTOINETTE OCT. 16.1793’.

Bell’s detailed description of the final piece cannot be improved upon:

Obverse. The field is occupied by a square representing a map with the borders formed of daggers. In each corner is a dagger and the word FIRE. The heading is ‘FRA-NCE’ and beneath in inverted small characters is the word Throne, while a naked human foot couped at the ankle is placed upon the word ‘HONOR’. On the left of the map is the word ‘RELIGION’ and on the right ‘GLORY’ shaded with diagonal lines passing through the letters. Legend. ‘A MAP OF FRANCE 1794’ with the date upside down.

Reverse. An inscription in five lines superimposed on a star of thin lines and surrounded by a narrow border of oak leaves and acorns: ‘MAY GREAT BRITAIN EVER REMAIN THE REVERSE’… The map of France is shown as divided into factions and surrounded by daggers with fire in every corner. Naked feet trample upon honour, the throne is turned upside down, religion has been hacked to pieces, and glory diminished. Note the letters of the word become progressively smaller. The shading shows it has also been dimmed. The whole design represents the unhappy state of the country in 1794 when Robespierre and his party were in control.

The reverse contrasts the state of the two countries; surrounded by a wall of oak (her navy) the star of Bethlehem shone over the land, and the inscription offers the pious hope that this happy state should continue.

In comparison Brexit seems simple.


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