Sixteenth Century Bristol

By John Latimer

(Originally published under the title of

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2013

Chapter VII.

Bristol Farthing.

THE story of the curious square Bristol farthings, issued in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, has scarcely been alluded to by the historians of the city, being apparently regarded as unworthy the dignity of their works. Those grave writers little imagined that the tokens they contemptuously ignored would be so highly prized in our time that some of the aforesaid histories have become of less value in the market than the despised farthings - a variation from original prices that is likely to widen rather than diminish. Under the altered circumstances, local readers will perhaps be glad to have further information on the subject from authentic sources.

Down to the period at which this narrative has arrived, and indeed to a much later date, the English Government issued no coins inferior in value to the silver penny - a somewhat remarkable fact when it is remembered that the purchasable power of the Elizabethan penny was fully equal to that of the fourpence of modern days. To supply an obvious want, about the year 1574 certain tradesmen in various towns began to issue farthing tokens of lead, tin, mixed metal, and even of leather, and trouble speedily arose out of the valueless character of the pieces, which often could not be traced to the persons that profited largely by circulating them. That the grievance spread to this city is proved by a minute of the Privy Council, dated November 17th, 1577, ordering a letter to be sent to the Recorder of Bristol, Mr. Hannam, then practising


in the Courts at Westminster, informing him that “certain small coins of copper”, of which samples were enclosed, had been “lately stamped” in the city, “and not only uttered and received from man to man for farthings, but also current for that value almost throughout the country thereabout”. The Recorder was further directed to make diligent inquiry on the spot by whom the coins had been issued, and by what means they had become so widely prevalent, and to certify the result without respect of persons. Oddly enough, there is no further mention of the subject in the Privy Council minutes. But the lacking information is supplied in the corporate records, which preserve a letter from the Privy Council to the Mayor dated three weeks later, December 8th, showing that the Recorder had not only fulfilled his mission with great alacrity, but had already forwarded its results to the Government. The Recorder had reported that the tokens in circulation were of numerous varieties, and were “uttered by innholders, bakers, brewers, and other victuallers, who refused to receive them again because divers had been counterfeited; for remedy whereof, and for the benefit of the poor, the learned council of the city had advised the use of a general stamp”, meaning doubtless a stamp belonging exclusively to the Corporation, through whom he transmitted his report. The letter to the Mayor then proceeds:- “The Privy Council very well allow this, and commend the providence of the citizens, and notify its contentment that the use of these farthings shall continue, provided that the quantity do not exceed the value of £30, and that they may be made current only within the city”.

A warrant sanctioning the above privileges was brought down by two corporate delegates, whose travelling


expenses were largely swollen by the extortions of Government officials. (The Corporation rewarded the Recorder, “for his pains”, with a large sugarloaf costing 18d. per lb., and a gallon of wine.) And no time was lost in stamping tokens, for on January 14th, 1578, the Chamberlain records:-

“Received of Mr. Mayor in copper tokens the sum of £15, to be delivered to the commons of this city and to be current for farthing tokens . . . according to the warrant procured by Mr. Smythes and Mr. John Cole, £15”.

It is probable that these pieces were struck in London, and the cost included in the delegates' expenses.

Two further parcels, raising the issue to the sum of £30 fixed by the warrant, were received in July and September, “and the stamp was delivered to Mr, Mayor again”. These pieces were struck by Edward Evenet, a local goldsmith, who was paid £5 for the copper and stamping, leaving the Corporation a clear profit of £10.

No issue took place in 1579. But in April, 1580, Evenet struck £15 worth “by command of the Mayor, the Recorder, and the Aldermen, for that there was a great want of them in the town”, and the quantity was doubled in September. Notwithstanding this copious issue, the demand seems to have exceeded the supply, for in the audit book of 1581 are the following entries:-

“Received of E. Evenet in copper tokens, stamped by warrant of the Mayor, Aldermen, and Recorder, in pursuance of the warrant of the Privy Council, which doth extend to the stamping of £30 worth at a time, £30”.

“Paid Evenet for stamping, £10”.


The audit book for 1582 is lost, but it is not improbable that the civic body took further advantage of its profitable privilege. We have proof that in 1583 Evenet received fresh orders, and coined 28,800 tokens, using on this occasion “a new mould”, costing 6s. 8d. In 1584 the Chamberlain journeyed to London for, amongst other matter, obtaining a renewal of the coinage warrant; but no further issues took place for some years. Seeing, indeed, that in the previous six years the number of tokens known to have been coined was nearly 120,000, and may have been over 140,000. there could have been no real lack of small change. But when the legal pieces ceased to appear, knaves hastened to supply their place. In March, 1587, a butcher named Christopher Gallwey, having been convicted of “counterfeiting the copper tokens of this city to the great hurt and hindrance of the commons”, paid a fine of £5. But many other swindlers must have been at work, for in the following month, apparently at the command of the Government, the Corporation bought up no less than 12,600 false tokens. The treasurer's record is:-

“Paid by the Mayor and Aldermen's commandment, with the consent of the whole Common Council, according to a proclamation, to divers persons as well of the city as of the country, for divers sorts of copper tokens received of them because they were counterfeited by divers evil disposed persons, and therefore they were not allowed in this city, £13 2s. 11d.”

No further mention of tokens occurred until 1594, when the Privy Council informed the Mayor by letter that it had come to their knowledge that many Bristol tradesmen had illegally stamped farthing tokens in brass


and lead, and, after uttering, had refused to accept them again, whereby grievous inconvenience was caused to the poor. The magistrates were ordered to suppress such proceedings, and to compel the fraudulent utterers to change the tokens for current money. The Corporation thereupon obtained a fresh warrant from the Government, authorising the issue of £40 worth of farthings, and paid £7 for the warrant and 3s. 4d. for a new stamp. The cost of stamping, including the copper, was now reduced to 4s. in the pound, and, though the Chamberlain was allowed another shilling in the pound for his trouble in paying them away to traders and workmen, the tokens yielded a profit of 15s. in the pound. Whether this lucrative business was or was not continued in 1595 is unknown, owing to the disappearance of the accounts; but it was resumed in 1597, when Thomas Wall, a Bristol goldsmith, was ordered to stamp to the value of £13 10s., the cost amounting to one fourth of the value as before. Those two issues produced an aggregate of 51,360 farthings to be added to the figures already given. In 1598 the authorities ordered the preparation of an improved mould, but this was never used. In fact, the civic rulers, in their pursuit of gain, had overshot the demand, and temporarily lost almost as much as had been brought in. In the autumn of 1598 the Chamberlain records:

“Paid out, for to take in brass tokens, to Thomas Wall in money, £33 16s. 6d.”

The loss was, however, partially redeemed in subsequent years by cautious reissues. The whole of the authorised Elizabethan tokens were square in shape, and bore the letters “C.B.” on one side, and the arms of the city, very


rudely cut, on the other. Although only three moulds are mentioned in the accounts, they seem to have been more numerous, for Mr. H.B. Bowles, who has given much attention to the subject, and possesses a unique collection of English tokens, has noted eight varieties, some of which have the city arms reversed, that is, with the ship sailing to the right, but these may have been forgeries. Few things, indeed, were easier to rogues than to counterfeit work so clumsy, and the temptation to do so was great when a shilling's worth of copper produced twenty shillings' worth of tokens.

On the accession of James I., the Corporation petitioned for a renewal of the lapsed privilege, but the prayer met with no response, and, as nothing was done by the Government, privately-issued tokens, many of the basest character, naturally reappeared. In 1609 the celebrated Sir Robert Cotton, in urging the Government to issue a national copper coinage, aserted that not less than 6,000 traders in various parts of England were then every year casting lead tokens, practically valueless, yet of the pretended aggregate value of about £30,000, “whereof nine-tenths” disappeared yearly to the profit of the utterers. His recommendation was not adopted, but in 1613 Lord Harrington was granted for three years the sole right of coining farthings, “to avoid the great abuse of leaden tokens made by the city of Bristol and others”, and private coining was thenceforth forbidden. No local tokens struck in lead appeared to have been preserved.

OCR/transcript by Rosemary Lockie in October 2013.

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