TAKE A LOOK AT... (in Derbyshire)

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 10th August 1998 (p.13), reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.


From the point of view of local history, traders' tokens comprise one of the most fascinating branches of numismatology, the study of coins and coinage. For over 100 years they circulated between traders and their local customers in almost the same way as coin of the realm.

This type of currency arose through the want of suitable small coin, a recurring problem since Anglo-Saxon times. In the days when the face value of a coin matched its actual worth in silver, for instance, halfpence and farthings were so small as to be impractical in general use. This resulted in the larger and heavier penny coin being broken into halves and quarters (fourthings, hence farthings) and valued accordingly. Clumsy though this solution was, at least it did not lead to the problems brought about by the issue of coins containing base metal.

Even though it was considered to be one of the causes of inflation, serious debasement of the coinage, led by Henry VIII who reduced the fineness of silver first by half and then by two-thirds, was maintained through the short reigns of Edward VI and Mary Tudor. Elizabeth I took steps to deal with the problem and in 1561 three-halfpence and three-farthing pieces were minted in pure silver.

Silver refining was an unhealthy occupation leading to ‘refiners' sickness’, the distasteful cure for which was recorded by the Derbyshire antiquary, Agarde. Those who had fallen 'sick to death with the savour' were advised to drink from a dead man's skull. To this end special permission was given for these important workers to be given the heads of criminals displayed on London Bridge in order to make drinking cups from the skulls. Sufferers drank from the bone vessels and, it was said, 'found some relief, although most of them died'.

Even under Elizabeth, the issue of small pieces did not include sufficient supplies of halfpence and farthings, so vital to everyday purchases. Traders therefore began giving their customers tokens in lieu of real small change. Made from lead, tin, latten and even leather they could only be exchanged for commodities from the issuing trader whose name they bore. The tokens were otherwise useless and the scant spending power of a poor customer was often tied up in the wrong type of token.

Towards the end of the 16th century, the issue of official copper pledges was proposed in return for banning private tokens but the project was abandoned. Under James I, preparations to strike copper farthings also fell through in favour of a highly profitable scheme to benefit the royal coffers, whereby Royal Farthing tokens were sold wholesale by the Crown at 20 shillings for 21 shillings worth. Mayors of various towns were sent £20 worth of tokens for distribution in return for a profit of 2 shillings in the pound. To begin with, the king took half of the overall profits but later allowed himself almost two-thirds.

Nevertheless, and in defiance of one proclamation after another, the circulation of private tokens not only survived the unpopular royal swindle but proliferated. Finally, in 1671, the government decided to issue copper halfpence and farthings while introducing stringent measures to prohibit traders' tokens. Within a short time they had passed completely out of use.


Nineteenth-century antiquarian Llewellyn Jewitt of Winster identified over 100 varieties of Derbyshire tokens and described them at length over several volumes of The Reliquary. The majority are halfpence pieces cast with the issuer's name, his calling and sometimes the arms of that trade. Included in the list are mercer, tobacconist, chandler, innkeeper, pewterer, haberdasher, grocer, butcher, tallow chandler, ironmonger, blacksmith, apothecary, baker, shoemaker or cordwainer, hatter, dyer, wool packer and saddler.

The trade of innkeeper is suggested by an undated Castleton halfpenny showing a bull in front of a thorn tree, the bull being the tavern sign and the tree a pun on the name printed on the reverse side: 'Robert Thornhill in Casslton'. A winged angel is depicted on Chesterfield tokens declaring 'Richard Clarke at the Angell in Chesterfield'. Similarly the sign of a lion is shown on a Chesterfield token issued by James Dutton in 1666. Other tokens from the same town refer to grocers Samuel Inman and William Milnes, haberdasher Thomas Radford and apothecaries Edward and Richard Wood.

Grocers' tokens are amongst the most common, often identified by the grocers' arms. They were issued at Winster by Ralph Bowers, Tideswell by Edward Ashe, Wirksworth by Thomas Wigley, Youlgreave by Robert Birds and Bonsall by John Dudley. Mercers are also well represented. They include a square token issued by Thomas Graymer of Bakewell in 1669 and three of the more usual round type from Wirksworth naming Peter Coulborn, John Booth and Richard Heape. Also from Wirksworth is a token inscribed 'John Buxton Dyer in Wirksworth'.

The trade known as Knights of the Cleaver, i.e. butchers, is represented by John Balme and Henry Hille of Bonsall, the former marking his tokens with the butchers' arms and the latter with a knife and cleaver. From Chapel-en-le-Frith is a blacksmith's token of 1671 showing an anvil and the name Nicholas Smith. Only slightly earlier is an example inscribed 'Daniell Bagshaw in Brassington' bearing the ironmongers' arms.

A token illustrated with an erect arm holding a salt-sprinkler distinguishes John Dickens of Bakewell as a drysalter. A malt shovel identifies Robert Bobbett of Crich as a maltster. The arms and crest of Shallcross and the words 'High Peake Cole Mines' are portrayed on pieces issued by the mines' owner, John Shallcross of the parish of Hope.

Amongst others who issued their own pieces, some with family crests but without any indication of their trade are Samuel Palmer of Baslow, Humphrey Smith of Birchover, Eleazer Coats and Anthony Kempe of Wirksworth, Thomas Bateman of Hartington, and William Ashe, Gervase Gent, Richard Middleton and Robert Bagshaw of Tideswell. Research into the Wragg family of {sic: omitted} suggests that Dennis Ragg (sic), who issued halfpence at Stoney Middleton in 1670, was either a grocer, miller or tallow chandler.

Traders' tokens are a useful resource for the family historian and regional examples can be studied at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery (01298 24658) and Derby Museum by prior arrangement. Examples from Chesterfield are on permanent display at Chesterfield Museum.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 10th August 1998.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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