COINS? WHAT COINS?
For most of the reign of George III, from 1760 to 1797, chronic shortages of coin became the rule rather than the exception. There were issues of copper farthings and halfpennies for five years after 1770, and a substantial quantity of sixpences and shillings in 1787, otherwise only gold half and one guineas were regularly available, and these were of little use to any but the most affluent. At the same time the industrial revolution was transforming the country and converting a large part of the peasant population into an urban workforce needing a weekly wage in cash. Something had to give.
Beginning in 1787 huge quantities of copper pennies and halfpennies made their appearance. A mother lode of high grade copper ore had been discovered on the Parys mountain in Anglesey, and a consortium of businessmen found an unbelievably simple way to make their fortunes. They paid workers to extract copper, converted the copper into tokens and then used some of the tokens to pay the workers to extract more copper. The rest were put into circulation as everyone was willing if not eager to use the tokens in place of the remnants of old currency, enabling commerce to flourish unhindered. The tokens were made by the most modern techniques, even having letters around the edge. They were far better in appearance and quality than any coppers the Royal Mint had ever been capable of producing.
EIGHTEENTH CENTURY TOKENS
Such a successful idea was soon copied vigorously. At first the new issuers were careful to make the copper content reasonably substantial and to include promises of redemption. Many took pride in their products and used interesting and elaborate designs to publicise themselves, their businesses, and their towns.
The tokens also functioned in a manner which today might seem way beyond their capacity, but in the eighteenth century there were almost no means of mass communication, and few of the poorer people were literate. The governing class, fearful of a repetition in Britain of recent events in France, attempted to suppress radical political views. Because the tokens were handled by everyone from the highest to the lowest but were beyond authoritarian control, it was possible to use them to convey criticism of the regime from the mildest to the most extreme through their designs, which everyone could understand, as well as by inscriptions aimed at the literate minority.