The Industrial Revolution, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century, transformed  Great Britain’s need for money. People living off the land in rural regions of the country had always been largely self-sufficient. They grew their own food, made their own clothes and bartered with their neighbours for everything else. However, as more and more people streamed into the new urban areas looking for work in the factories, so the need for good quality money to pay their wages became acute. 

An official examination of coins in circulation in 1786 confirmed that the nation’s coinage was in a shocking state; badly worn, barely legible, underweight and mostly fake. It was determined that only about eight per cent of ‘halfpennies’ in circulation were genuine, and coins were often so badly worn that it was impossible to discern whether they were foreign, counterfeits or decades old. A population explosion between 1750 and 1800 did not help matters, putting additional pressure on the already inadequate coinage. Genuine coins were often hoarded, with the fakes spent first, thereby proving Gresham’s Law that “bad money drives out good”.      

Matthew Boulton (1728 – 1809) was one of the founding fathers of the Industrial Revolution. Together with his business partner, the Scottish inventor James Watt, they developed and championed steam engine technology which powered the new factories and introduced a new era of transportation via the railways.

Matthew Boulton and James Watt appear together on the UK £50 note

The Royal Mint responded to the crisis by effectively shutting down and producing no copper coins at all between 1775 and 1821. It was left to others to come up with a solution to the problem of inadequate coinage. Some enterprising business owners began making copper tokens, which could be redeemed by their employees in company shops. Unlike coins, tokens did not require the value of the metal to match the face value of the coin, and so they could be struck in large quantities at little cost. Provided the tokens did not resemble official coins, they were also completely legal to produce.

In 1788 Boulton installed a set of steam-driven coin presses at his Soho Manufactory in Handsworth, Birmingham. Each was made to his patented specifications and could strike up to 84 coins per minute. Boulton had shares in several Cornish copper mines, which gave him access to large quantities of the metal when the mines could not sell it elsewhere.

Boulton’s steam powered coin presses

In addition to producing copper tokens and medals, the Soho Mint also signed lucrative contracts to strike coins for India, Sierra Leone and Russia. They also produced high-quality coin blanks for mints around the world to strike into coins. Over twenty million blanks were produced for the US Mint in Philadelphia, where Mint Director Elias Boudinot described them as “perfect and beautifully polished”.

The Soho Mint in Birmingham

Despite these successes, Boulton’s attempts to persuade the Treasury to let him use his pioneering steam-powered technology to strike new British copper coins repeatedly fell on deaf ears. He championed his machines at every opportunity, declaring that;  

“(they) will coin much faster, with greater ease, with fewer persons, for less expense, and more beautiful than any other machinery ever used for coining … It strikes the pieces perfectly round, all of equal diameter, and exactly concentric with the edge, which cannot be done by any other machinery now in use.”

Matthew Boulton

On 14th April 1789, Boulton wrote to the Treasury to complain that two-thirds of the halfpennies he received in his change as he travelled around the country were counterfeit. He offered to produce new copper coins at half the cost incurred by the Mint, but his offer was ignored. 

Boulton continued to pester the Treasury for the next eight years until he was awarded a contract to strike copper pennies and two pennies. They had to weigh one and two ounces respectively, so that the costs of the metal and production would match the denominational value. The Treasury hoped that this would restore the public’s confidence in the currency by making them uneconomical to counterfeit. This would encourage people to reject fake coins when they received them in their change.  

Boulton’s 1797 dated copper coins were unlike anything people had seen before. The first coins to be struck using steam power were by far the largest and heaviest coins ever to circulate in Britain, with the penny weighing in at one ounce (28.3g) and measuring 36mm in diameter. The two penny weighed two ounces (56.7g) and had a diameter of 41mm. Both coins featured the same design by the Soho Mint’s sole artist and engraver, Conrad Heinrich Küchler (c.1740-1810). 

The “Cartwheel” Penny

In addition to creating a new portrait of the King for the obverse, Küchler, a German immigrant, also presented a new maritime interpretation of the female personification of Britain. Britannia now sits on an island surrounded by water to convey Britain’s supremacy of the seas.

To reinforce the maritime theme, Küchler removed the spear that Britannia had carried since her first appearance on coins struck during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian during the Roman occupation of Britain in the second century. In its place, he gave her a trident, like the one wielded by Neptune, the god of the sea. In her other hand, she holds out an olive branch as a symbol of peace. To complete the design, a ship sails by on the horizon to symbolise Britain’s naval dominance. The ship is believed to represent a warship, with its gun ports visible. The small mint mark of the Soho Mint (the word ‘SOHO’) can be seen in the rock below Britannia’s shield.

The ship and the ‘SOHO’ mint mark that appear in the Britannia design

The new coins marked the first time that Britannia had appeared on the penny and two pence. Both denominations were struck with tremendous accuracy to a very high-quality standard. To further frustrate the counterfeiters, each coin had a broad raised rim on each side with letters and numbers stamped into it, which earned them the nickname ‘cartwheels’. Although fraudsters did try to imitate the coin, their efforts were largely unsuccessful. However, once the novelty had worn off, people began to appreciate just how impractical they were in their pockets and purses.

Eventually, the widespread use of lightweight copper tokens convinced the Treasury that the public would accept and even prefer coins with a face value above the cost of the metal made to produce them.   When more copper pennies were required in 1806, Boulton was permitted to make them smaller and lighter. Küchler’s maritime Britannia later appeared on copper farthings, and halfpennies struck at Boulton’s Soho Mint in 1799 and again in 1806.

Matthew Boulton provided Britain with a supply of reliable copper coinage for the first time and ably demonstrated that his new steam-powered technology could produce coins of exceptional quality and accuracy in large numbers at a relatively low cost. After he died in 1809, his colleague paid tribute to his business partner in a eulogy, declaring;

“Had Mr. Boulton done nothing more in the world than he has accomplished in improving the coinage, his name would deserve to be immortalised.”

James Watt

By the time new copper coins were required in 1821, the Royal Mint in London was ready and willing to produce them once again.