The 1792 Birch Cent

On the evening of 9th July 1792, two of America’s founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson arrived at the home of a man called John Harper on Sixth and Cherry Street in Philadelphia. With them was David Rittenhouse, appointed by President Washington just nine days earlier as the first Director of the United States Mint. Land for the new mint had already been identified on Seventh Street, and Rittenhouse would lay the cornerstone for the new building later that month. However, the coin presses that had been ordered from England wouldn’t arrive until September, and so the first coins wouldn’t be struck at the new premises until December. No one wanted to wait that long to see what the first official coins produced at the US Mint would look like.

David Rittenhouse

John Harper, a saw maker from New Jersey, kept a screw press in his cellar designed by Mint employee Adam Eckfeldt, who would go on to build other machinery for the Mint and help to oversee the production of the early coins.  Harper agreed to allow his cellar to become the temporary home of the US Mint so that the first official coins could be struck there in a range of metals, sizes and designs to test what worked and what didn’t. Earlier that day the President had sent Rittenhouse an instruction authorising him to strike dimes (originally spelt ‘dismes’), half dimes and cents. Now, the men eagerly crowded into the cellar to watch as history was made.

Adam Eckfeldt

The U.S. Congress had passed its first Coinage Act three months earlier on 2nd April 1792, authorising the creation of the official Mint in Philadelphia to strike the coins of the United States. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton defined the United States dollar as a unit of pure of silver weighing precisely the same as the Spanish dollar, which was already in common use.  The new Act made the silver dollar the legal tender of the country and created a decimal system for US currency. 

Alexander Hamilton

The first draft of the Act stipulated that all coins would depict a portrait of the president on the obverse. However, by the final version, the requirement had changed to a depiction of liberty, as well as the word ‘LIBERTY’.   Engravers were contracted to begin designing and preparing dies for the new coins, even before there was a mint to strike them. Some of these tools may have been produced in England, and sadly little is known about the artists who designed the early test pieces.

We know that the portrait of Liberty that appeared on the copper cent was engraved by an artist called Birch because he helpfully put his name on her shoulder above the date 1792. Surviving mint records list his name as “Bob Birch”, and it appears that he was privately commissioned in 1792 because his name doesn’t appear in the official list of mint employees. It has long been believed that he was from England, but the absence of any tangible information about a Bob (or Robert) Birch allows for the speculation that the artist may have been William Birch (1755-1834), a noted British engraver and painter of miniature enamels. Born in Warwick, Birch exhibited his tiny portraits at the Royal Academy and emigrated to Philadelphia in 1794 after attracting wealthy patrons on both sides of the Atlantic, including President Washington himself. In Britain, a ‘bob’ was a popular slang expression for a shilling, so the name listed in the mint records may have been the artist’s nickname.  

An engraving of Philadelphia in 1800 by William Birch

The design of the first official cent produced in the United States depicts a flowing haired Liberty with the inscription ‘LIBERTY PARENT OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY’ and the year of issue, ‘1792’. On the reverse, there is a decorated laurel wreath around the denomination ‘ONE CENT’ with the words’ UNITED STATES OF AMERICA’. There is also the fraction ‘1/100’ which shows the origin of the word ‘cent’ as the coin is literally one per cent of a dollar. An earlier version of the design bore the inscription ‘G.W.PT’ (George Washington, President) instead of the fraction but this was probably changed because Washington objected to having his image or a reference to him on a coin. 

Washington, Jefferson, Rittenhouse and Eckfeldt inspect the first US coins struck

It would appear that only a small handful of cents bearing the Birch design were minted in John Harper’s cellar that day, which accounts for their extreme rarity. The fact that they may have been struck in the presence of Washington and Jefferson makes them even more valuable and among the most popular of all the prototype (or pattern) coins ever produced by the US Mint.

Of the ten specimens that are thought to exist, one sold at auction in 2015 for nearly $2.6 million.  When asked why he had paid so much for a cent, the delighted new owner explained that “the history is important. This is our earliest depiction of what we thought of ourselves as a nation.”

The 1792 Birch Cent

The Brasher Doubloon

New York was the capital of the United States from 1785 until 1790. During the late eighteenth century, one of the most fashionable locations in the city was Cherry Hill, which lies just north of the Brooklyn Bridge today. Cherry Street was the home of Ephraim Brasher (1744-1828), a distinguished goldsmith and silversmith. Brasher regulated precious metal coins for the bank, carefully checking their fineness and weight, and stamping them with his oval-shaped hallmark containing his initials’ EB’ if they met the correct standards. His hallmark became a guarantee of quality, enabling bank clerks to accept coins without checking their weight. Several examples of foreign gold have been discovered counter stamped with his quality mark.

George Washington enters New York City in 1783

On 12th February 1787, Brasher and a silversmith and sword maker called John Bailey requested franchises to produce copper coins for the state of New York. We don’t know whether this was a joint application, or if both men just happened to submit the requests on the same day. But their applications were denied because New York decided not to mint copper coins. Shortly afterwards, Basher designed and struck some sample coins to demonstrate his ability. A few were struck as gold doubloons using a letter punch that Bailey had used to strike copper coins in New Jersey. It would be the first gold coin made for the United States of America.

A silver coffeepot produced by Brasher
Brasher’s hallmark on the bottom of the coffeepot

The doubloon (Spanish for double) was the name given to the Two Escudo gold coin that was minted throughout the Americas as well as in Spain with the gold they received from the New World. The Spanish galleons transporting gold through the Caribbean and across the ocean were always vulnerable to attack from pirates seeking to relieve them of their precious cargo. As a result, no other coin in the world evokes more potent images of pirate ships and treasure maps than the doubloon.

Brasher’s doubloon depicted the Great Seal of the United States, an eagle clutching an olive branch and arrows. He also added an unusually worded version of the national motto ‘UNUM E PLURIBUS’ (One from many) together with the date 1787. After the coin was struck, Brasher counter stamped his EB hallmark onto the reverse as his personal guarantee of quality. To date, six surviving examples of the coin have been found with the stamp on the eagle’s wing and one with the stamp on the shield.

On the reverse, he depicted the coat of arms of New York, an image of the sun casting rays of light over a mountain range with the sea in the foreground. Surrounding the image is the inscription, ‘NOVA EBORACA COLUMBIA EXCELSIOR’ (New York, America, Ever Higher). Excelsior remains the state motto to this day. Brasher also added his surname underneath the image.

The Brasher Doubloon

Brasher’s neighbour in Cherry Street was none other than George Washington, who would become the first president of the United States two years later in 1789. We know that America’s founding father approved of Brasher’s talents as a gold and silversmith, because he bought several items from him, including a set of four silver skewers in April 1790. Perhaps this explains why Brasher produced his doubloon. He was asked to do so by his neighbour. In November 1792, Brasher assayed several types of gold coins for the new federal government, and after that continued to assay gold for the US Mint.

George Washington’s mansion on Cherry Street.

The value of a doubloon would fluctuate depending on the value of the gold. When Brasher struck his unique version of the coin, New York had officially established the standard that a gold doubloon was worth $15. Today, of course, it is worth considerably more. In 2011, one of Brasher’s doubloons was sold for nearly $7.4 million, which was the most money ever paid for a coin at the time.

Author Raymond Chandler immortalised the coin in popular culture when he had his fictional private-eye Philip Marlowe investigate the theft of one in his novel The High Window. In 1947 the book was adapted into a movie by 20th Century Fox called appropriately The Brasher Doubloon.

Movie poster for ‘The Brasher Doubloon’

The 1794 Flowing Hair Dollar

The Flowing Hair silver dollar was the very first dollar issued by the United States. The Coinage Act of 2nd April, 1792, created the United States Mint and a bimetallic coinage system based on the silver dollar and the gold eagle. But there would be a delay of two years before the first dollar was struck.

The delay was caused by two reasons. The Government required a $10,000 bond from Chief Coiner Henry Voigt and Assayer Albion Cox before they could be permitted to handle precious metals. Mint Director David Rittenhouse was eventually able to persuade Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and President George Washington to reduce the bond substantially to enable both men to pay it. There was also a national shortage of silver which meant that the Mint had to wait for private citizens or banks to supply them with raw silver or silver foreign coins so that they could strike them into silver dollars. The silver suppliers would then receive the value of the silver back in a parcel of dollars.

Silver was received from The Bank of Maryland and the Bank of North of America, and it is reported that President Washington contributed some of his silver to coin. Rittenhouse also made a sizeable deposit, and the first US dollars were struck from his silver.

The design of the first official US dollar was entrusted to the Mint’s first official Chief Engraver, Robert Scot (1745-1823). Inspired by a right-facing portrait of Liberty created by Joseph Wright for the 1793 cent, Scot depicted her with her hair flowing behind her surrounded by fifteen stars, representing the number of states in the Union at that time. Her name, ‘LIBERTY’ appears above her head and the year of issue ‘1794’ beneath. For the reverse, Scot created an eagle motif with its wings extended surrounded by a laurel wreath with the inscription ‘UNITED STATES OF AMERICA’.

The 1794 Flowing Hair Dollar (image courtesy of the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History)

Born (appropriately enough) in Scotland, Scot learned his craft in Edinburgh before emigrating to Virginia in 1775 where he quickly acquired a formidable reputation as a coin and medal designer. A move to Philadelphia soon followed, where it is believed that he engraved the dies for the Great Seal of the USA in 1782. In 1793 he became the first salaried Chief Engraver of the United States Mint and designed the Liberty Cap half-cent and the Flowing Hair silver dollars. In 1796 he modified the Great Seal to create the enduringly popular heraldic eagle design, a powerful symbol of the USA which has appeared on the nation’s coinage ever since.

The Great Seal of the United States produced in 1782

The Mint held a special ceremony in Philadelphia on 15th October 1794 to celebrate the striking of the first silver dollar. They quickly realised that their largest coin press was not powerful enough to strike the coins evenly, which made some parts of the design appear weaker than others. Of the 2,000 coins struck, 242 were immediately rejected because the strike quality was particularly poor, either lacking the desired definition or being off centre. These coins were held back by the mint so that they could be recoined the following year.

At the end of the day, Director Rittenhouse was presented with 1,758 silver dollars to circulate as he saw fit. He sent samples to friends and acquaintances all over the country to demonstrate the capabilities of the mint. One landed on the desk of President Washington, forwarded by Secretary of State Edmund Randolph with a note that read;

“The silver coin of the U.S. bears upon its face so much neatness and simplicity, that I cannot restrain myself from transmitting a dollar for your inspection.”

Mint Director Rittenhouse

Rittenhouse arranged for a local Philadelphia firm to construct a special press capable of delivering enough force to strike the large silver dollars. It was ready to begin work in April 1795 when production of the first silver dollar design resumed.

The first United States Mint in Philadephia

It has been estimated that about 125 of the 1794 dated silver dollars are known to exist today. One of the finest specimens, believed to be the coin that Director Rittenhouse kept for himself, and the first silver dollar ever struck at the US Mint was sold at auction for over $10 million in 2013. It became the most expensive coin in the world until another US coin, the 1933 Double Eagle sold at auction for $18.9 million in June 2021.

Britannia and the Princess

Edward VII was 59 years old when he became King.  During his mother’s long reign, he had taken little interest in the affairs of state and had instead acquired a reputation as a notorious playboy, much to her displeasure.  It was Queen Victoria’s wish that he reign under his birth name, Albert, but he chose not to do so, believing it would diminish the status of his father Prince Albert, whose name, he felt, should stand alone. The playboy prince became a beloved King, hailed as “the Peacemaker’ for strengthening ties with other countries. Like his mother, he gave his name to an era, one defined by major social change, patriotism, modernisation and new technology.    

The silver florin struck during the short reign of King Edward VII is rightly hailed as an artistic triumph. The Royal Mint’s Chief Engraver Geroge William de Saulles (1862-1903) created a striking new image of Britannia for the coin to distinguish it from the silver half-crown, which had until then both carried heraldic designs.   

The silver florin designed by de Saulles

Unlike the traditional image of Britannia on bronze coins, in which she sits passively on the shore looking out to sea, de Saulles chose to present the female personification of Britain standing proudly on the bow of an ancient ship with her cloak billowing around her surrounded by a rough sea.  Her steely gaze and defiant demeanour against the raging elements show that she is undeterred, undaunted and unafraid.   One hand grips a long trident; the other firmly grasps a shield on which is displayed the Union flag.   The message could not be clearer;    

Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves

The public immediately warmed to the new Britannia, who, it was felt, accurately reflected the sense of patriotism, boldness and adventurous spirit of Edwardian Britain.  Tragically, de Saulles did not have long to enjoy his success.  He died the following year after a short illness at the age of 41.

George William de Saulles

To obtain the naturalistic realism he wanted for Britannia, de Saulles asked a young woman to model for him. His choice would prove to be a controversial one. Lady Susan Hicks Beach (1878-1965) was the daughter of Sir Michael Hicks Beach, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Master of the Mint. She was seventeen years old when she first modelled as Britannia for de Saulles as he designed the British trade dollar in 1895.  Six years later, she did so again, as he designed the florin. 

The revelation that the artist had used the daughter of his employer as his model prompted a question in the House of Commons as to whether the Royal Mint had held a competition to select the designer, as they were supposed to do.  However,  it would have been clear to all who knew Susan why de Saulles considered her an ideal subject. She displayed the strong independent personality and the spirit of adventure that he wanted his Britannia to convey.  She had the advantage of being born into a wealthy family, which allowed her to pursue her love of travel and adventure. 

A tragic love story connects de Saulles triumphant image of Britannia on the reverse of the florin and his iconic depiction of the bearded monarch on the obverse. Susan’s close friend and travelling companion was a woman who, but for a cruel twist of fate, would have become King Edward VII’s daughter-in-law and the next Queen of Great Britain.  

In 1887, Princess Hélène of Orléans (1871-1951) met the Prince of Wales’ eldest son Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence (1864-1892). The two fell in love, declared themselves engaged and even exchanged rings.  In 1890 they visited his grandmother Queen Victoria to request her permission to marry. Seeing their devotion, she gave them her blessing but warned them that they faced a major obstacle. 

Princess Hélène

Hélène was a Catholic, and as an heir to the throne, Albert Victor was forbidden by Act of Parliament to marry one.  She offered to convert to Anglicanism, but her father, a pretender to the French throne, refused to allow it. In desperation, she went to Rome to appeal to Pope Leo XIII personally, but he sided with her father. 

Meanwhile, Albert Victor offered to renounce his rights to the throne, confiding in a letter to his younger brother George that “I feel I could never be happy without her”. The Queen appealed on his behalf to her Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, but he insisted that the Act must be strictly applied. 

To avoid a constitutional crisis, Hélène wrote to her heartbroken lover in May 1891, urging him to “do your duty as an English prince without hesitation and forget me”.  Tragically, just eight months later, Albert Victor died suddenly of pneumonia, leaving his younger brother to become King George V after their father’s death in 1910.   

Prince Albert Victor

In 1895, as Susan modelled as Britannia for the first time, Princess Hélène married Prince Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, Second Duke of Aosta. The Prince and Princess of Wales attended the society wedding in London, reflecting no doubt that had it not been for religious intolerance and a fatal outbreak of influenza, Princess Hélène would have been their daughter-in-law and the country’s next Queen. 

In November 1907, the woman who had modelled as Britannia and the princess who had nearly married the heir to the throne left Naples together and embarked upon a seven-month tour of Egypt, Sudan, the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, German East Africa, Zanzibar, Djibouti and Eritrea. They camped, trekked across inhospitable landscapes and hunted. The adventure was clearly agreeable for both ladies because they made several more foreign trips together before and after the First World War.

Lady Susan Hicks Beach
Lady Susan and Princess Hélène during their overseas adventures

During the War, Susan went to France and served coffee on a Red Cross stall in Rouen.  In 1915 her father accepted a peerage and became Earl St Aldwyn, and she became Lady Susan. Later, she served as a Justice of the Peace and district council member and helped run the family estate at Williamstrip in Gloucestershire. She never married and so retained her title for the rest of her life.   

Sadly, de Saulles majestic image of Britannia on the silver florin survived only for as long as the King’s reign.  Upon the death of Edward VII in 1910, the florin’s design reverted to a heraldic motif for his successor King George V.     

 

The extraordinary 1823 double sovereign

Amidst the long and illustrious history of British gold coinage, few coins have had such a troubled origin as the 1823 double sovereign.  The year marked the first time that the double sovereign had been struck as a circulating coin, and it was destined to bear a one-off portrait of the monarch that would never appear on a coin again.

The Great Recoinage of silver and gold coins, which began in 1816, was still underway when King George III died on January 29 1820.  His eldest son George IV (1762-1830), was fifty-seven years old when he became King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Ireland, and Hanover. He had already served as Prince Regent for nine years due to his father’s incapacitating mental illness.

George III had attempted to instil in his son his own high moral values, frugal lifestyle and sense of duty but without success.  The new King’s extravagant lifestyle, multiple mistresses and wasteful spending won him few friends amongst ministers and taxpayers, who condemned his behaviour as selfish, indulgent and irresponsible. However, he influenced the fashion of the time in what became known as the ‘Regency’ style and was nicknamed the ‘First Gentleman of England’ for his refined tastes. 

King George IV in 1821

George amassed vast debts from spending on horses, palaces, paintings, and numerous mistresses to achieve this cultured status.  He left a legacy of many fine Regency buildings, including the Brighton Pavilion.  However, his notorious vanity would ultimately result in the removal of one of the most exceptional engravers ever to work on the nation’s coinage.  

The task of sculpting the new King’s official coin portrait fell to Benedetto Pistrucci, the brilliant engraver who the Master of the Mint, William Wellesley-Pole, had recruited to create the designs for the Great Recoinage in 1816. As an Italian, Pistrucci was not permitted to hold the official title of the mint’s Chief Engraver as the position was open only to British subjects.  However, Wellesley-Pole gave his friend the salary and the workload and left the position vacant.

Pistrucci’s portrait of King George IV on the 1822 sovereign

However, the new King was unhappy with the way Pistrucci depicted him on coins as an overweight, middle-aged Nero in the neo-classical style with short curly hair and crowned with a laurel wreath in the Roman Imperial tradition. The portrait was, arguably, at odds with the reputation he tried to cultivate as a fashionably modern and debonair man about town – a man, who as The Times famously put it, would always prefer “a girl and a bottle to politics and a sermon”.

As soon as the first coins of his reign were in circulation, George IV requested that his coin portrait be changed. He proposed that the new portrait be modelled on a flattering marble bust of himself by the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey. 

The Chantrey bust of King George IV

Pistrucci was outraged,  claiming that copying the work of another artist would violate his artistic integrity. When the King helpfully sent an equally flattering painting of himself by Sir Thomas Lawrence to inspire the artist, it is said that the volatile Italian, after being ordered by mint officials to hang it in his studio, stubbornly turned it to face the wall. Eventually, the King agreed to sit for Pistrucci, but it soon became clear that the artist would not pander to his vanity.  As the official record of Mint business was to note;

“To copy the work of another artist appeared to Mr. Pistrucci a degrading act. He declined obeying the order, and the Master was under the necessity of procuring an inferior artist to engrave the Dies from the Model.”

Unwilling to fire his celebrity engraver, Wellesley-Pole attempted to diffuse the situation by persuading Pistrucci’s French assistant Jean Baptiste Merlen to engrave the King’s portrait for the new gold double sovereign in 1823. Merlen did as he was instructed and modelled his design on the Chnatrey bust to comply with the King’s wishes.

The 1823 double sovereign with Merlen’s depiction of King George IV on the obverse

Merlen’s design marked a radical departure from traditional coin portraiture. It was the first time that a British monarch had appeared on a circulating coin without a laurel wreath or a crown, something which would have appealed to the King’s elegant style and reputation as a modern trendsetter.  

Despite doing an admirable job, Merlen’s elegant ‘bare head’ portrait was destined to appear only on the 1823 double sovereign, making the coin particularly sought after today. His initials (JBM) appear under the truncated neck, and Pistrucci’s Saint George and the dragon masterwork appears on the reverse.

Unfortunately for Pistrucci, his friend and supporter Wellesley-Pole stepped down as Master later that year. His successor, Baron Thomas Wallace, was not prepared to tolerate the artist’s stubbornness in refusing to follow the King’s instructions. In a terse letter to his superiors, he reported that;

“The conduct of Mr Pistrucci in refusing to execute the order of the Master, in fulfilment of the King’s command, render him no longer of use to the Mint as Chief Engraver, whose peculiar duty it is to prepare the Head Dies for the Coin.”

Baron Wallace, Master of the Mint

Pistrucci’s unwillingness to create a new portrait that flattered the King would see him replaced at the Royal Mint by an artist who would.  With Pistrucci out of royal favour, the designs he had created for Britain’s coinage were replaced, and he would not live to see his work appear on coins again. 

The task of creating a new portrait for the nation’s circulating coinage was given to the mint’s Second Engraver, William Wyon. He also modelled his design on the Chantrey bust, as the King requested. Wyon’s ‘bare head’ portrait was much acclaimed and appeared on the nation’s coinage from 1825 until the King’s death in 1830.

Wyon’s bare head design on the 1825 sovereign, with Merlen’s heraldic shield design on the reverse

Just seven years after Pistrucci’s Saint George and the dragon had made a triumphant appearance on the first modern sovereign 1817, his masterwork was unceremoniously dropped from the sovereign. The unenviable task of creating a replacement design fell to Pistrucci’s French assistant. Merlen submitted a heraldic design incorporating the Ensigns Armorial (Royal Arms) of the United Kingdom on a crowned shield, with a smaller crowned shield in the centre featuring the Arms of Hanover. Today, his heraldic coin designs are recognised as some of the finest ever produced on British coins.

The rivalry in the royal mint engraving rooms only intensified when Wyon was made Chief Engraver in 1828. Pistrucci was appointed Chief Medallist so that he could complete his design for the long-awaited Waterloo Medal. It had been commissioned in 1819 and was to have been presented to the victorious powers. Knowing that he would be fired as soon as it was ready, Pistrucci did not complete the work until 1849. 

The Widows Mite – The true value of a gift

One of the reasons I love old coins is that they are a witness to the past. To hold one in your hands is to make a physical connection to the hands that once held it before yours. Coins have been present at the most pivotal events in human history and have been carried in the pockets and purses of kings and beggars ever since they made their appearance about 2,600 years ago.

A coin doesn’t have to be struck in silver or gold to be valuable.  Indeed, two of the lowest value coins in circulation two thousand years ago provided the inspiration for one of Jesus’ most famous teachings in the New Testament.

The grand temple in Jerusalem was a hive of activity.  Crowds of pilgrims passed through the temple gates and paused to throw their offerings into the large ceremonial collection bowls that stood ready to receive them. The high temple walls would have echoed with the noise of coins as they landed in the bowls. Many wealthy people were throwing in large sums of money, much to the delight of the religious leaders.

Amidst the noise and the people, one donation went virtually unnoticed. A poor widow briefly emerged from the crowd to drop in two small copper coins. Compared to the many wealthy donations, her offering was an insignificant amount. Her coins were so light that they would have barely made a sound as they landed in the bowl.   

The widow’s offering. Image courtesy of Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing.

But her gift had been observed by a young man sitting quietly opposite the collection bowls. He had been watching the people as they made their donations, large and small, to the temple treasury. Quickly, Jesus called over his followers and shared an astonishing insight with them.  

“Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth, but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.” 

Mark 12:43-44 (New International Version)

Jesus used these two little coins to explain one of his most radical teachings.  God measures the true value of a gift, not by its financial worth but on how much it costs the giver to give it.

This teaching put him at odds with the powerful religious leaders in Jerusalem who enjoyed fine clothes and banquets while demanding offerings that pushed God’s people into poverty.  They hated Jesus for calling them out for their hypocrisy and speaking with the authority of God, and so they conspired to have him put to death.  

Of course, we have no way of knowing precisely which coins the poor widow dropped into the collection plate that day. They were most likely tiny copper lepta, or similarly sized prutah. In Jesus’ day, these would have been the lowest value coins in the region. Often poorly struck and badly worn, they would circulate for many decades until they no longer resembled coins.  

Two small coins. Image courtesy of Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing.

When the Bible was translated into English, the Greek word lepta (meaning thin and small) became mite, which was the name of the smallest coin circulating in Europe at the time. The word was used by the Bible translators so that readers could understand that it was a coin with the lowest possible numerical value.

The coins could have been struck a century or more before Jesus saw them in the temple. The Maccabee ruler Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) struck huge quantities of prutah and lepta, and archaeological evidence suggests that they continued to circulate well into the second century.  These coins depict an anchor on the obverse and an eight-pointed star on the reverse.

The Prutah

The lepton and prutah were in circulation for so long that surviving examples are almost always extremely worn.  But that is part of their charm. Just imagine the number of people who carried this coin with them, the places they went, the things they saw.  Who knows, maybe one of its previous owners was a poor widow who dropped it into the collection box in the temple.     

It has been said that all of the armies that have ever marched, all the Parliaments that have ever sat and all the monarchs that have ever reigned, put together, have not impacted the world as powerfully as the man who taught us the true value of a gift.

Eighteenth Century Britain – Coinage in Crisis

The Industrial Revolution, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century transformed the nation’s need for money.  People living off the land in rural Britain had 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. 

For most of King George III’s reign, British coinage was in a desperately poor state, with very few coins being produced and the market flooded with badly worn coins, tokens, foreign currencies and counterfeits.  A population explosion between 1750 and 1800 did not help matters, putting additional pressure on the already inadequate coinage.

Fortunately, the King’s final years would witness a transformation in the nation’s coinage that would not be seen again until decimalisation in 1971.    

The landscape of Manchester was transformed by the Industrial Revolution

The Northumberland Shilling

The production of silver coins slowed to a trickle during the eighteenth century and they rarely appeared in day to day transactions.  A shortage of silver led to the metal price becoming more costly than the face value of coins made from it.  Consequently, there was no incentive for the Treasury to strike silver coins despite urgent appeals from the public to do so.  Any coins that did appear were unlikely to spend long in circulation, being either hoarded or quickly melted down for their higher bullion value.

In 1763 a batch of silver shillings were struck for Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland, who had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.  He wanted to make an impression when he arrived in Dublin with his family in October 1763.  To do this he had 2,000 new shillings struck, which he threw into the crowds that lined the streets to welcome him.  The extravagant gesture cost him £100 but guaranteed him an enthusiastic reception, and the 1763 shilling would forever be known as the Northumberland Shilling. 

Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland by Joshua Reynolds

From records kept at the time, we know the Royal Mint struck more silver in 1763 than the 2,000 shillings required by the Duke to ingratiate himself with the people of Ireland. Any coins that were produced were a drop in the ocean compared to what was actually needed.  Shillings would not be struck again until 1787.

The Northumberland Shilling 1763

Counterfeiting

During the first decade of the new King’s reign, the number of counterfeit copper coins in circulation increased dramatically. To combat this, in 1770 the Treasury ordered the Royal Mint to produce copper coins in huge quantities, and over the next six years, millions of farthings and halfpennies were struck and issued into circulation. 

However, far from dissuading the counterfeiters the huge influx of quality copper into the market only facilitated the production of more fakes.  A skilled fraudster could melt down one genuine coin and make two or three underweight coins with the metal.  In 1775 the Treasury admitted defeat and the official Government coin presses fell silent again. 

A counterfeit coin of George III

Counterfeiting was a serious offence punishable by death.  On 18th March 1789, Catherine and Hugh Murphy were executed at Newgate Prison in London for coining.  The term covered several offences, such as clipping bits off silver and gold coins to melt down, colouring coins to make them look more valuable, producing counterfeits and possessing the equipment to do so.    

Coining was an act of high treason in that it was considered to be a crime committed against the King.  Therefore, Catherine was not hanged alongside her husband.  Instead, she became the last woman in Britain to be executed by burning at the stake, the penalty for female coin counterfeiters until 1790.   

Catherine Murphy was burnt at the stake for coining in 1789


The counterfeiting law only applied to criminals making visually exact replicas.  Many criminals took advantage of this legal loophole by making coins with deliberate errors in their inscriptions, trusting that people would be unlikely to spot the difference! 

Shock Report

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.  Only about eight per cent of ‘halfpennies’ in circulation were genuine.  Genuine coins were often hoarded, and the fakes spent first, thereby proving Gresham’s Law that “bad money drives out good”.      

Wear and tear over decades meant that smaller denominations were often so worn that it was impossible to discern the image that had once appeared on it.  Some dated back to the reign of William III (1650 –1702) and had been allowed to circulate for a century. 

The Royal Mint responded to the crisis by effectively shutting down.  It produced no copper coins at all between 1775 and 1821. A small batch of silver shillings and sixpences were struck in 1787, but only because the Bank of England wanted to sell them to collectors looking for Christmas and birthday gifts.  It was left to others to propose a solution to the problem.   

The Royal Mint at the Tower of London circa 1809

Spanish Gold – The currency of conquest

There are not many coins that can legitimately claim to have changed the world, but the Spanish escudo is one. Struck using the abundance of gold found in the New World, the escudo (which means “shield”) quickly became a trusted international trading coin, transforming the fortunes of Spain and delivering economic prosperity to Europe. By doing so, the iconic Spanish coin can be said to have financed the Renaissance and ignited the Industrial Revolution. The world would never be the same again.

At all costs, get gold!

When Spain agreed to finance Christopher Columbus’ dangerous voyage into unchartered waters, they could hardly have imagined what a sound investment this would prove to be. Columbus (1451–1506) mentions gold at least 65 times in the diary that he kept during his historic journey of discovery.

Columbus arrives in the New World

Upon his arrival in the Caribbean in 1492, the Italian explorer’s first question was apparently to ask where he could find it! When it became clear that the New World had gold in plentiful supply, Spain quickly dispatched more expeditions. In 1511, King Ferdinand of Spain instructed his conquistadors to “get gold, humanely if you can, but at all costs, get gold”.

When Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) arrived in Mexico, he was amazed to find that the Aztecs had so much gold that they used it to decorate childrens’ toys, walls, ornaments and plates. They prized brightly coloured feathers, cacao beans and cloth far above the yellow metal, and Cortés excitedly reported that half a kilo of gold could be purchased for just 250 cacao beans!

A document to history

In 1537 the Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles I of Spain (r. 1516–58), constructed the first mint in the New World at Mexico City and ordered them to strike escudos with gold mined from the region. The new coin was inspired by the Venetian Ducat, a popular trading coin due to its identifiable design, constant weight and consistent purity.

As Spain grew to become one of the world’s first major superpowers, the importance of the escudo as the chief gold coin of Spanish-America grew with it. Escudos were produced throughout the New World, in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru.

The Spanish escudo remained the most widely used currency in the Americas for over three centuries. Its popularity only waned after 1857 when it ceased to be accepted as legal tender in the United States. In 1864 Spain relaunched the escudo in silver as the official currency of Spain, but just four years later, they joined the Latin Monetary Union and introduced the Peseta. This brought over three hundred years of escudo production to an end.

Reborn as a commemorative

In 2018, 150 years after the last circulating escudo was issued, the Royal Mint of Spain struck their most iconic gold coin again, this time as a 24-carat gold commemorative. All four original escudo denominations were struck in their original sizes, each with a reworked design that charts the unique history of this remarkable coin.

The Spanish King of England

Gold from the New World began to arrive in Spain after 1503, and it is estimated that twenty-five tons went to the Seville Mint during the 16th Century alone. Built during the reign of King Philip II (r. 1556–98), the first Escudos struck by the Mint bore his shield, and this design appears on the 2018 Four Escudos.

Philip II

Under King Philip II’s reign, Spain enjoyed its “Golden Age”, with an empire upon which it was said that the sun never set. For four years between 1554 and 1558, the King also ruled England jointly with his second wife, the Catholic Queen Mary I. Theirs was clearly a political union, as they married only two days after their first meeting!

When Mary I died in 1558 without producing an heir, Philip automatically lost his rights to the English throne, and he was to spend the rest of his life trying to get it back! He immediately proposed marriage to his dead wife’s Protestant sister, the new Queen Elizabeth I. When she rebuffed his advances, he supported her cousin Mary Queen of Scots in a Catholic plot to seize the English throne. When the plot was exposed, he sent an Armada to invade England. But the Spanish fleet was routed at sea before they could land, thereby sinking his dream of ever possessing England again.

The 2018 Four Escudo depicts the Royal Coat of Arms of King Philip II and the official crowned “M” privy mark of the Royal Mint of Spain together with the new face value (200 EURO). The legend reads “PHILIPPUS.DEI GRATIA.” (Philip by the Grace of God).

The obverse depicts the Cross of Jerusalem within a quatrefoil and a leaf in each corner. This symbolised the King’s official determination to carry the Christian message to the four corners of the world. Of course, a cynic might argue that this noble intention was also a useful pretext to justify the conquest and plunder of foreign lands full of exploitable natural resources. The legend “HISPANIARUMN.REX” means “King of Spain”.

The 2018 commemorative gold Four Escudo

Pirate Treasure!

The Two Escudo was known as a Doubloon (Double), and they were minted throughout the Americas as well as in Spain. Until 1732, all coins produced in the New World were crudely fashioned “cobs” struck on irregularly shaped pieces of gold. Most were shipped across the Atlantic to be melted down, and the metal used to create Escudos of a much higher standard.

In 1586, new coining machines were installed at the Segovia Mint in Spain to strike escudos with the gold received from the New World. However, the Spanish galleons transporting this vast wealth through the Caribbean and across the ocean were always vulnerable to attack from pirates seeking to relieve them of their precious cargo. No other coin in the world evokes stronger images of pirate ships and treasure maps than the Spanish Doubloon.

The 2018 Spanish Doubloon features an original design that was struck at the Segovia Mint in 1607 during the reign of King Philip III (r. 1598–1621). Like his father, Philip III’s Doubloon also depicts the distinctive Cross of Jerusalem as a symbol of his “official” intention to spread the faith.

The reverse presents his Royal Coat of Arms together with a distinctive mintmark to show that the coin was initially struck at the Segovia Mint. Built by the Romans in the First Century to carry water to the town, the impressive Segovia aqueduct was an appropriate choice for a mintmark, as the Mint used giant water wheels to power its state of the art coin press. The legend reads “PHILIPPUS.III.D.G.” (Philip III by the Grace of God).

The 2018 commemorative gold doubloon (Two Escudo)

The Golden Fleece

The largest Spanish gold coin struck in the New World was the Eight Escudo. Often referred to as the “Onza” (ounce), the coin was first produced in 1610 and became the standard for large monetary transactions in the New World.

The 2018 Eight Escudo commemorative coin uses a design that was struck at the Mint of Madrid in 1719 during the reign of Spain’s longest-reigning monarch King Philip V (r.  1700–24, 1724–46). There were several public and private mints in Spain until Philip V decided to make striking coinage a state monopoly in 1718.

The official intention of the Spanish monarchs to spread their religious faith around the world had not diminished after more than a century. The obverse still bears the distinctive Cross of Jerusalem with four leaves. The reverse depicts the King’s Royal Coat of Arms and the legend “PHILIPPUS.V.DEI.GRA” (Philip V by the Grace of God).

An interesting feature of the shield is the inclusion of the mythical Golden Fleece on a chain. Philip V was the first head of the Spanish branch of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a Roman Catholic order of chivalry founded in Bruges in 1430. Since its establishment, the order has only had 1,200 members and is often referred to as the most prestigious and exclusive order of chivalry in the world.

The Golden Fleece was a highly appropriate image to feature on the largest gold coin of the New World. In Greek mythology, Jason and his crew of Argonauts travelled the seas to unexplored lands, searching for the fabled golden treasure. Now, centuries later, the Spanish were reaping the spoils of their own explorations, and the magnificent Eight Escudo was the proof that, like Jason, they had also found a golden treasure that exceeded their wildest expectations.

The 2018 commemorative gold Eight Escudo

Abundance

The amount of gold and silver produced in the New World was phenomenal. An estimated 70 million gold coins and over 2 billion silver coins were struck during the 17th and 18th centuries. The 2018 One Escudo pays tribute to this abundance of gold by depicting the design struck at the Popayán Mint in Colombia in 1758 during the reign of King Fernando VI (r. 1746-–59).

By 1758, all of the mints in the New World were striking coinage of a very high standard. The first milled coins struck in the Americas were produced in Mexico in 1732, and the technology quickly spread to the other mints. The last rough “cob” coins were produced in 1749.

Under monetary reforms initiated by his father, King Philip V, a portrait of the monarch was introduced onto the obverse of gold coins struck after 1728, replacing the Cross of Jerusalem. As a result, the 2018 coin has a portrait of Ferdinand VI on its obverse, with the legend “FERDND.VI.D.G.HISPAN.ET IND.REX.” (Ferdinand VI by the Grace of God, King of the Spains and the Indies).

The reverse presents the King’s lesser Royal Coat of Arms and the unique mint mark of the Popayán Mint (PN) to show where the coin was initially struck. Popayán was a strategically important location as a transfer point for gold and other riches going to Spain, and it continued to produce gold escudos and silver reales until 1819. Completing the reverse is the legend “NOMINA. MAGNA. SEQUOR” (I follow the Greatest Ones).

The first coins to bear the King’s image with his long, flowing hair became known, somewhat unkindly, as peluconas, because peluca is the Spanish word for a wig!

The 2018 commemorative gold One Escudo depicting King Ferdinand VI

The Currency of Conquest

The Spanish Escudo provided the wealth that enabled the transformation of European society. But it came at a high cost. The Spanish conquistadors forced many indigenous communities into dangerous mines to extract the precious metal as quickly as possible under the most atrocious conditions. In addition, they confiscated their gold ornaments, jewellery and decorations, which were almost always melted down and struck into coins or ingots before being sent across the sea to the mother country. Those fortunate enough to examine the craftsmanship of the Aztec goldsmiths reported that they were more skilled than their European counterparts. The loss of their cultural and artistic treasures from the historical record is incalculable. It will forever be a matter of great regret that the Spanish Kings preferred to receive their gold from the New World in coins and ingots.

However, without the influx of gold from the New World, it is hard to see how the intellectual, cultural and artistic Renaissance that swept through Europe after the 15th Century could have been financed. Likewise, the Industrial Revolution that began in Britain in the 18th Century required a prosperous economy to sustain it. The reliable gold coin helped to facilitate this by lifting Europe out of the grinding poverty in which it had languished for centuries.

The Spanish Escudo, with its stable weight, trusted purity, and distinctive design, can be said to have paved the way for the international trading coins, such as the Dutch Ducat (from 1586), the modern British Sovereign (from 1817) and the American Double Eagle (from 1907) that came after it.

Gold Escudos

Irish Gun Money

King James II

A fascinating chapter in the history of Irish coinage occurred between 1689 and 1691 when the deposed King James II authorised the striking of token money made from melted-down guns to finance his army as he tried in vain to recover his crown. It was the largest regal issue of base metal coinage since the Roman Empire, and the impact of his actions are still felt in Ireland today.    

King James II (r. 1685-1688) deeply divided his people with his determination to return the British Isles to Catholicism. Believing that he had a divine right to govern, he tried to overrule Parliament when they opposed his plans, and used increasingly violent and unconstitutional methods to arrest and imprison Protestants.

Many of his subjects prayed for the day when the King’s eldest daughter Mary would succeed him. She had been raised a Protestant to marry her first cousin, the Dutch Stadtholder William Henry of Orange and cement an alliance with the Netherlands. However, when the King’s wife gave birth to a son and heir in 1688, the baby automatically became the next in the line of succession. Fearing the prospect of a Catholic dynasty, seven English nobles then took matters into their own hands and begged William to come to Britain and restore order.

The Glorious Revolution

William assembled a formidable invasion fleet larger than the Spanish Armada, but such a show of force was not required when he landed in England and received a hero’s welcome. After promising that he would maintain “the liberties of England and the Protestant religion”, English nobles, politicians and army officers joined the crowds in cheering his triumphant arrival. 

King WIlliam III and Queen Mary II, who reigned as joint sovereigns

William’s uncle and father-in-law found his support dissolving all around him. Realising that he had lost his grip on power, the King fled London, allegedly dumping his great seal of office into the River Thames as he did so. William permitted him to leave England and go into exile in France. 

Parliament then invited William and Mary to reign together as joint sovereigns. The successful transition of power was hailed as the Glorious Revolution because it was accomplished with very little loss of life in England. Sadly, this was not to be the case in Ireland.

Emergency Money

James was not prepared to give up the crown without a fight. His cousin, King Louis XIV of France, provided him with a substantial army, and on 24th March 1689, he arrived in Ireland, where many Catholics still considered him their lawful King and were prepared to fight to see him restored to the throne. Lacking funds to pay his soldiers (who called themselves Jacobites), he created a token coinage struck in base metal (copper, brass or pewter) which they could later redeem for silver coins after he had regained his crown.

A mint was established at 61 Capel Street, Dublin. In July 1689, the Secretary of State, Lord Melfort, ordered Lord Mountcashel, Master General of the Ordnance at Dublin Castle, to deliver to the mint old brass guns which were in the castle yard. A request was also sent to King Louis XIV asking for “forty guns to coyne money”. Cannons from Limerick, Athlone and Brest in France were melted down and turned into coins, and workers at the mint worked in shifts to ensure that production continued around the clock. Such was the demand for money that a second mint was established in Limerick to strike emergency coins between March and October 1690.

Today, the coins that were produced are referred to as gun money, but they were made with metal from other sources too.  By August 1689, appeals for metal were being sent throughout Ireland, and it was said that Jacobite soldiers would knock on the doors of homes, take the pots and pans they found inside and then walk off with the door knockers too! The Archbishop of Dublin, William King, described how coins were struck from “a mixture of old guns, old broken bells, old copper, brass, pewter, old kitchen furniture (utensils) and the refuse of metals molten down”.

The coins displayed the month and the year of issue to allow a gradual and orderly replacement when James was restored to the throne. Their value was displayed in Roman numerals on their reverse; ‘VI’ on the sixpence, ‘XII’ on the shilling (12 pence) and ‘XXX’ on the half-crown (30 pence). 

Gun Money Sixpence (1689)
Gun Money Shilling (1689)
Gun Money Half Crown (1689)

Despite the best efforts of the authorities to acquire metal, a proclamation was issued on 21st April 1690 to increase the value of the coins to make the metal go further. Rather than being smelted, the old coins were simply heated up and restruck with a higher value. Shillings were struck over sixpences, half-crowns on shillings and crowns on half-crowns. The crown (60 pence) bore the image of the King on horseback to distinguish it from lower value coins which bore his portrait.

Gun Money Crown (1690)

It is an interesting feature of gun money that many of the 1690 dated second issue coins were restruck at incorrect temperatures. This caused them to bear traces of their original designs after being struck for a second time.  

Restrike showing the original undertype

The Battle of the Boyne

Unfortunately for James, his Jacobite army was no match for William’s ‘Grand Alliance’ made up of English, Dutch, Danish, German and French Protestants. On 1st July 1690, the two armies faced each other on either side of the river Boyne, about thirty miles north of Dublin. After several hours of fierce fighting, William’s army crossed the river and drove the Jacobites back. James then gave the order to retreat, abandoned his troops and hurried back to exile in France, with all hope of regaining his throne lost forever.

William at the Battle of the Boyne

As James never regained his crown, his promise to replace the gun money with silver coins never occurred. The emergency coins circulated at reduced values until the early eighteenth century, when they were finally withdrawn from circulation.  Today, each surviving piece of gun money serves as a unique and valuable historical document to a turbulent period of British and Irish history.  

The Coins of the Irish Free State

Yeats in 1923

In 1924 a special committee was set up to select the designs for the first currency of the Irish Free State. The committee was chaired by the Nobel Prize winning poet William Butler Yeats, who had been appointed to the Irish Senate two years earlier in 1922.

Born in Sandymount on 13th June 1865, Yeats was fascinated with poetry from childhood and published his first volume of verse aged just 22. He went on to found the Irish Theatre, writing plays that dealt with his favourite subjects of Irish myths, legends and spirituality.  Ironically, some of his greatest poetry was written after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923, which cemented his reputation as one of the world’s greatest twentieth-century poets.

The committee was well aware of the enormity of the task that faced them.  Though a committed nationalist, Yeats deplored violence and had no wish to antagonise the predominantly Protestant north and the Catholic south. 

For this reason, early suggestions that the coinage should feature patriotic symbols, politicians or Christian saints were quickly ruled out, fearing that it could inflame tensions and lead to the currency being turned into religious medals.  Instead, Yeats wanted something that was “elegant, racy of the soil and utterly unpolitical”.

The Irish Harp on the obverse

After lengthy discussions, the committee agreed that the Irish harp would remain the national symbol of the coinage, as it had been since the early sixteenth century. This would appear on the obverse of each coin, surrounded by the inscription, Saorstát Éireann (Irish Free State).   

For the reverse designs, an agricultural theme was agreed upon, which was essential to the Irish economy.  Yeats announced that they “decided upon birds and beasts … what better symbols could we find for this horse riding, salmon fishing, cattle raising country?“

Seven artists from Ireland, England, the USA, Italy and Sweden were invited to produce designs in plaster or metal. Marks that could identify the artist were removed from each of the sixty-six individual designs submitted so that the committee could not know who had submitted what. Eventually, after careful evaluation, they selected the “incomparably superior” work of a little known English artist, Percy Metcalfe.

Percy Metcalfe

Knowing that assigning the design of the first coins of the Irish Free State to an Englishman was going to be a controversial move, the committee took the unusual step of making all the designs that had been submitted public.  This was done, they said, “because we believe any adverse criticism of the choice of Mr. Metcalfe’s designs could not survive such an inspection,”

The new designs were introduced into circulation on 12th December 1928 and comprised the woodcock (farthing),pig and piglets (halfpenny), hen and chicks (penny), hare (threepence), wolfhound (sixpence), bull (shilling), salmon (florin) and horse (half crown).

Inevitably, there was some opposition to the designs, with some critics protesting that they gave the impression that Ireland was little more than a giant farmyard. One priest even went so far as to denonce them as pagan symbols intended to “wipe out all traces of religion from our minds .. and beget a land of devil-worshippers where eveil may reign supreme.”

However, the animal designs were quickly embraced by the public at large. By celebrating the vibrancy, diversity and beauty found in Ireland, Yeats hoped that the coins would become, as he put it, “the silent ambassadors on national taste”.  Having spent decades in our pockets and purses, it is little wonder that they are still remembered fondly by many people today. 

The coins of the Irish Free State designed by Percy Metcalfe