Seventeenth Century Patent Farthings and Trade Tokens: Introduction

Background to English Tokens

In medieval and early modern Europe the value of a coin was based on its precious metal content. If a mint used less precious metal than was required so that the product was under weight or if they used a more debased metal that was below the required fineness, then the coinage produced would be devalued in relation to other coinages. To protect English coinage from being devalued due to unscrupulous minters, the minting of gold and silver coins was reserved as a royal privilege. Lower denomination coins were made of the less valuable precious metal, namely silver, which in England was refined to a .925 fineness called sterling. The silver penny was the smallest size coin of sterling fineness that the monarch could reasonably issue. Mossman has calculated if Elizabeth I were to have made sterling silver farthings they would have weighed only two grains each! Clearly such a small size would be difficult to produce and almost impossible to use. However, small change under a penny denomination was needed for daily purchases. For such coins to be a usable size they would need to be made out of a base metal. But, even if they were made of one of the more expensive base metals, as copper, the coins would need to be large (under Elizabeth I a halfpenny would need to be over 175 grains) if they were to have an intrinsic value equal to their face value. This would also make them costly to produce. Alternatively, small change coins could be made of base metal but in a somewhat smaller and usable size, that was economic to produce. This would mean their intrinsic value would be less than their face value, so they would have only a token status. As tokens, their use at face value would be dependent on local acceptance. The resolution of this problem was, those people who needed small change the most, namely the local merchants, produced small change token pieces and used them in their daily commerce. The public knew the tokens would be accepted by the local merchants who were issuing them, so they had confidence in accepting and using the tokens at face value to make local purchases. These privately produced token coins were made of lead, tin and even leather. A large number of such pieces were in circulation through the reign of Elizabeth I.

The Patent Farthings 1613-1642

On May 19, 1613 James issued a proclamation prohibiting private token coinage and granting John Harrington, Lord of Exton, a royal patent to produce copper farthing tokens which were to be used throughout the realm. Lord Harrington and the king hoped to share sizable profits from this enterprise. The coins were authorized to be just six grains but the first products actually weighed only five grains. Because of protests over the minute size of these tokens the weight was increased to nine grains. These copper coins, which displayed a crown and crossed scepters on the obverse with a crowned harp on the reverse, were extremely small and easily counterfeited. Of the three Harrington varieties two were very small (12.25mm) and were plated with tin, the third variety was larger (15mm) and issued in copper without plating. When Lord Harrington died in 1614 the patent passed to his son, who died soon thereafter, so the patent reverted to Lord Harrington's wife, Lady Anne Harrington. It appears Lady Harrington either sold or gave the patent to the Duke of Lennox for on June 28, 1614 the patent passed to Lodewiche, Duke of Lennox, who took on the title of the Duke of Richmond in 1623. The five varieties emitted during Lodewiche's life are called the Lennox issues. Thus the Harrington and Lennox farthings date to the reign of James 1 (1603-1625).

Upon the death of Lodewich in February of 1624 the title passed jointly to his wife Frances, Duchess of Richmond and Sir Francis Crane. This partnership began issuing farthings during the reign of Charles I (1625-1649); in all they emitted eight varieties known as the Richmond or Royal farthings. On June 20, 1634 the Duchess passed the patent to Henry Howard, Lord Maltravers, who began producing farthings in partnership with the same Sir Francis Crane. This partnership produced six varieties, in the same style as the previous issues, known as the Maltravers farthings. The public regularly protested that the patentees were profiteers producing extraordinarily lightweight coins that were frequently counterfeited. In fact, Maltravers refused to accept tokens of earlier patentees, stating too many counterfeits were in circulation. This caused great economic hardship on the poor who held the tokens. To stop counterfeiting Maltravers introduced a smaller and thicker coin with a brass plug in the center called a Rose farthing, after the image on the reverse which was changed from a harp to a rose. Seven varieties of Rose farthings were issued. In 1642 when the Puritans took control of the Parliament the coining monopoly was abolished and the minting of the patent farthings ceased.

Some of these small patent farthings have been uncovered in the excavation of Wolstenholme Towne, one of the small settlements outside of Jamestown that was destroyed during a major Indian attack in 1622. Others were uncovered at Jamestown, the River Creek site in York County, VA and at what is known as the "Chesapean Site" at Virginia Beach. Although many people disliked these tokens it appears they were sought in the Jamestown area. In fact, in 1636 the Governor of the plantation, John Harvey, petitioned James I for a supply of the farthing tokens so he could pay day laborers. However, it appears the request was not granted. A few of these tokens must have also been brought to Massachusetts Bay, where the Puritans did not want to have anything to do with the hated coins. Indeed, they preferred to use musket balls to these lightweight products of the profiteers. The first legislation of the Massachusetts General Court regarding money, passed on March 4, 1635 stated: (quoted from Crosby, p. 26)

It is ordered that hereafter farthings shall not passe for currant pay. -
It is likewise ordered, that muskett bulletts of a full boare shall passe currantly for a farthing apeece, provided that noe [i.e. no] man be compelled to take above xiid [12d, that is a shilling] att a tyme in them.

English Trade Tokens 1648-1672

In 1648, following several months of civil war, King Charles I was captured, put on trial and then on January 30, 1649, he was beheaded. A Commonwealth was then established with the Puritan military commander Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. At this time the nation went back to the use of small change trade tokens. Numerous merchants and municipalities issued farthing and halfpence tokens as well as some penny tokens made of copper, lead and sometimes tin. Although most examples were round some were octagonal while others were square and a few were even heart shaped. These tokens were local hammer struck products of a much larger size than the patent farthings. The farthing example on the following page is actually quite a small coin in comparison to later regal coinage as it is only 20.9 grains and 16 mm wide. However, this is two to three times larger than the earlier patent farthings! The number of trade tokens produced during this period was vast, in Akerman's catalog which is limited to tokens from London, there are 2,461 varieties. Trade tokens continued to be produced after the end of the Commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660. Finally in 1672 all trade tokens were demonetized when Charles introduced the first royal copper halfpenny and farthing issues.

Some trade tokens are known to have been used in the colonies. A Portsmouth (Hampshire) token of James Henner (dated 1656) was discovered in the Jamestown excavations, while a hoard of eight trade tokens from Maidstone in Kent were uncovered in the Hamptons on Long Island (Boyne-Williamson, Kent 380, 381 (twice), 385, 392, 393, 397 and 398). Other Seventeenth Century English trade tokens have been uncovered in non-collector accumulations as listed in Kleeberg (pp. 37-38).

It seems some of these tokens may have been brought to the colonies after their demonetization in 1672. It was the demonetization of the St. Patrick tokens that allowed Mark Newby to purchase a large quantity at a discount and in 1681 bring them to America. Presumably others imitated him by purchasing demonetized tokens at a discount and then taking them to the colonies in the hopes of trading them at face value or better. Edward Barnsley uncovered a story in the London Newspaper, The Loyal Impartial Mercury, number 34, for Tuesday October 3 through Friday October 6, 1682. On page one it stated:

From Bristol. They write that another Ship is fitting out for Pensylvania on board which 40 Quakers together with their families will imbarq; and amongst other things tis said they carry over with them 300 pounds-worth of Half-pence, and Farthings which in that Colony go currant for twice their value and 'tis added that some discontented Presbyterians will Likewise accompany them.

The ship that brought the forty Quakers to the colonies, called The Unicorn, arrived in Philadelphia in December of 1682. This story is interesting in that it shows there was general knowledge that, because of a shortage of coinage in the colonies, English coins were trading at about twice their face value. It appears these Quakers hoped to take advantage of that fact. Most likely they did not take the newly minted regal coins but rather probably obtained a good discount on some kegs of demonetized local token farthings and halfpence.

Interestingly about fifteen years later, after a quantity of regal halfpence had entered the colony, we hear of a problem in Philadelphia. On June 23, 1698 a group of fifty three Philadelphia merchants sent a petition to the General Assembly requesting an act be passed, "That all such farthings & halfpence that are made of Lead & pewter may be wholly suppresed & Cryed Down and only those of Copper which are in the Kings Coyn may pass the farthings for two a penny & the half pence for a penny" (The phrase "Cryed Down" refers to devaluation.) Possibly some of the coins circulating with the lead and pewter farthings and halfpence that individuals were trying to pass at the regal rate included some of those coins brought to Philadelphia fifteen years earlier on the Unicorn. If the lead and pewter coins were in imitation of and passed along with some British trade tokens one could have argued they should be accepted at the British rate of double their value as they were British coins.

It should be noted, we cannot positively identify the lead and pewter coins mentioned in this petition. It is quite possible they were locally made products as the merchants imply these coins recently came on the market. We do know brass and tin tokens were being produced in Massachusetts at the about this time (see the section on the small change coinage of ca. 1700), so locally produced tokens were not unknown in the colonies. However, why these coins would be accepted at the English rate is perplexing unless they circulated with and were in imitation of British trade tokens. It should be emphasized we are not certain of the type of coins brought over on the Unicorn, but trade tokens seem to be a good guess, although it is possible the coins were regal issues. From archeological evidence we do know some trade tokens found their way into the colonies. This hypothesis suggests that, to some extent, trade tokens may have briefly played a role in the colonies following their demonetization in Britain but before a supply of regal coppers had arrived in the colonies.


Mossman, pp. 105-107 and 115; Edward Barnsley (contributor), reprint of the first page of the Loyal Impartial Mercury or News both Forreign and Domestick,   no. 24, from Tuesday October 3 to Friday October 6, 1682; in The Colonial Newsletter,  vol. 16, no. 2 (July, 1977, serial number 49), p. 589; Edward Barnsley, "Importance of Halfpence & Farthings on the Unicorn," The Colonial Newsletter,  vol. 16, no. 3 (November, 1977, serial number 50), p. 609; Walter Breen, "What were the Coppers Brought Over by the Quakers in 1682?" The Colonial Newsletter,  vol. 16, no. 3 (November, 1977, serial number 50), p. 610; John. M. Kleeberg, "The New Yorke in America Token" in  Money of Pre-Federal America,   edited by John M. Kleeberg, Coinage of the Americas Conference, held at the American Numismatic Society May 4, 1991, Proceedings no. 7, New York: American Numismatic Society, 1992, discussion of early token coinage on pp. 37-38; Ivor Noel Hume, "The Very Caterpillars of This Kingdome: or, Penny Problems in the Private Sector, 1600-1660," pp. 233-250, especially figures 2 and 4 and pp. 247-49 in David Orr and Daniel Crozier, editors, The Scope of Historical Archaeology. Essays in Honor of John L. Cotter,   Philadelphia: Laboratory of Anthropology, Temple University, 1984; George Williamson, Trade Tokens Issued in the Seventeenth Century in England, Wales, and Ireland, by Coporations, Merchants, Tradesmen, etc.: A New and Revised Edition of William Boyne's Work,   two volumes, rpt of 1889-1891 edition, New York: Bert Franklin, 1970 (This book is sometimes referred to as Boyne, I have called it Boyne-Williamson); John Yonge Akerman, Trademen's Tokens Current in London and its Vicinity between the Years 1648 and 1672,  New York: Burt Franklin (rpt of London, 1849); Harrold Gillingham, Counterfeiting in Colonial Pennsylvania,  Numismatic Notes and Monographs, number 86, New York: American Numismatic Society, 1939, pp. 6-7; and C. Wilson Peck, English Copper, Tin and Bronze Coins in the British Museum 1558-1958,  second edition, 1964, London: British Museum.

A page of Patent Farthings is followed by a page with an example of an English Trade Token.

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Section Contents Patent Farthings


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