Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Currency in the Second Half of the 18th Century

by Mike Rendell

It is one of the most basic of everyday occurrences: you need to pay for something, using cash. But what coins would have been in the purse of your average hero or heroine in the second half of the 18th Century? If you want to be authentic it may help to look at what was, and was not, in circulation.

First, it is interesting to look at inflation during the period 1750 to 1800 to see what buying power money would have had. A useful instant conversion giving the ‘value’ of say, one hundred pounds, in different years is shown at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/results.asp#mid

£100 in 1750 would have the buying power of £8500 (as at 2005 values)

By 1780 this had been whittled down to £6285

By 1790 it had dropped to £5603

In 1800 (with the effect of the war with France firing up inflation) it was £3217.

This demonstrates that ‘the pound in your pocket’ had slumped in value by well over fifty per cent in half a century. Where were the coins made? At the Tower of London. It may seem odd to us but the public were actually allowed in to the Tower to see the Royal Mint in operation. This was the only place in use as an official Mint, all the earlier provincial mints having been abandoned. Hence my ancestor records “April 25 1771, went with General Whitmore, Mr and Mrs Snooke, Mr Gifford and my Wife to see the Mint at the Tower”.

Put to one side the question of bank notes: although they had been introduced by the Bank of England a century earlier before they were only used in high denominations. For instance, from 1725 onwards there were notes of 20, 25, 30 and upwards in multiples of ten pounds to a hundred pounds, and then in multiples of a hundred to five hundred pounds. Above that there was a note having a value of a thousand pounds. These were huge sums, and whereas the really wealthy might have access to these notes they were never in general use. Indeed the public wanted to ‘feel the value’ and expected their currency to equate to the inherent value of the metal their money was made from. For centuries there had been no problem: gold was worth twenty times its equivalent weight in silver and silver was worth 12 times that of humble copper. These relative values were reflected in the age-old division of the pound into twenty shillings, and the shilling into a dozen pennies. But these divisions came under huge strain with the inflationary pressures – particularly affecting the price of silver. A shortage of the precious metal marked the second half the century. The silver mines in the South West of England had become exhausted, the Seven Years War had cut off supplies from the continent, and the price of silver rocketed. The Royal Mint knew they could not reduce the size of the silver coins as they were already tiny – a silver penny weighed just half a gram and was only a few millimetres across. The public had never liked the idea of a debased coinage, so the Mint took the easy option: they didn’t make any silver coins, year after year after year!

During the period 1760 to 1800 it would therefore be quite wrong to refer to a ‘newly minted’ crown (5/-) or half-crown (2/6d) because they weren’t made at all. My ancestor specifically refers to holding on to ‘a Carolus’ (Latin for Charles) meaning a crown coin from the reign of Charles II. I still have the coin, and it is so worn that the portrait is barely discernible. And so it was with all the coins – those in circulation got older and more indistinct, making it easy for forgers to issue silvery metal blanks as counterfeits. No shillings were issued (other than a special batch designed for Ireland) apart from 1787 when coins to a face value of £50,000 were issued in shillings and sixpences. For the rest of the time – virtually no silver at all. Gold was coined fairly regularly, mostly ‘spade guineas’
having a face value of 21 shillings. These were frequently counterfeited, using brass gaming tokens of the identical size and similar design.

The spade guinea (above); and the worthless gaming token (below) with a completely impossible date of 1701 (George did not become king until 1760) and which might easily confuse the public - particularly if offered in change after dark or by candle-light in the gloom of a counting house at the back of the shop.

In the first half of George III’s reign there were no pound coins (twenty shillings) but a quarter guinea appeared for a year in 1762 and a third of a guinea coin (seven shillings) appeared in 1797. By then the Bank of England had introduced one- and two-pound notes, but it is worth remembering that a pound was still a lot of money. My ancestor records paying his barber Edward Slatter ‘for shaving this whole year two guineas’ (plus a shilling paid to the barber’s son as his Christmas Box). Shaving was of course a whole-of-head task (i.e. not just the face) to enable a wig to be worn comfortably. In 1797 one pound also represented six months school fees paid for educating both of his children, or the amount spent on soap in an entire year. It would cover his wine bill for six weeks or alternatively
a fortnight’s worth of meat from the butcher. Coal cost him about a pound a month (at between ten and fifteen shillings a ton delivered to his house). A pound was also what he paid by way of taxes for nearly six months (all that was to change in 1800 with the introduction of the hated Income Tax, when he was suddenly faced with a bill for £36 p.a.).

War with France resulted in the issue of paper notes, and these gradually became acceptable to the public, meaning that the Royal Mint were able to stop making gold guineas between 1797 and 1813. The smaller items of currency were however still left in desperately short supply.

To get round the silver shortage various alternatives were tried including over-stamping Spanish 8- reales coins with King George III’s head in the centre, using the goldsmiths’ hallmark. In monetary terms they were given the curious value of 4/9d. The Bank of England (as opposed to the Royal Mint) then issued dollars of five shillings between 1804 and 1811 along with a token currency of three
shillings, and its half (eighteen pence). None of these were particularly common.

The 8 reales silver coin of the king of Spain over-stamped in the centre with the head of George III. These coins were not much liked, giving rise to the comment ‘they may have the heads of two kings but they are not even worth a crown’.

Bank of England 5/- dollar

Copper coins were also far from plentiful in the early years of the reign of George III. Pennies and halfpennies were minted in the first half of the decade in the 1770s – and then nothing until 1797 with the introduction of the ‘Cartwheel’ coinage. These giants, containing respectively a penny and two-pence worth of copper, were unique in having the inscription impressed on to the surface as
opposed to being raised up. They demonstrate the power of the newly introduced steam-powered presses. Using pure copper, which is soft and easily worn, meant that whereas vast numbers of these coins were minted, comparatively few remain in really good condition. They cannot have been too popular with the public – they weigh one ounce and two ounces respectively, so carrying a stack of them would ruin the stitching in anyone’s purse!

This picture shows the two-pence piece. All of the cartwheel coins are dated 1797, regardless of the year of issue.

Instead, the public got used to using smaller tokens often issued by traders in a particular town or area, satisfying the local need for pennies, halfpennies and farthings. (As an aside, my ancestor diligently wrote down a reminder that it was proper to pronounce the word farthing as ‘fardun’). The problem with these tokens is that they were technically illegal (breaching the monopoly
granted to the Royal Mint by the Crown) and could often only be exchanged in the town of issue.

This is a rather fine example of a halfpenny token issued in Coventry

By way of an aside my ancestor’s diaries show that on Valentine’s Day every year he gave each child in the local school one penny (’98 Boys and Girls one penny each i.e. Eight shillings and two pence, plus a penny for the post boy’).

Things did not get back to a sensible footing until the whole coinage was overhauled in 1816. This coincided with the move of the Royal Mint from its old headquarters in the Tower of London to new and more spacious premises nearby, where mechanisation was more practicable. This involved the new steam presses supplied by Boulton and Watt. It was decided to allow silver and copper to be representative i.e. without equivalent intrinsic value, and from then on the coinage was based solely on the gold standard. Out went the 21 shilling guinea and in came the twenty shilling pound (using 22 carat gold) with its multiples in two and five pounds. Also in 1816 back came the silver crown and half crown. Back came the shilling and the sixpence, along with the smaller silver denominations (4d i.e. groat, 3d, 2d and 1d).

In conclusion: the issue of coins other than for higher values was a complete mess in the period 1760 to 1816. Partly this was caused by inflationary constraints, partly by the limited space available within the Tower of London to bring in new machinery. The result was chronic shortages, poor quality coins in circulation, and an increase in forgeries - even though counterfeiting carried the death penalty. The problems existed because we were wedded to a dual (i.e. both gold and silver)
standard and the problems went away ‘overnight’ in 1816 when the coinage was completely re-vamped. Prior to that date the public had to endure fifty years of confusion and inconvenience, as well as the financial loss caused whenever anyone unscrupulous or dishonest palmed off inferior foreign coins, forgeries, or blanks. It must have been a rotten time to be in business, and my ancestor’s diaries reflect this damaging uncertainty.

The purse of Richard Hall, who died in 1801, showing the comparative size of a silver penny and a copper two pence piece.

Mike Rendell is author of a book The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman, available on Amazon, based on the array of diaries, journals, accounts – even shopping lists – left by his 4xgreat grandfather Richard Hall. It tells the story of everyday life in the Eighteenth Century, seen through the eyes of his ancestor who had a haberdashery shop at Number One London Bridge. Details of the book appear on his website.

He also does a blog, three or four times a week, on all matters linked to the Georgian era.


  1. Thanks to author Mike Rendell, author of The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman for his entertaining and informative article on CURRENCY IN THE SECOND HALF OF THE 18th CENTURY. The fact that he is sharing details from his own great (X4)grandfather's diary makes this article even more fascinating.

  2. What a fascinating and informative post! I love the photos, especially the one contrasting the size of the silver penny and the copper two pence.

    I envy Mike his Georgian ancestor who never threw anything away!

  3. Great post, Mike. I like the comparison of the spade guinea to the worthless gaming token. Didn't know that or I would have used that in my book, "George in London," set in 1751.

  4. Great information, Mike!! Your book sounds fascinating!

  5. I always thought historic English money was confusing. Now I know why! They were always substituting.
    I love studying family history and lucky you to have so many original documents of your family to pour over. I look forward to reading about your Georgian ancestor.

    Thanks for posting.

  6. A marvelous post! I hope you can say something about buying on credit? It would seem the only answer to such a coinage mess.
    In 1249 King Henry III had ordered the mint to strike silver pennies short of weight. The public response was fiscal collapse, until Henry brought his poor, obedient mint officials to trial, blamed the short weight on them, had them hanged (gagged so they couldn't protest publicly), and issued new coins at proper weight.

  7. reat piece, Mike. In the middle myself of writing a novel set between, 1778 and 1817, this will be of great value to me. A lot of the novel is set in France; do you have any link to a site on the same period there? Clearly, much will have changed there in the 1790s.


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