Monday, June 15, 2020

Those Seventeenth Century Goldsmiths

by Liz Kales

Hôtel de Charost, home of the ambassador of Great Britain
Gold pieces from diner room

In 1613, English Renaissance playwright, Thomas Middleton wrote a comedy entitled “A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.” One of the plots of this somewhat convoluted play centers on a wealthy goldsmith by the name of Yellowhammer who uses his daughter, supposedly a maiden, to climb the social ladder.

He betroths her to Sir Walter, a philandering knight eager for the girl’s dowry. In return, Sir Walter promises Moll’s brother, Tim a “landed niece” from Wales as a wife. She is in reality one of Sir Walter’s mistresses, who has in fact no land at all. In the end, the goldsmith’s plans go awry and Moll ends up marrying the poor gallant she truly loves.

The play was published in 1630 by the bookseller, Francis Constable and is considered to be among the best and most characteristic of Jacobean comedies. It would seem that the goldsmiths of the day were not above enjoying a laugh at their own expense.

Actually, a story about goldsmiths and their upward mobility in society is not as farfetched as one might suppose. Quite a number of wealthy goldsmiths in 17th century England were able to attain knighthood; mostly by dint of their ability to amass considerable wealth.

One example is Sir Richard Hoare, who was knighted by Queen Anne in 1702, appointed Sheriff of London in 1710, and elected Lord Mayor of London for the year of 1712. He was awarded these privileges because of his immense wealth, having been a goldsmith and establishing a private bank in 1672. As we shall later discover, history often credits the goldsmiths of the 17th century with the invention of modern banking.

Courtesy of Wikimedia user Aramgutang.
Gold was the first metal widely known to our species. In fact, it is mentioned in the second chapter of Genesis before even the first couple’s fall from grace. In Genesis 2:10-12 it states: “Now there was a river issuing out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it began to be parted and it became, as it were, four heads. The first one’s name is Pishon; it is the one encircling the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good.”

Gold is one of the earliest commodities equated with value. Early in man’s history, its brilliance, natural beauty, and luster along with its malleability gave it intrinsic appeal and power. Although the earliest history of human interaction with gold is lost to us, still its association with the gods, with immortality, and with wealth itself are common to many cultures throughout the world. As time progressed, gold and silver in standardized coins came to replace bartering arrangements and made trade in the Classic period much easier.

Of course, as is so often the case, where there is wealth there can be the propensity for crime. Coining became one of the major crimes associated with goldsmiths. Coining occurs when the perpetrator shaves or files off some of the metal to ‘diminish’ the coins value in any way. Such treatment of the coin of the realm was considered an act of treason against the king and was punishable by death. In the files of the Old Bailey, one finds many accounts of goldsmiths who became parties to such offenses and paid dearly for their actions.

To become a goldsmith was not easy. Apprentices were required to be skilled in forming metal through filing, soldering, sawing, forging, casting, and polishing metal. And since many goldsmiths were also jewellers, it took a great deal of skill and experience to become a master in the field. The exquisite pieces of art crafted by the most gifted goldsmiths were highly sought after by the beau monde of the period.

However, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of 17th century goldsmiths is how they branched out to become bankers. It is the main reason that a few of them actually accumulated far more wealth than some of the richer members of the nobility.

In the early part of the seventeenth century, the wealthy people commonly kept their gold in vaults at the Tower of London. But when Civil War broke out in 1642, King Charles the First needed some ready cash. He somehow figured those reserves in the Royal Mint belonged to him, and he took it all for his war effort.

Naturally, people with lots of gold began looking for other places to keep their wealth secure. The goldsmiths had strong vaults and were quite happy to take the job upon themselves. They issued certificates for the amounts their clients had lodged with them and would return the gold on demand.

As it turned out, the amounts the owners wanted to take out were usually only a fraction of what was stored for them. So eventually, the goldsmiths believed it would be harmless to loan out the gold on hand at a good rate of interest. In time, instead of actual gold, they circulated paper certificates redeemable in coin. People considered these certificates as good as gold.

However, towards the end of the century, the issuance of all these certificates was getting somewhat unwieldy and the Government determined that a newly established bank called the Bank of England would take over the process. As the massive doors to the Bank of England opened in 1694, the opportunity of greatly increasing their wealth by this form of fractional reserve banking closed to hundreds of London’s wealthier goldsmiths. Once again, they were forced to rely on skill and creativity as their only key to upward mobility in the social classes.      

This is an Editor’s Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published November 30, 2013.


Elizabeth Kales is the author of The Silk Weaver’s Daughter, a family saga focussing on the story of a young Huguenot girl who flees France with her family in 1685, leaving behind her cousin, the love of her life. Once settled in London and faced with an unwanted pregnancy, her father forces her to marry a wealthy English goldsmith, twenty years her senior. “The Silk Weaver’s Daughter” is a novel of faith, love, and unwavering loyalty.

The sequel, Night of the Gypsies, takes the family on a further adventure through the wilds of Bavaria at the turn of the 18th century.

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