New Money for Old

Seventeenth century England had lots of problems, but for a country of merchants, its deteriorating coinage dragged on for decades. The silver coins in circulation were becoming worn down and illegible, so easy to forge, but also there was widespread ‘clippiing’ wherby people would clip or shave the edges which could produce a considerable amount of silver. Ths situation was made worse by the fact that silver was worth more in Europe than the face value of the English coins, so there was a considerable amount of illegal exports of it, to bring back gold or goods in exchange.

There was a huge illegal trade in making counterfeit coins, either in materials that looked like silver, or in lead etc with silver plating. There was even a mint inside Exeter gaol – prisoners would offer a visitor a handkerchief for sale for a shilling, take the person’s money, then claim they changed their mind, and refunded them with a fake shilling. The crime of forgery was high treason, but the rewards were so high, and daily life so tenuous, that there were many prepared to take the risk.

To try to prevent clipping, and other forgeries, from 1662 English coins were made by machine, with the latin words ‘decus et tutamen’ printed round the edge, meaning ‘an ornament and a safeguard’. Modern pound coins have different reverses, and different letterng roud the edges. The Scots have ‘mnemo me impune laccessit’ which I beieve is the motto of the Order of the Thistle, and means ‘let no man that crosses me expect impunity.’ There is also a Welsh motto but I can’t locate details at the moment. the two pound coin has a quote generally attributed to Newton, but it may have been Bacon: ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ which is part of a quote, If I knew more than others, it was only through… This was of course famously misquoted as the title for an Oasis album.   

This was the problem that finally led to the greatest mind of the day, Sir Isaac Newton to be given the role of head of the mint.  He finally managed to get a massive recoining underway, in the Tower of London and various other major cities. When this was done, silver and goldsmiths were given huge stocks of the new coins to exchange for the old at fairs such as St James’ in Bristol.

A local journal in Bristol records events of the time:

“1696 began recoininge of silver money. The state of silver coin for many yearrs past had been miserably bad, being so reduced in size by clipping, that some of it was only 1/2 its value.
In June last year a great discovery was made in Bristol of clippers & coiners of money; some were committed to Newgate[gaol]  & some sent to gloucester. Mrs Scarlett was condemned at the August assizes to be burned but reprieved, then made her escape. .. the coinage caused serious problems, especially with trade abroad, & payement of troops. So it was decided to recoin all silver coins. So the  sugar house in Bristol [a former mansion which had been partly converted to a sugar refinery]  began coining on 12 September 1696, then old coin banned unless the greater part of the letters were legible. Seixpences were acceptable if not clipt in the innermost ring. Greatt quntities of lead pewter were brougt in.

In 1696/7 was coined in Bristol 450,000 coins, all of which had B under the head, then the sugar house was  purchased by guardians of the poor, to employ poor & youth spining & weaving cotton but the house was still commonlly called the mint. “In order to defray the expense of coining, a tax was laid on windows.”

This last comment is one of those missing items that explains so much. The many delays in recoining was due to the cost it involved – this was not just smelting, but it also required high security – not just of the finished product, but the raw materials, and to protect the dies they were made in. I think this is the first mention of a window tax, and explains whey so many houses in the country have blind windows.

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