Over the centuries, money came to be accepted in disk form that contained the actual — or close to the actual — value of the metal from which it was made. In England in the eighth century, the silver penny formed the basis of coinage. As silver and gold were not worth as much as they are today, a silver penny was the smallest coin — if one wanted a smaller denomination, the penny was cut into halves (half-pennies) or fourths (a fourth-thing, or “farthing”). As the price of silver rose due to finding other uses for it, the coins became smaller and smaller, making it very hard to make coin useful to the public.
By 1601, the silver penny weighed .052 grams, or 8 grains. It is not hard to see that a farthing, with a weight of only 2 grains would be nearly useless — easier to lose than to use!!
Compounding this problem, the Kings and Queens of England were reluctant to agree to the manufacture of any coin in what they considered “base metal.” Copper, which had little value, was looked upon as a base metal — and rejected as coinage material. Copper coinage was simply “beneath the dignity of Monarchs” and was not to be used. Thus, small change was continually is short supply. This fact led the populace to produce token money — sometimes with the blessing of the Monarch, most times without.
In the time of Queen Elizabeth I, some tokens were made —most of them being of tin, a mixture of copper and tin, or a lead based alloy. They were made in fairly large numbers, and their manufacture and use continued until the middle of the 17th century. They were produced by merchants and used generally for their businesses, and by town officials seeing a public need. Bartering for goods and services was still commonplace throughout this time, but the need for low-value coinage grew steadily. Though beneath Kingly dignity to supply copper coin from the Royal Mint, “token farthings” were approved by King James I (1603-1625). His desire was to curtail the use of lead token coinage that was in current use. His solution, however was to issue a royal patent to Lord Harrington, and let him make copper farthings — and keep the money to be made from their issue. This Royal Patent was extended to others until 1644.
Harrington and those who came after responded by minting farthings that were FAR from the intrinsic value of copper — and were thus hated by the population. In fact, at a time when a farthing worth of copper was around 90 grains, Harrington made his at 7 ½ grains, and sometimes as tiny as 3 grains!!
These “Royal Patent” farthings did not stop the manufacture and use of privately issued leaden tokens.
Civil war broke out in 1642. This caused the populace to hoard silver coin, causing a severe shortage of that medium of exchange. The war lasted until 1649 — when Charles I was beheaded. England did not seat another King at that time — with Cromwell, who had defeated Charles I, declaring that he did not want to be King — and that England should be a Commonwealth. Cromwell was installed as “Lord Protector” of the Commonwealth. For centuries, the King had held the Royal Prerogative — only he could produce coinage. Anyone who attempted to mint money would be summarily executed. With no monarch on the throne, there was now no Royal Prerogative — and — the people hoped — no punishment!! The manufacture and use of copper tokens in Britain thus began on a large scale.
Reproduced by kind permission of Bill McKivor, the editor of the 2015 updated edition "The Provincial Token-Coinage of the 18th Century".