British Coins from the Collection of Samuel Birchall of Leeds (1761-1814)

British Coins from the Collection of Samuel Birchall of Leeds (1761-1814)

Samuel Birchall (1761 - 1814)

Samuel Birchall, one of five children of Caleb Birchall (1735-1805), of Rainford, Lancashire, and his wife Mary, née Stapleton (1739-1802), was born into a Quaker family in Horsehay, Shropshire, on 31 May 1761. He was a pupil of George Bewley’s school in Kendal from 1773 to about 1777. The family moved to Stockport, Cheshire, in the summer of 1779, where his parents ran a calico and tea business. He married Anna Jowitt (1765-93) on 6 June 1785 and the following year moved to Leeds, where he joined his wife’s family firm, John & Joseph Jowitt, woolstaplers, in which Samuel had become a partner by June 1788. Samuel occupied himself with civic duties in his newly-adopted home town. He served on the board of governors of Ackworth School and of the Infirmary, was a collector of rates, taxes and duties for the south Division of Leeds and was a trustee of the Workhouse.

The Birchalls had five children: Maria, later Eveleigh (1786-1867), Samuel Jowitt (1788-1854), Edwin (1789-1877), Amelia, later Miller (1790-1866) and Alfred (1791-1853). The family lived firstly in Briggate, then Simpson’s fold (October 1790), Hunslet lane (July 1794), South parade (May 1811) and 9 Park square (November 1813); Samuel’s name is included in ‘Early Leeds Printers’, a list of members of the printing and book trade in Leeds compiled by Elizabeth Parr in 1973, and there is a short biographical note on him in Biographia Leodiensis by Richard Vickerman Taylor (London and Leeds, 1865). Following his wife’s death on 11 February 1793 at the age of 28, and Samuel’s difficulty in finding a housekeeper to look after five children under the age of 7, the children went to stay with their grandparents in Stockport for several months, where the older ones went to school. Writing to Samuel in November 1793, Caleb Birchall said ‘the Shopkeepers here [Stockport] continue to refuse the several sorts of Halfpence [tokens] as when I was at Leeds, but I and many or most others continue to take them tho' we are greatly overdone with them.’

But this is far from the first reference to Birchall and numismatics. Perhaps the inspiration for Birchall’s involvement with ‘provincial coins’ was the appearance in his home town of the 1791-dated halfpence of Richard Paley (1746-1808), a soap-boiler and chandler turned speculative property developer. On 6 July 1791 Richard Phillips (Samuel’s friend Dickey Phillips, with whom he was at school in Kendal) wrote to him from Shrewsbury to advise that he was trying to obtain for Birchall one of the Wilkinson silver tokens, but they were difficult to find. 'Surely if a piece of silver of about the value of half a Crown can be so easily disposed of for 3/6, it would pay him [Wilkinson] to issue a second impression', wrote Phillips. On behalf of a local business consortium fronted by the Briggate-based jeweller and watchsmith Henry Brownbill (1746-1803), Samuel Birchall wrote to Matthew Boulton at the end of 1792, requesting an order of tokens (left), ostensibly to represent the city’s wool trade. The order coincided with a slack period at Boulton’s manufactory and, following an exchange of correspondence in which it would seem that Boulton’s image of Bishop Blaize used on the Cronebane tokens of 1789 was not preferred by Birchall because he did not want to appear to be authorising the copying of another issuer’s imagery, the tokens were quickly produced in the Spring of 1793. Birchall soon became a regular customer of Boulton, ordering special strikings of Soho mint products for several years, always paying promptly.

Samuel Birchall, ardent naturalist and antiquarian, is best known among present-day numismatists for his A Descriptive List of the Provincial Copper Coins or Tokens issued between the Years 1786 and 1796, an alphabetical reference to pieces in his own collection and those of a small number of other contemporaries, including Evesham’s MP Thomas Thompson (1767-1818), the Bath grocer Lacon Lander Lambe who later emigrated to Washington, USA (1770-1860) and the London antiquarian Sarah Sophia Banks (1744-1818). The List was printed by Thomas Gill in Leeds and privately published by Birchall in early 1796, at the height of the collecting mania for such items. Painstaking but relatively unsophisticated by present-day standards, Birchall listed over 1,000 different tokens and associated items, products of the new factories in Birmingham and elsewhere. Among them is the private token that Samuel himself put out in 1795 (previous page, centre), the dies engraved by ‘Wyon’ although, from the huge range of edge inscriptions employed at the time and in subsequent years, their manufacture would appear not to have been confined to Boulton’s emporium.

Apart from tokens, Samuel Birchall formed valuable collections of British gold and silver coins, stuffed birds and beasts (these were sent to London for sale at the end of 1813, following the move to Park square), and mineralogy, maintaining extensive acquaintances with men of letters interested in similar pursuits in other parts of the country. Doubtless one of the sources for the coin collection was the dealer Henry Young (c. 1738-1811) of Ludgate street, London, a token issuer himself in 1794 who was followed in business by his much better-known son, Matthew Young (1770-1838), issuer of his own private token in 1798 and a collaborator with Birchall on his List, for which Henry Young was the retail outlet.

Birchall was closely associated with the very important hoard of about 270 English and Anglo-Viking coins of the early 10th century, found in a decomposed leaden box on land farmed by Benjamin Wright and belonging to Henry Cholmley of the Lobster House, close to the boundary between the parishes of Bossall and Flaxton, seven miles east of York, on 14 September 1807. In discussing the coinage of Regnald, prevalent in the hoard, the late Christopher Blunt and Lord Stewartby refer to coins of this ruler in the Birchall collection (NC 1983, pp.146-63), to which the reader is referred for more background.

Samuel took ill in March 1814 and died at the age of 53 after an attack of gout on 17 May 1814. He was interred on 22 May at the Friends Burial Ground, Camp lane court, Leeds.

The following 148 lots may be said to fairly represent a gentleman’s cabinet of British hammered silver coins, from the mid-9th century up to the change in coin production in the early 1660s, of the type formed over 200 years ago. Although living over 200 miles from London and the centre of the then coin trade, Samuel Birchall’s contacts, with the Youngs and others, ensured that he would have been kept informed of the availability of specimens he lacked; doubtless he was also aware of the dispersal of the cabinets of the likes of Richard Southgate (1795) and Samuel Tyssen (1802), among others passing through the salerooms at the time. A prompt payer, which Birchall was known to be, additionally made him a valuable customer to the dealers of the day, and he was known to journey to London and other cities on business, where he would have been able to indulge his various hobbies and pursuits.

It is truly exceptional for a private collection made over 200 years ago, and unseen by all but a tiny number of scholars since, to come to today’s international coin market. Apart from one (or possibly two) coins from the Bossall/Flaxton hoard (Lots 2-3), there is a notable Harold II penny by the Lincoln moneyer Ulf (Lot 12), representative issues of the early Norman kings including a Profile Left penny of Romney (Lot 13), in all likelihood a stray from the Denge Marsh (Kent) Hoard of 1739, an attractive vis-à-vis shilling of Philip and Mary (Lot 68), a superb Briot milled sixpence (Lot 115) and, perhaps most remarkable of all, a tiny late Declaration penny of Charles I (Lot 126). Coins with a Birchall provenance will be sought after in years to come – enjoy them now via the pages of this catalogue.
P.J.P-M.

View the Lots in this Collection