Historical Medals and Tokens (3 October 2018)
I was born in the City of London, well within the sound of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside. I have spent almost my entire working life in the City. London is a special place for me, and for many years I have been fascinated by its history and its continual change.
Like many young boys of my generation, I was struck by the announcement in 1966 that the Government had decided to introduce decimal currency. Until then I had a collection of only a few worn bun pennies, but immediately I set about collecting coins from circulation - rather a challenge given my meagre pocket money. My fascination with coinage was clearly enough to compel my mother to take me late that year to the shop of B.A. Seaby in Great Portland Street, where a few shillings purchased an assortment of older British coins and I became a subscriber to the company's Bulletin.
Sadly there was little that I could afford, and my tentative enquiries after cheap Roman coins tended to be met with the news that I had been beaten to them by more energetic collectors. But in 1972, at the age of 16, I successfully bought three London 17th century tokens. It was to be another 30 years before I acquired any more, but in the intervening decades I never forgot them.
A quirk of the school timetable led me to study Russian, which I continued in my first year at Cambridge. I then switched to law and qualified as a solicitor, but my knowledge of Russian came in very handy on a couple of very large disputes for Soviet clients, and I travelled back and forth between London and Moscow on many occasions. In the process I became interested in Russian history and coinage, leading in time to a substantial collection of Russian medieval coins. I chose the medieval period because they presented a much more interesting puzzle than the well-published coins of more modern times. This led in turn to the creation of an equally substantial library of Russian numismatic books. However, increasing affluence in Russia caused the supply of new material to dry up in the West, and so I resolved to sell both collections. The coins were auctioned by Baldwins in London in 2013, and the books by Kolbe and Fanning in New York a few months later. A large proportion of both returned to Russia.
Meanwhile, my interest in the London tokens had resurfaced, aided by the appearance of Dora Harris's fine collection at Dix Noonan Webb in 2002. Somewhat to my surprise I was successful in buying most of the lots on offer. I collected spasmodically over the next few years, but I could not miss the sale of the Norweb collection of City of London tokens in 2008, and from then onwards my fascination with London tokens, history and topography has continued to grow.
The 17th century tokens of London are not only more numerous but also more varied than the issues of other parts of the British Isles. In almost all cases they identify not only the issuer but also the street where the issuer was based, and a great many can be traced back to individuals whose existence is well attested from other contemporary records. Some issuers became wealthy, while others died of the plague, were burnt out in the Great Fire or met other sorry fates. In some cases the tokens are the earliest known evidence for particular streets existing at all, reflecting the rapid and somewhat haphazard development of early modern London.
They were also democratic. There were no virtually no companies, so anyone who was not a servant or a holder of public office needed to have a trade, and (unless they dealt only in more expensive items) to have a means of giving small change. As a result, thousands of individuals in London chose to have their own tokens made. They should not be regarded simply as tavern tokens; issuers included tallow chandlers, grocers, meal men, oil men, bakers, sutlers, coffee-house keepers and even goldsmiths.
The tokens are a rich source for academic research. I have published a handful of articles on them and hope to write many more. However, now that the collection has grown almost as large as the Norweb holdings I see no reason to hang onto the physical pieces themselves, and hope that others will appreciate them as much as I have.