Print This Page (simplified layout)

New Acquisitions: 17th Century Trade Tokens

Autumn, 1997

THE Museum has recently acquired two trade tokens of relevance to its collections, issued by prominent Oxfordshire tradesmen. Such tokens were struck in copper and, according to G. C. Williamson, were produced in the seventeenth century only between the years 1649 and 1679. They formed the small change of the period and provided an essential service for the poor.

Seventy people are recorded as having issued trade tokens in Oxford during the period, the highest number for any provincial town after Norwich and Exeter. In 1652 the City Council expended £20 on farthing tokens. A very large number must have been produced: £20 would have paid for approximately 100,000. However, the Council was unable to maintain its monopoly and tokens were immediately issued by three local tradesmen, with others soon following.

The two tokens acquired are a halfpenny token issued by John Allington and a farthing token from Thomas Williams. Allington’s token is dated 1666 and indicates that he practised as an apothecary in Banbury. It is 2cm in diameter and at some stage a silver and mercury wash has been applied. Tokens treated in such a way are uncommon and are most likely to have been retained by the issuer’s family, or perhaps silvered by an eighteenth-century collector.

The token bears a simplified version of the central motif of the Arms of the Apothecaries Company, showing Apollo – ‘the inuentor of phisique proper’ as the grant of that Company states – holding a bow and arrow and standing astride a serpent. Use of arms of London Livery Companies on provincial tokens was widespread and it is likely that members of a town guild maintained an allegiance to the relevant London Company.

Thomas Williams might be assumed, from his copper farthing token, to have been a spectacle maker, trading in Oxford at an address displaying a sign depicting spectacles. In seventeenth-century London such an emblem was used on street signs and tokens by members of the Spectacle Makers Company and, occasionally, by makers of scientific instruments.

In fact, Williams does appear in the Directory of British Scientific Instrument Makers (which also includes retailers) on the basis of this token. Further biographical information about him is scarce but the likelihood that he made or dealt in instruments appears remote, and his possible dates, given as 1750-1800 in the Directory, are clearly incorrect.

E. T. Leeds, in a paper published in 1912, identified Williams as a milliner who had an apprentice bound to him in 1637 and paid hearth tax in 1652 and 1655 on a ‘messuage’ (dwelling) on the south side of the High Street, now occupied by the National Westminster Bank. Williams was also described as a milliner in 1672 when he leased another property in High Street from New College.

The numismatist Robert Thompson has been able to confirm that while four London issuers of tokens bearing spectacles have been identified as members of the Spectacle Makers Company, no evidence links the three provincial issuers of such tokens (including Williams) with this trade. However, other milliners (and haberdashers) are known to have dealt in spectacles and used the device on their tokens.

Haberdashers do not appear in manuscript records of Oxford trade guilds in the Bodleian Library but the name Thomas Williams appears in the lists of Masters of the Company of Tailors for the years 1662-70, another likely choice for a milliner. Provincial towns, unlike London, would only have been able to support a small number of guilds, which would have covered a range of occupations.

Both Allington and Williams were prominent figures: Allington served as Mayor of Banbury twice while Williams was Mayor of Oxford in 1653. In the notice of his burial, which took place on the 3rd August, 1718, Allington is also described as ‘Justice of Ye Peace’. The Parish Register for All Saints Church, which included part of High Street, states that a ‘Mr Thomas Williams’ was buried on the 5th March, 1673.

The quality and style of Allington’s token, although issued before his service on the Banbury Corporation, points to his prominence. Although struck slightly off-centre, the token is of a higher quality than that of an other apothecary in Banbury, Benjamin Hibberdine. Halfpenny tokens were relatively common in the county, while only two were issued in Oxford.

Using Leeds’s criteria for dating, the diamond decorations and beaded border on the reverse of Williams’s token suggest that it was struck between 1657 and 1666 – before 1657 tokens were characterized by their simplicity and after 1666 by a tendency for all space to be filled.

Beryl Hartley