When the Cash runs out — Trade Tokens

Trade tokens originally came into existence as a by-product of complex economic forces. However, they are much more than  that. As may be seen from the few examples shown here, they also form an important record of the history of towns, and indeed whole regions. The tokens show the names of the banks and businesses of sufficient size to be able to finance their production. They are therefore an important piece of social history and have been collected almost since their creation — it is tempting to wonder whether future collectors will view the local currency recently brought into use in Yeovil in the same way.

On many occasions throughout history, Britain has suffered from a shortage of the small coinage necessary to meet the needs of the population. Apart from an extension to the existing barter system, the most significant solution to the problems this caused  was the production of an alternative currency in the form of “tokens”. In 1300, Edward I issued leathern money to free up silver coinage to pay his army and particularly the mercenaries within it. In 1613, James I sanctioned a lucrative monopoly to issue farthing tokens made of copper. Later, following the civil and financial disruption of the English Civil Wars, many tradesmen began making their own tokens for use in their local area.

The industrial revolution only exacerbated this problem, due both to increasing prosperity and to a rise in the number of people directly employed in industry where barter was less prevalent than among the farming community. During the eighteenth century the Mint issued very little silver coinage and in 1797 and 1804, the expedient of ‘stamping the mark of the King’s Head used at Goldsmiths’ Hall for distinguishing the Plate of this kingdom’ (the duty mark) on Spanish dollars was used.

Meanwhile the cost of the conflict with Napoleon and the interruption of trade it entailed, contributed to an ongoing financial crisis which made the situation even worse. It was these circumstances that led to the dramatic increase in the production and use of silver tokens between 1811 and 1816. The key difference between silver tokens and silver coins was that silver coins had a face value with a direct link to that of the value of the bullion they contained, whereas tokens did not.

SN 2524

In 1804, the Bank of Ireland had received official sanction to issue silver tokens (see stock number 2524) and in 1811 the Bank of England followed suit (see stock number 2490). In July 1811, the first group of towns was given permission to issue tokens for local use and this scheme was rapidly extended.


Between 1811 and 25th July 1813 some 300 locations in Britain had issued trade tokens.  By this time there were even tokens issued without any territorial designation, although these were comparatively rare (see stock number 2541). This lack of regulation was not welcomed either by the British Government or the Bank of England.  In July 1813 an act was passed to limit the issue of private tokens. By 1814, an improvement in the international situation coupled with an increasing income from trade meant that a more permanent solution could be envisaged. New coins were minted and issued and the 1816 re-coinage, although not a complete solution, was an improvement on the use of both Spanish dollars and tokens.

SN 2541

By 1900, one Maberley Phillips (numismatist) ascertained that the Bank of England did not have "a single specimen of her token coinage, some millions of which were issued under her directions, and for twenty years formed the principal silver circulation of the metropolis and probably of the nation."

Luke Schrager

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