Unofficial coinage helped to plug gap

Two local unofficial token halfpennies in the Scarborough Collections.
Two local unofficial token halfpennies in the Scarborough Collections.

Money – or at least the physical representation of it in the form of coins and notes – is something we take very much for granted these days.

In this country, the Royal Mint churns out a steady supply of coins, ranging from 1p to £2, with odd ‘specials’ thrown in, such as the recent £20 coin to mark the Queen becoming our longest-reigning monarch.

Meanwhile, the Bank of England supplies us with banknotes – mainly in denominations of £5, £10, £20 and £50, but with the odd restricted use higher value note too.

Over the years, in line with inflating prices, smaller coins have been phased out – we lost the farthing, or quarter penny, in 1960 and the halfpenny in 1984.

The system generally works, the supply of coinage and its various denominations keeping pace with our need and demand. But that hasn’t always been the case.

There have been moments in this country’s history when the supply of official money issued by the state has become so scant that people have had to resort to producing their own unofficial coinage, especially those of low value. The manufacture of such coins generates little profit for the state, and they are of little use to the government, which generally deals in much larger amounts.

The working man, however, has in the past desperately needed those lesser denominations; without them, the simplest of transactions could become impossible. Suppose he was paid twelve silver shillings each week, but a loaf of bread cost three ha’pence – how would the shopkeeper give him the rest of his much-needed shilling if he had no small value coins? And yet without the change, the common man could soon be very much out of pocket.

Particular periods of such change shortage happened around the times of the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651, and the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s; both periods generated a substantial ‘token’ coinage from private individuals of lesser denominations to plug the gap.

Our exhibit today is two local unofficial token coins dating from 1667. Both are halfpennies – that on the right was produced by a tradesman called John Fowler, while that on the left is more clearly marked with, on the obverse, the words ‘Peter Hodgson of’, with a coat of arms; and on the reverse, the words ‘his halfpenny’ and ‘Scarborough 1667’.

It’s almost certain that the Peter Hodgson in question was a corn and provisions merchant and prominent local Quaker – this area was a stronghold for the movement, more formally called the Religious Society of Friends. The Quakers had been founded during the Civil War by George Fox, who believed it was possible to be Christian without formal clergy, and Hodgson had become an enthusiastic convert to this new way of thinking after hearing Fox preach.

The name ‘Quaker’ arose when a magistrate used it sarcastically after Fox told him to ‘tremble at the word of the Lord’.

Their nonconformity caused the established church to view them as blasphemous, and they were much persecuted as a result – Fox himself was imprisoned at Scarborough Castle from April 1665 until September 1666. On his release, he joined local Quakers at Peter Hodgson’s home on Cargate (now Cross Street), where they regularly gathered to worship.

Peter was later to contribute handsomely to the building of the first Friends Meeting House in Scarborough, which opened in 1676, buying the plot of land on Low Conduit Street in the old town and giving £20 towards the £150 cost of the building work.

And Peter himself was to suffer terribly for his religion, spending five years incarcerated in Clifford’s Tower in York. Good friends of his from within the movement were to die in prison for their beliefs. Ironic that the Quakers were so persecuted when their doctrine was (and still is) based on tolerance and social justice.

The tokens are part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact collections manager Jennifer Dunne on or 01723 384510.