We have all received mailings, either via snail-mail or email, which include a "check" or coupon worth a certain amount for use at a restaurant or hotel as an inducement for our patronage. Our Regency ancestors received similar specialized currency, and though their incentive cash came in the form of hard coin, its production and use correlated to the postal system of their time.
The minting and circulation of the coaching half-penny through time …
First, it is important to understand that these coins are part of the tradition of non-governmental coinage which occurred in Britain after 1775, the year George III stopped the minting of small denomination copper coins. Though governments had no need to worry about the small change, everyday merchants did. By 1787, the lack of pennies and half-pennies, particularly in the provinces, was having a severely negative effect on local economies, as it was becoming increasingly difficult to make change for small purchases. In that year, on the Isle of Anglesey in out-of-the way Wales, the Parys Mining Company, which mined copper and had access to coin presses, made the decision to mint both half-penny and penny coins. These coins were backed by the mine for their full value and were used to pay their workers. These workers in turn used them for their purchases from local merchants. The previously exasperated townsfolk were overjoyed to once again have small change in circulation.
The idea of local currency quickly spread across the county, and soon, many provincial cities and towns were minting their own small denomination coins. Eventually, as it was clear this practice could not be stopped and the need of pennies and half-pennies remained constant, the government licensed a member of the nobility, usually a magistrate or judge, in each shire, to manage and oversee the production of these coins. It was this official’s responsibility to ensure some level of integrity in the copper content of the coins. These small coins were typically circulated only in the area in which they were minted, so literally hundreds of them were made across England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Since these coins were not struck under official government auspices, many of them honor local residents or important local events, others make sometimes biting social comments or political statements. Many of them were also extraordinarily well-designed and manufactured. It is estimated that nearly ninety-five percent of the coins minted were half-pennies. Both pennies and, occassionally farthings, were produced, but in much smaller numbers.
Very soon, these small works of the coin-maker’s art also became collector’s items. By this time they were often called Conder Tokens, after James Conder, the Ipswich draper and para-numismatist, who published the first catalog of them, An Arrangement of Provincial Coins, Tokens, and Medalets: Issued in Great Britain, Ireland, and the Colonies, within the Last Twenty Years; from the Farthing, to the Penny Size, in 1798. Remarkably, this work is still the standard reference for the study of these coins. Many collectors avidly pursued their goal of owning one coin in each denomination from each province. Soon, some provinces were striking coins just for collectors. As with anything of value to collectors, some of these collector’s versions were of high quality, while others were quite poor in both design and manufacture.
Not to be confused with "evasion" tokens, most of the provincial coins or tokens were semi-legal and remained in circulation without government objection until 1797. That year, George III’s government once again began minting both penny and two-penny coins. But there was still a need for the smallest denominations, both half-penny and farthing coins were still not being produced by government mints. At least three coaching half-pennies were issued at about this time. In one case, a half-penny was issued to honor the founder of the mail coach system. A year or two later, a couple of enterprising coaching-inn proprietors issued their own half-penny in the hope of encourage business at their inns.
Palmer’s Mail Coach Half-Penny
In 1797, the same year the government finally decided to mint penny and two-penny pieces again, a group of Bath businessmen and some coaching enthusiasts together with the owners of some of the large coaching inns in London, issued a half-penny for the purpose of recognizing the achievements of John Palmer, the man who had established the, by then, critical system of mail coaches which ran across Britain. There were, by 1797, forty-two mail coach routes in regular operation across the country. Those mail coach routes had become the arteries of commerce, travel and communication for the majority of the population. Yet, at that very moment, Palmer was diligently fighting for the remuneration which had been denied him when he had been forced out of office by resentful postal officials nearly five years before. There is some indication that the consortium who issued the half-penny honoring Palmer hoped it would help make his name and achievements more widely known, thus aiding him in his efforts. Palmer had just been elected Mayor of Bath the previous year, so he was still of man of stature and influence, which it would seem his friends believed this additional recognition could only strengthen.
The Palmer Mail Coach Half-Penny was probably minted in Bath, struck in copper. It is about the thickness of a US quarter (25¢) though slightly larger in circumference, being 28mm in diameter. It has a smooth rather than a milled edge. The obverse, or front, side of the coin depicts a mail coach drawn by four horses in full gallop. Above the image, along the top edge are the words, "MAIL COACH HALFPENNY" and along the bottom edge are the words "PAYABLE IN LONDON." Just below the coach is the motto: "TO TRADE EXPEDITION & TO PROPERTY PROTECTION." On the reverse, the back, is an inscription within a wreath which reads: "TO J. PALMER ESQ THIS IS INSCRIBED AS A TOKEN OF GRATITUDE FOR BENEFITS REC’D FROM THE ESTABLISHMENT OF MAIL COACHES." There are three known versions of this coin. On the most common version, there is a cypher of the letters "JF" below the inscription on the reverse side. The initials are probably those of James Fittler, who is also known to have engraved a portrait of Palmer. It is possible this version may have been struck before 1797. On a more rare version of the coin, the cypher is replaced with the date the coin was believed to have been struck "1797." On the most rare version, the words "MAIL COACH" are omitted on the obverse and on the reverse the entire inscription within the wreath reads: "A.F.H." surrounded by simply "To J. Palmer, Esq. This Is Inscribed." It is possible this last version, of which only one was known, was a special presentation to Mr. Palmer himself.
It would appear that the Palmer Mail Coach Half-penny went into circulation by being sent to the various mail coaching inns at the termini of the many coaching lines. There, the landlord of the inn would probably have used them when making change for customers bound for London. These customers would then be able to use the Palmer half-penny to pay for goods and services at the large coaching inn where their coach would stop in the metropolis. A half-penny at that time would have had the same buying power that one and a half British pounds does today, so this would not have been an insignificant amount of money. The half-penny might have been used to purchase refreshments at the inn upon arrival, or in partial payment for a room for the night, if the traveler was proceeding on to a further destination. In many cases, to redeem their half-penny, the holder might have to spend even more than that single coin, which would result in additional revenue for the landlord.
The George & Blue Boar and the Swan with Two Necks
The continued lack of circulating half-pennies and the lure of increasing their profits seems to have been the dual reasons for the minting of two other coaching half-pennies. Both of these coins were issued by the proprietors of two of the larger coaching inns in the environs of London as a method of advertising their businesses. Both tokens are more rare today than the Palmer half-penny.
It would appear that a Mr. (or Mrs.?) C. Ibberson, the landlord of the George & Blue Boar inn, located in Holborn, noticed how the Palmer half-penny was increasing trade at his establishment, as well as many others around London. In order to capitalize on this opportunity, Mr. Ibberson issued his own copper half-penny, payable only at his own inn. It is likely that this half-penny was issued shortly after the Palmer half-penny, as it is listed in James Conder’s 1798 book on tokens. No drawings or pictures of this coin are known, but it was described as having a lettered edge, which reads: "Payable at The George & Blue Boar London," rather than a milled edge. On the obverse was a finely executed image of St. George slaying a dragon, surmounted by a crest in the shape of a boar. Along the outer edged were the words "Holborn, London" and "C. Ibberson." On the reverse side, a laurel wreath enclosed the inscription: "Mail & Post Coaches to all parts of England." There was another version noted by Conder in which the boar crest was much reduced in size. There are no known examples of either version of this coin extant today.
Another copper half-penny was issued by another large coaching inn proprietor, Mr. William Waterhouse, landlord of the Swan with Two Necks, located in Lad Lane, London. The inn’s name is assumed to be a corruption of its original name, the Swan with two nicks. It was common custom for owners of swans to mark their birds with tiny nicks on their beaks, in order to be able to identify them. More than likely the original owner of the inn had a bird with such markings, but over time, the inn came to be called the Swan with Two Necks instead, making for a novel image for this important coaching inn’s sign, and this coaching token.
The Swan with Two Necks half-penny was probably struck sometime between 1798 and 1800. It does not appear in Conder’s 1798 book, and William Waterhouse sold the Swan with Two Necks in 1800. On the obverse is a depiction of a swan with two necks, the two heads turned in opposite directions and one wing raised. Beneath the swan are the words "LAD LANE LONDON W. W." (Waterhouse’s initials) and over the swan are the words "PAYABLE AT THE MAIL COACH OFFICE." On the reverse is the image of a coach drawn by four horses, though these horses are moving at a trot, not stretched out at a full gallop as are those on the Palmer half-penny. Around the coach are the words "SPEED, REGULARITY & SECURITY." The edge of this half-penny is milled, another indication of a later date than the others. Though this coaching half-penny is rare, there are still examples available to collector’s today.
Though all of the coaching half-pennies discussed here were issued prior to the Regency, there is every reason to believe that similar tokens were issued during those years. There was a shortage of small denomination currency right though the Regency, thus providing a constant need for such coins. It is possible that smaller coaching houses, in London and in the provinces, issued their own half-pennies or pennies as advertising and an incentive to draw patrons to their establishments. Both the George & Blue Boar and the Swan with Two Necks were very large and important coaching houses at the end of the eighteenth century. Yet only a few of the tokens from the Swan with Two Necks survive, and there are none now known from the George & Blue Boar though two versions were recorded by Conder. Smaller coaching inns would not have issued their own coins in the same volume as the larger establishments, so their tokens would have had a much more limited circulation. But that does not mean they were not available for use by Regency-era travellers.
Such coaching tokens might play a number of parts in a Regency novel. Perhaps one is found in the possession of the villain, providing a valuable clue to the hero in tracing the blackguard’s movements. Perhaps one of the characters is found abandoned, unconscious, only to be suffering amnesia upon regaining their senses. A coaching half-penny in their pocket might indicate the point of origin of their journey or their destination. It would at least suggest along which coaching route they might have been travelling, as such tokens were usually only in circulation on the route which stopped at the inn which issued them. Who knows to what use a clever Regency author might put a coaching token?
Author’s Note: I must admit that I find these small coins fascinating and I could not resist the chance to own one myself. I purchased this Palmer half-penny from David Stuart, who runs Alnwick British & Colonial Coins & Tokens. His company is based in Alnwick, Northumberland, which, not surprisingly, is also the location of Alnwick Castle. This stunning Gothic castle has served as the location of the famous, if mythical, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter film series. It was a pleasure to do business with Mr. Stuart, who offers a wide selection of British coins and tokens at his web site and though eBay. If you would like to see more of these historic coins, or purchase some for yourself, make it a point to browse the ABC Coins and Tokens listings.