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Lisburn Seventeenth Century Tokens

Historians, by definition, are primarily concerned with written sources and this can sometimes lead to a neglect of other relevant material. The main job of museums, on the other hand, is to curate and study objects. Regrettably, the resources they hold are often misunderstood and under-utilized. Numismatics is a good choice to illustrate the problem. The numismatist can spend a lifetime in the study and arrangement of coins but the information gathered may never appear outside specialist publications. The historian, even the economic historian, often ignores a large corpus of information which usually complements, and sometimes replaces, mote familiar material. It is hoped that this article will make this potential source more widely known and encourage those who may be chary of a strange specialization.

Governments have never found it economically attractive to supply small change, although this has long been regarded both as a facilitation of trade and a social duty. By the 17th century, an economy existed within which money functioned in a manner recognizable today. It should come as something of a shock, therefore, to discover that in the middle years of the century, little regard was given to the problem of petty coinage. Denominations under sixpence were scarce, although small coins down to silver halfpennies were made at times. A comparable situation today would be if no currency was readily available other than banknotes. As well as not being easily obtainable, small values in precious metal were hardly practical, either in production or in use, with the halfpenny weighing little more than a quarter of a gram. James 1 thought that by selling the right to strike copper farthings he could kill several birds with one stone, but the resultant coins, probably current in Ireland only from 1623 (in spite of the fact that a harp featured as the reverse design from their first appearance in 1613), seem never to have been popular in either England or Ireland. They were small, easily forged and sold at a discount for bulk. In short, they failed to persuade a public, convinced of the importance of the bullion element in coinage, that they were other than a royal money-making scheme. The issue ceased in 1644, and in spite of numerous proposals, some of which reached the stage of having patterns struck with such speaking legends as 'The Relefe of the Pore' and `for Necessity of Change', no authorized copper coinage appeared. It was not until 1672 that the need for official copper halfpennies and farthings was catered for in England.

In Ireland the position regarding small change may have been somewhat better than in England, in spite of recurrent and chronic shortages of specie. There had been large issues of small copper pennies and halfpennies in 1601 and 1602, but these probably ceased circulation in 1623 after the introduction of the farthings produced under royal patent. Scotland had long experience of copper and billon (i.e. very base silver) coinage. James VI and Charles I issued substantial numbers of small copper coins worth 2d Scots called 'turners'. These are common finds from 17th century contexts in the northern parts of Ireland. Copper double-tournois issued by Louis XIII and some local magnates in France circulated with the turners in Scotland and also appear with them in Ireland. It is yet unclear, however, if this imported coinage was in common circulation here much before the 1650s. Neither do we know the rate at which these coins passed-an English penny was the equivalent of twelve Scots pence, so the turner should have been worth less than an English farthing.

Under the Commonwealth and Protectorate (1649-53 and 1653-600), the central monopoly on the right to issue all coinage may have mattered less than in previous years. In the event, the obvious need for small change was filled in England from 1651 by a flood of small copper pieces-tokens-mostly valued at a halfpenny or a farthing, issued by traders and towns. The operation of these pieces is perhaps easiest to explain by analogy with promissary notes or I.O.U.s. The contrast between an uncertain promise to pay (albeit in metallic form) offered by the tokens, and the official coinage of 22 ct gold and sterling silver, must have been large and perhaps tells us something about economic stability and confidence during the interregnum and its aftermath.

In Ireland, tokens appear in 1653 and continue until 1679, being replaced by regal halfpennies in 1680. Over 800 different issues, from 179 localities, are known from Ireland at present. Most Irish tokens, unlike the English, give their denomination as a penny. A further contrast is often provided by the lack of a precise statement of trade. Many English tokens give some indication of the occupation of the issuer, who were often inn-keepers, persons involved in retail trade, or employers of labour. In Ireland a bland 'Marchant' is often the only information, sometimes supplemented by a trade company's arms. Preliminary research on some southern issuers indicates that many fall into the category of speculators and capitalists, rather then shopkeepers or simple traders.' If careful examination of the activities of issuers outside the major towns proves this picture to be widespread, one might suggest that the tokens, as well as being an economic utility, were a speculation in their own right. Given the difficulty of raising capital at a remove from the main financial centres in the mid 17th century, the ability to put several pound's worth of tokens (produced at a fraction of their face value) into circulation and keep them there for several years, must have been a considerable boon. The analogy with banking practice, in the period before reserves had to cover notes issued, is clear.

In the British Isles, the technology of coin-making was going through a transitional stage at this time, with several suitable methods for the production of small copper coins being available. All the tokens were struck between two dies, on which a design was incised either by the use of punches or engraving, usually by a combination of both. The lower die, on which the more important design was put because it wore more slowly, is known as the obverse, and the upper as the reverse. These terms are equivalent to the colloquial 'heads' and 'tails'. The design on the dies was impressed on the blanks, or flans, by striking with a hammer, in a fly press, or by squeezing in a rocker press. As will be realised, the level of technology required could vary from the crude to the sophisticated, a couple of tokens even having legends on the rim. In England, token production was largely in the hands of two or three workshops identifiable (even in the absence of literary evidence) by letter and other punches common to a number of dies. The same workshops seem to have produced dies, and perhaps struck the tokens-the two operations not necessarily being linked-for many Irish issuers. Some Irish tokens, however, by their crudity and eccentric technique, are patently local productions and may, have more interest for that reason. A variety of craftsmen had the basic skills required to produce a die. The problem of producing flans (the coin before the design is applied) was sometimes avoided by overstriking on the French double-tournois mentioned above. The size and weight of tokens varies greatly, even among coins of one issuer, but of course this should not have affected the value. The metal used, judging by appearances, ranges from almost pure copper to various grades of brass.

At present, fourteen 17th century tokens are known from Lisburn. Numbers 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 are represented in the Ulster Museum collection and have their provenances indicated.

1. WILLIAM ANDREWS. 1671, [in centre] W.B. either side of a merchant's mark.
Reverse: IN LISBORN. MARCHANT [in centre] 1D and a tree.
2. WILLIAM DOLLAR MAR [in centre] W D
Reverse: IN: LISBORN:...ANARD [in centre] 1666 D above, 1 below. (Belfast Natural History & Philosophical Sec., Bean collection).
3. ED: ELLIS. APOTHECARY [in centre] shield with 1d over.
Reverse: IN. LISBVRNE. 1667 [in centre] mortar showing two lugs and pestle extending through inner circle
4. GEORGE GREGSON [in centre] a covered cup [?] with G G either side
Reverse: LISNEGARVEY. 1659: [in centre] hanging scales, small D to upper right. I under centre of beam. (Cupples, Johnson Smyth call.).
5. ADDAM. LEATHES [in centre] shield bearing arms.
Reverse: OF LISBVRNE. GENT [in centre] 1D in a heart. (J. Young. ex R.M. Young coil.; McCloskey colt.; Dr. T.S. Agnew roll.).
6. GEORGE LOCKHART [in centre] 1D in a heart.
Reverse: LISBVRNE. MARTCHt [in centre] arms, three boars heads... (B.H.N.P.S.; J. Young, ex R.M. Young Coll.; Dr. T.S. Agnew).
7. BRIAN MAGEE [in centre] BMG conjoined.
Reverse: IN. LISNEGARVEY [in centre] BMG conjoined.
8. DENIS. MAGEE. MARCHt [in centre) 1D in a heart on a shield.
Reverse: OF LISNEGARVEY [in centre] DMG conjoined. (B.H.N.P.S., Benn Coll.; Grainger Coll.; F.J. Robb call.).
9. EDWARD. MOORE: [in centre] 1666.
Reverse: IN. LISBVRNE [in centre] E.M with a flower of three stalks between the letters.(B.H.N.P.S.. Benn colt.; FT Robb coll., 2).
10. 10 PEERS LISBORN MAR [in centre] DI between flowers with cinquefoil heads. Reverse: ? the Market House. (Fitzsimons coll.).
11. OLIVER: TAYLOR. MARCH or Mr or MERCER [in centre] 1D in a heart on a shield.
Reverse: ANT. IN. LISNEGARVEY [in centre] OT conjoined and 16 58 either side. (B.H.N.P.S., Bean Coll., 'Mr'; F.J. Robb Coll., 'MARCH'; Dr. T.S. Agnew, 'MARCH' and 'Mr'). There are three varieties of this token listed by Williamson, two dated 1658 and that with 'Mercer' undated.
12. ANTH WRIGHTSON. LISB [in centre] A.W. 1D below.
Reverse: St [small t over stop] IOHN. GREEN. COLRAN. [in centre] ST conjoined to left, IG conjoined to right. (Purchased, 1968)
13. W.R. above D.M. in a heart, below 1656.
Reverse: LISNEGARVIE (in centre] D over I. (Some show signs of being struck over French double tournois). (B.H.N.P.S., Bean coll.; Grainger coll., 2; T.G.F. Patterson).
14. W.R.
Reverse: D over I (Struck over double tournois) (B.H.N.P.S., Bean coll.)

In Ulster, the number of tokens known from Lisburn compares with Belfast's 26, and Londonderry's 18. The only other places to reach double figures are Antrim and Coleraine with 11 each. In the south, Dublin's pre-eminence is emphasised by 143 issuers, but one might be slightly surprised to find other towns ranking as follows (if token issues are to be regarded as reflection of population and economic importance): Galway 32; Drogheda 22; Kilkenny 19; Youghal 17; Waterford 16; Wexford 15; Limerick 13; Cork 10. Tokens appear in all sorts of unlikely places of little importance, emphasising that perhaps some coins were not intended simply to supply change for retail trade.

It is not the purpose of this article to supply full details of the Lisburn issuers - others are better qualified for the task - but a few preliminary notes may be of interest. The most obvious place to start is, of course, with the Hearth Money Roll2. There we find Adam Leathes with 2 hearths; George Gregson, 3; Anthony Wrightson, 5; Edward Moore, 2. We can probably associate `Mr. Ellis' (4 hearths), with the churchwarden 3 of Lisburn Cathedral in 1698 and with the Ed. Ellis, Apothecary' of the token. The difficult nature of the Hearth Money records is well known and we need not be too disturbed at a lack of total coincidence between the two lists of names. A casual look in the index at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland reveals a little more information. William Andrews appears in the Rowan account book, and there is a Connor Will of 1711/12 in which he appears possessed of at least 246 acres. Edmond Ellis is comparatively well documented, with a Will of 1714, appearances in the Rawlinson papers and Hertford Rent Roll and other sources. George Gregson features in the Lisburn records of the Society of Friends and seems to have died about 1690. He also appears in the Subsidy Rolls of Killultagh in 1663 and 1665. A Bryan Magee is in the Subsidy Roll for 1663 and Bryne (sic) Magee is a churchwarden in 1669. Denis Magee features in 1663, 1665 and 1667, being described in the latter entry as `Miles' (soldier). Such versatility would be entirely in keeping with what we know of many other issuers. There is an Anthony Wrightson with the rank of Cornet in the Army accounts of 1690/91. This list could be easily amplified, and perhaps some picture built up of the scale and nature of the financial affairs of these men.

Another approach is to look at the tokens themselves. The most immediately exciting piece is obviously that of John Peers (no. 10) which has a building represented on the reverse, This is described as the Lisburn Market House in Williamson 4, but according to Macalister5, was regarded as a church by Fletcher. The importance of a 17th century representation of the Market House, however crude, is obvious and it is worth examining the problem in some detail. By far the commonest type of building on the tokens is a castle. With few exceptions these are wholly conventional, almost heraldic in appearance and produced from stock punches. The next commonest type of building to be depicted is a church, and here there is more variety in style. The examples with which I am familiar, however, do not resemble the device on the Peers token. One is then left with buildings of the market house type for comparison. There is a Dublin token of Thomas Speght which was regarded by competent antiquarians as having a representation of the Thosel. Two tokens of Limavady show a building labelled on the coins themselves as `New Hall', and these perhaps provide the best comparison with the Lisburn piece. The use on tokens of devices to locate an issuer was common in England and well-known in Ireland. Sometimes, this was a precise reference to an actual sign, or to a street, or a landmark identifying the town. If it could be proved that Peers operated out of the Market House, one would be confident of the attribution, but unfortunately there is a further complication in that John Peers was a cathedral churchwarden in 1672. At present, therefore, one can only observe that the device is not the product of a standard punch, and therefore may be presumed to be an attempt to represent a specific structure. A depiction of any pre-1708 Lisburn building is of value. My own opinion is that the row of semi-circles above the base line might well be intended to represent arcading of the market house type.

A number of points may be made about the other tokens. The covered cup on Gregson's token (no. 4) is a prominent part of the arms of the Goldsmiths' Livery Company, and taken with the scales on the reverse, may indicate that he was advertising himself as performing same of the functions of a goldsmith. He does not appear in published lists of members of either Dublin or London companies. In Lisburn, the trade is most unlikely to have involved actual fabrication, but rather the buying and selling of plate (an important part of many capital transactions) and acting as banker, including the changing of money. The tokens of W.R and W.R.' and `D.M: show every sign of competent local manufacture, and some at least were struck over double-tournots. The lettering seems to have been produced by the use of a very limited number of straight and curved punches, supplemented by the use of a drill. The style is so closely identifiable with that used on coins of Brian Magee that the temptation to see 'D.M.' as Denis Magee and a brother of Brian is almost irresistible. The tokens of W.R. on his own are only given to Lisburn on this basis, but although exact duplication between the punches is not apparent, perhaps because of the technique used, the style is entirely distinctive. I am aware of only one comparable piece from the north, that of Phelem Magenis of Dromore, Co. Down, and this is a much less accomplished production. Given that tokens only had a value if they could be redeemed, it is quite remarkable that pieces bearing only initials could circulate. The implication must be that the issuer was well-known, at least in mercantile circles, and that the tokens were not intended to travel far. Given these facts, a tentative identification may be possible after an extensive search in the available records.

Almost as much of a puzzle is the piece numbered 12 on the list, apparently issued jointly in Lisburn and Coleraine, It may be, of course, that one is wrong in assuming the name on the reverse indicates 'St. John Green of Coleraine'. A firm identification cannot be provided, however, until the discovery of someone of that name in Coleraine at the appropriate time. Primary finds of tokens would appear to have some role to play in indicating commercial links, and contrary to remarks above, pieces are found at considerable distances from their places of origin. In some cases these may be discarded coin, disposed of as having no value, but not all the evidence can be dismissed in this way. Personal commercial connections between Lisburn and Coleraine therefore seem the moat likely explanation. The capital cost of the die was probably the major part of the total expense in making an issue of tokens. Wrightson and Green may consequently have found it expedient to share the expediture involved.

Readers of this journal may be interested in two other 17th century tokens from the area.

THO. RICKABIE [in centre] shield of arms..
Reverse: IN LANNBEG [in centre] Id pierced mullet either side.
(Grainger and F. J. Robb colls.).


THO. LEATHES. [in centre] a lis.
Reverse: OF HILLSBUROW. [in centre] ID mullet either side.
(Grainger coll.).


Trade tokens undoubtedly filled a need, but they could only be regarded as treating a symptom, not solving a problem. In 1660, Charles II granted Sir Thomas Armstrong a patent to strike farthings on the pattern of those current twenty years before, but few of these ever reached Ireland. Attempts at imposing royal authority and banning the tokens were unsuccessful until the real issue was addressed and a more attractive replacement provided, in the form of the handsome official halfpennies which appeared regularly after 1680. These were not only legal tender, but on average five times the weight of the tokens. The numismatic history of Ireland can be seen as a series of shortages, however. In the early 18th century the situation worsened again, with the result that tokens once more appeared.


1. Personal communication from Mr. C. Gallagher,
2. Taken from a copy of Mr. T.G.F. Patterson's transcription in Lisburn Museum.
3. A list of churchwardens may be found in W.P. Carmody, Lisburn Cathedral and its Past Rectors, 1926.
4. G.C. Williamson, Trade Tokens Issued in the Seventeenth Century A New and Revised Edition of William Barrie', Work, Vol, 1, 1889; Vol. 11, including Ireland, 1891. Williamson relied heavily on local contributors, amongst whom was Canon Grainger, the Co. Antrim antiquary.
5. R.A.S. Macalister, 'A Catalogue of the Irish Traders Tokens in the Collection of the Royal Irish Academy', in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. XT, Sect. C, No. 2, pp 19-185, where Mr. Lionel Fletcher, a prominent English collector and expert, is quoted.

Robert Heslip is Assistant Keeper in the Department of Local History in the Ulster Museum, where his primary responsibility is for the numismatic collections.