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Trade Tokens and Radical Politics

J.R.S. Whiting recalls an era when tokens were used for propaganda rather than as currency.

For over two centuries,from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries, the Royal Mint failed to strike sufficient copper coins for the needs of the public on the grounds that copper was a base metal unfit to bear the imprint of the King. So that wages could be paid, goods bought and change given, numerous individuals, firms and town councils issued their own local currency called trade tokens. These tokens can tell us a great deal about the social and economic life of this country for each has a story behind it. But in this article my purpose is to look at some of the tokens struck by radical politicians for the sake of advertising their aims and achievements rather than for currency purposes. They were struck during the 1790s when talk of a revolution was in the air. These tokens can be found in antique and coin shops today.

The threat to society posed by radical politicians led to high treason charges against some of them in 1794. Due to the skilful defence conducted by their lawyers, Erskine and Gibbs, they were acquitted. One token struck to mark the acquittal of John Horne Tooke had his portrait on the obverse and on the reverse the words, ‘British Justice Displayed; Nov 22nd 1794’, together with the names of his counsel and the jury. One juryman was Mathew Whiting, an ancestor of mine. All those acquitted are collectively commemorated on a token listing their names (Hardy, Tooke, Holcroft, Bonney, Joyce, Kid, Thel-wall, Richter, Baxter), while on the obverse their two lawyers, Erskine and Gibbs, are portrayed, together with the words, ‘Trial by Jury; Magna Carta; Bill of Rights’. Thus the radicals sought to identify their cause with the basic liberties of the land.

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