William Wood: Sinner or Sinned Against?

Having failed to introduce a new Irish coinage, writes John S. Powell, this ambitious projector set out to revolutionize contemporary iron-production.

‘It should therefore seem very Extraordinary, that a Patent for Coyning Copper Half-pence, intended and professed for the Good of the Kingdom, should be passed without once consulting that Kingdom, for the Good of which it is declared to be, and this upon the Application of a Poor, Private Obscure Mechanick; and a Patent of such a Nature, that as soon as ever the Kingdom is informed of it’s being passed, they cry out Unanimously against it as Ruinous and Destructive.’

Thus, in 1724, wrote Jonathan Swift under the guise of M.B. Drapier a Dublin Merchant. The patent he condemned was for coining Irish halfpence and farthings; and the ‘Private Obscure Mechanick’ was William Wood.

The outcry against Wood’s halfpence was one of the most remarkable events of the early eighteenth century; an example of the early combination of public opinion proving successful, not just against a patent holder - there were many of those who foundered against adverse opinion - but against a patent backed by the Court, and the most powerful figures of the British government.

The episode of Wood’s halfpence did not stand alone; the 1720s was an era of many financial adventures, some of which had produced chaotic results. Wood and the Drapier were arguing against the background of the South Sea Bubble in England, and the collapse of Law’s monetary schemes in France. There were, of course, other axes being ground, especially by Dean Swift, weapons aimed over Wood’s head at the English Whigs and the famous Declaratory Act of 1719 which bound Irish legislation to the consent of the English Privy Council and Parliament.

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