Gary Oddie provides a fascinating insight to the subject and is keen for you to contact him if you have any tokens from this area, recollections or information.
For the last century or so, the general public has been able to rely on a plentiful supply of small change. However, this has not always been the case and throughout the last 500 years there have been several periods when there has been an insufficient supply provided by the bodies in charge of the official coinage. Often, trade could be carried out by barter, but as commerce evolved and tradesmen became specialised, hard currency became the preferred medium of exchange. The following paragraphs will describe a few of the tokens issued in Huntingdonshire and Godmanchester in particular, where tradesmen have taken it upon themselves to make up the shortfall in the official coinage.
For many centuries, the production of coinage has been by Royal prerogative with the production of precious metal coins to well defined standards and weights. However a combination of inflation and increasing transactions made the smallest silver coins very impractical and still too high a value for everyday transactions. A modern day analogy would be to consider having no denomination less than £5 in circulation.
Filling in this gap from the 13th century onwards were many varied designs of unofficial lead tokens, some cast in moulds and others struck with dies. Many of these tokens are simple geometric designs, and only a few have legends of any sort. Though very few have been positively attributed to a specific person or even location, tokens would be issued by anyone who needed small change, from tradesmen, publicans, farmers, and even monasteries may have given out alms in the form of locally redeemable tokens. It is unlikely that these tokens circulated widely and thus modern day metal detector finds are proving invaluable in determining the possible location of issue of many of these tokens.
Interestingly a small hoard of forty-six lead tokens was found in Huntingdon in 1823. The tokens, shown in Figure 1, were found behind the parlour chimneypiece of Mr. Henry Godby's house on the High Street. The very crude head, facing left and the star design on the reverse are typical of early tokens. From the style and fabric of the tokens it is estimated that they were made sometime in the second quarter of the sixteenth century.
The problems of an uncontrolled token coinage were many, from limited acceptability to counterfeiting, to large variations in size and metal content. James finally accepted the need for a small denomination copper coinage and subcontracted the work to Lord Harrington in 1613. These official copper coins were very light weight and resulted in large profits for the licencees and equal complaints from the public. In 1644 the licence was revoked and during the rest of the Civil War no small coins were issued. By the time of the Commonwealth there were serious shortages. Between 1648 and 1672, almost every town and village had its own tokens, issued by tradesmen, innkeepers etc and sometimes even by the local dignitaries and overseers. A total of over 16,000 different issues are known, and new pieces are still being found today. A token from a previously unrecorded Huntingdon issuer was found by a metal detectorist in Godmanchester in 1993.
In keeping with its size and trading importance, Godmanchester had five issuers: Henry Beck was probably a grocer, as the design shows a sugarloaf and the initials refer to the issuer HB and his wife, whose initial K has yet to be traced in the records. Robert Carles was another grocer, but used as his design the official arms of the Grocer's Company. The token of Samuell Connye shows a cock, and this may be the sign of an inn but as with the token of John Skeggs at the Spread Eagle, further research is needed to conclusively attribute the issuer to the design and a specific trade, as the designs are not always consistently applied by the issuers and manufacturers. The final token issued by William Wright shows a very simple design with no clue as to his trade, and very little information can be found in the local records. The only background information so far found is that Elizabeth, daughter to William and Mary Wright was baptised on 24th September 1665 in Godmanchester. These tokens are illustrated in the remaining figures.
With the reappearance of an official copper coinage in 1672, token issues become much scarcer for the next century (having been made illegal). The next shortages of small change appeared at the end of the 18th and beginning of 19th century, and though Huntingdonshire makes no direct appearance in these token issues, several tokens do include the legend "CAMBRIDGE BEDFORD AND HUNTINGDON. . . ." On their edges.
More recently, though there have not been serious shortages of small change, tokens have been issued many other purposes. TWO of the most familiar will be the tokens issued by Co-op stores and farmers. Prior to the appearance of co-op dividend books and saving stamps, many individual co-operative societies issued tokens. These could be prepayment tokens for products such as a pint of milk, or as a mutuality loan or as in the Huntingdon Co-op token, receipts for payments. These tokens would be saved and a dividend paid quarterly. Though all of the tokens illustrated are made from metal, tokens can also be found made from plastic, cardboard or paper. Farmers issued tokens to labourers to avoid having to carry large amounts of small change. Thus at the end of the week, the tokens were exchanged for banknotes. Gary has a token issued by Albert Edward Simmons of Ramsey, who, as well as being a farmer, was also the landlord of the George Hotel on Ramsey High Street from 1906-1914.
More modern tokens exist, for car washes, car parks, slot machines etc, but are usually part of a national chain and rarely specifically local in origin. At present the author knows of no current Huntingdonshire token issues, but a token was issued by Paine & Son, originally running a farm and brick kiln in Great Paxton, the brewery finally ceased trading in the 1980s.
This article gives just an Outline of a few of Huntingdonshire tokens that the author is actively researching. Hopefully, this will eventually result in a publication covering the whole of the county.
If any readers have any tokens that are from this county, or any recollections, or background information, then the author would be most pleased if details could be made available. In this way it is hoped to make the book as complete and up to date as possible. Please contact via the editor, or directly on 01480210992.
In carrying out this study, Gary would like to thank the many collectors and researchers who have all freely given their time. The help of Bob Burn-Murdoch, at the Norris Museum,
St Ives, Martin Allen at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and Mike Stephenson of the Huntingdonshire Family History Society is also gratefully acknowledged.
Our thanks to Gary for this insight. Perhaps you have found tokens in your own garden or the area? Please contact Gary if you have information to offer.