By Wayne Turner (Journal No.2, 1974, republished in Journal No.7 1979)
After 1775 the Royal Mint suspended the striking of copper coins and therefore the need for small change had to be answered by the issue of what are now known as industrial tokens. Copper half pennies, countermarked in 1786 by the Adeiphi Cotton Company, Deanston, Perthshire, seem to have been the first to appear; these were to pass as 4s. 6d. In 1787, Thomas Williams, the “Copper King”, struck coins of farthing, halfpenny and penny denominations, bearing a druid’s head upon them. Wilkinson, a partner of Williams in many copper ventures in North Wales and Cornwall, soon followed suit and between 1787 and 1798 his money was circulated in several Midland, Western and Welsh counties. As well as copper coinage, tokens of silver and leather were issued, along with guinea notes and this money was used for large-scale commercial transactions, apart from payment of wages. Wilkinson, like others (Coalbrookdale, for instance), was forced to do this due to the aforementioned lack of small change but one suspects that here was a wonderful opportunity for self-advertisement, a chance not to be missed; for while Williams, Reynolds, Darby and others merely mentioned their companies (Parys Mines Company, for example, in the case of the former), Wilkinson, alone of the industrial token issuers, had his own effigy stamped on his coins, together with the words - JOHN WILKINSON, IRONMASTER - ! The only face to appear on British coins of the 18th century is that of the monarch, with, of course, the notable exception of John Wilkinson. He literally “made” money, too: his coins were at 32 to the pound weight, which made them 2s. 8d. at face value per pound. He paid ls. 11d. per pound ( the mint charge), for these, thus making a profit of 9d. per pound, say 40%, and he ordered them by the ton. Odd forgeries appeared too and one of these shows perhaps a knowledge of Wilkinson’s character, as it bears the legend : “And he said, Let us make, pennys after my own image” ! Wilkinson’s tokens show on the edges, the places where they would be redeemable: Willey, Snedshill, Bersham and Bradley, at first, and later on, Anglesey, London and Liverpool. The forgeries have some interesting places: Beccies, Warley Camp, Ballymurtagh and The Temple of the Muses.
Contrary to local legends around Bersham, Broseley and Bilston, Wilkinson did not have his own mints at these places though he may have had a store for coins at these centres of operations. His tokens were at first supplied by Matthew Boulton, who patented a steam-powered mint, and John Westwood. The latter seems to have been unable to cope with the ironmaster’s demands for by 1792 Wilkinson was dealing solely with Boulton for his tokens. Boulton replied to Wilkinson: “You have been petitioning Westwood for 15 cwt. of coin weekly. Allow me to remark that I expended more than ten guineas in dies to coin for you -- cwt. of copper and that when I found you had pitted Westwood against me I stopped short . . . . . yet nevertheless if you choose to order any quantity of halfpence worth engraving new dies for, I will contract to make you as many per week as you please.” (October 1790). In accepting this offer, Wilkinson replied (8th December, 1790): “I shall be perfectly content provided I can have about 5 tons more speedily, which are in immediate demand. A further quantity will be wanted for 1791. The old forge, as well as my resurrection upon it, is approved by those who have seen it as well as by yours ever, John Wilkinson.” On December 11th, however, Wilkinson complained that the halfpence were four in the pound less in number than those which Westwood used to make for him and he asked for coins of “proper size” and ended with the moan, “If you knew my distress in the want of copper I think you would have supplied me sooner.” In February, 1791 he ordered a ton of coin from Westwood and, in the same month, another order was placed with Boulton. In this letter he said that he was willing “to be plastered again” if Boulton wanted a new die for the effigy. In October, 1792, he launched a further attack on Boulton : “It has been from inaction or indecision on your part that I have been obliged to get any of that article elsewhere . . . . . . beefsteak to a man that is hungry will be preferred to venison, where waiting for it is a condition.”
On March 3rd 1797, he informed Boulton “I am engaged in preparing small notes for my workmen as change, similar to what I issued in ‘73 and ‘74 previous to Sir George Savile’s Act. That was a measure I then adopted on the great scarcity of silver, which since has been plentifully supplied by the coiners of bad money. Good notes will cure the evil of base metal better and more effectively than the gallows.” The ban resulting from Savile’s Act of 1775 was not due to be lifted until 1798. Wilkinson’s brother, in a letter to Watt in March 1797, describes these notes as “a new coinage of 1/-, 6d. and 3d. notes on cards.” These may well be the leather tokens cashable in Wrexham, but so far none of these have been discovered; however, the Wrexham historian, A.N. Palmer, in his booklet, “John Wilkinson and the Old Bersham Ironworks”, prints a copy of a Wilkinson guinea note, issued by his Brymbo trustees, 18th January 1814. The Wilkinson coat-of-arms appears on it and it is quite likely to be a descendant of the 1797/98 issues.
To return to the examples of Wilkinson money which does, not infrequently, make appearance, the copper coins. The first issues were in 1787 with the name wrongly spelt, as WILKISON, on one side, and this appeared with each yearly issue, with the face of the ironmaster himself, a right profile, surrounded by the words, JOHN WILKISON IRONMASTER. On the edge were the names of some of his concerns, Bersham, Bradley, Broseley; on the reverse side, a different design appeared each year, though designs of previous years were repeated. In 1787, a worker is shown putting a lump of iron under an automatic hammer; for 1788, a boat is shown, not necessarily the iron boat; for 1790, a woman leans on a cog-wheel; for 1791, with the name now misspelt WILKESON, a naked man (Vulcan ?) sits holding a hammer over an anvil and the rigging of a ship is just visible. Around the edge are the names Bradley, Bersham, Willey and Snedshill. For 1792, the words on the edge said, Payable at London or Anglesey and the design shows a crown surmounting a harp, with the words, NORTH WALES. Quite often, a 1792 issue shows the 1791 design. In 1793, there is a new effigy, Wilkinson doubtless having been “plastered again”; on the reverse a woman holds a pair of scales, there is a Latin legend, MEA PECUNIA and on the edge the town names, Birmingham, Brighton, Liverpool. Coins can be seen in the Coalbrookdale Museum and Bilston Art Gallery while Wrexham Public Library has the following coins :- 1787(3), 1788(1), 1790(4), 1792(1), 1793(1), 1795(1). The silver token of 1788, worth then 3s. 6d., is rarely reported.
Perhaps “The New London Magazine” of December, 1787, should be allowed the final word on Wilkinson’s copper coins: -
“In Greece and Rome your men of parts,
Renowned in arms, or, formed in arts,
On splendid coins and medals shone
To make their deeds and persons known.
So, Wilkinson, from this example
Gives of himself a matchless sample.
And bids the ‘Iron Monarch’ pass
Like his own metal wrapt in brass !
Which shows his modesty and sense
And how and where he made his pence !
As Iron when ‘tis brought in traction
Collects the copper by attraction
So, thus in him ‘twas very proper
To stamp his brazen face .... on copper.”
John Wilkinson’s Trade Tokens - comments by P. Criddle, Shrewsbury (Feb. 1980) Journal No. 8 1980
Further to the article in Journal No.7 (1979), in which I found the letters between Wilkinson, Boulton and Westwood of particular interest, I enclose an account, which distinguishes between counterfeits and genuine issues.
The coin was first issued in 1787, with the bust of JW facing right and the legend JOHN WILKINSON IRON MASTER. The edge reading was WILLEY SNEDSHILL BERSHAM BRADLEY. The first portrait is readily identified by the three buttons on his coat, issues of 1793 and 1795 having four buttons. The first reverse design was of the interior, of a forge and was used for the issues of 1787, 1788, 1790, 1792, 1793 and 1795. In 1788 there were plans to produce a silver coin, value 3s 6d, and a design was produced with a barge and the words FINE SILVER on the reverse. This was not produced commercially though 100 in silver and a few in copper were struck. Instead the design was used on the 1788 halfpenny token. The third design, of Vulcan seated at his anvil, was introduced in 1790 and repeated in 1791 and 1792.
And now for the forgeries. 75 varieties of the token are thought to be genuine and 57 are forgeries of varying quality. All tokens with WILKINSON misspelt are forgeries; also all tokens with edge readings other than WILLEY SNEDSHILL BERSHAM BRADLEY are probably forgeries or manufactured curiosities. The Wilkinson obverse also appeared with the following reverses and were either forgeries or mules (combinations of incorrect dies produced at the manufacturers for sale to collectors):
1. Female seated with mining tools.
2. Figure of Moneta seated with scales.
3. Cypher H M Co. and legend CAMAC KYAN & CAMAC.
4. Female seated with harp.
5. Harp with crown.
6. Britannia seated.
7. Female seated and legend BIRMINGHAM MINING & COPPER CO.
The issue of tokens died out around 1797 when the well known cartwheel twopences and pennies (manufactured by Boulton) were issued, to be followed in 1799 by an issue of halfpence and farthings. The earlier cessation of the Wilkinson issue was probably due in part to a statement by the Shrewsbury Guilds, dated 9th June 1795, that they would only accept tower halfpence.
I add the following notes for anyone interested in buying examples of this handsome coin. The silver tokens are obviously very rare and may cost £200 or more in good condition. The ordinary barge issue is also very difficult to find, especially in good condition, and would cost £40 - 50. A recent sale in London of one of the largest collections of tokens to come on the market in recent years, did not include genuine examples of either type. Of the other tokens large quantities were struck: e.g. 1790 Forge “several tons”; 1790 Vulcan 206,000; 1792 Vulcan 103,000; and it is possible to find reasonable examples for £5 or so.