Your Change, Goodwife: Trade Tokens in the seventeenth Century

Barry Forster and Anne Read
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Barry writes

In August 1651 Thomas Voilet presented a lengthy report to the Council of State emphasising the problems caused by the lack of small change, especially farthings. He argued that ‘small money is so needful to the poorer sort that all nations have endeavoured to have it’, and that it is important that men are able to buy ‘a farthing’s worth and are not constrained to buy more of anything than they stand in need of, their feeding being from hand to mouth’. Voilet also reports that ‘many are deprived of alms for want of farthings and half-farthings, for many would give a farthing who are not disposed to give a penny or twopence, or to lose time in staying to change money whereby they may contract a noisome smell or the disease of the poor.’

It was not a new problem. Kings and Queens feared that to issue coins in anything less than silver would demean them. Elizabeth I approved designs for copper coins but none has ever been found. Poorer people made use of foreign coins or unmarked lead tokens. Silver prices began to rise, which meant that even higher value coins got smaller. With the civil wars over, towns expanding, and trade growing, frustrated merchants and traders began to produce their own unlawful coins, commonly known as trade tokens. Mayors and churchwardens supported this treasonable crime, all somewhat reassured by the beheading of Charles I in 1649; with no monarch the sovereign’s law prohibiting illegal coinage was thought to be unenforceable. Farthings, halfpennies and pennies were made using cheaper metals such as copper, brass, pewter and lead; others were made of leather. While some were crude and presumably made by local blacksmiths, many were at least as good as those formerly issued by official mints. Although issued locally, most are thought to have been ordered from skilled engravers and minters elsewhere. Typically, one side showed the name of the issuer and the value of the token, while the reverse had the place of his business and a simple image for those who could not read, showing where it could be spent - a pub sign, a recognisable trade mark, a hat or candle, a shoe or sugarloaf. Some tokens had the initials of husband and wife, matching those seen over doorways. After the Restoration some tried adding a king’s head to pacify the monarch. More than 12,000 different tokens have been found but it is estimated that there were as many as 20,000 types; Yorkshire alone accounts for 450.

Tokens had to be spent at the shop or business of the issuing tradesman; otherwise you could save them until you had enough to exchange for a silver coin. Thomas Brayshaw identified four Settle coins: a halfpenny of 1666 was issued by Robert Chamberlaine, and a 1668 penny by William Taylor the draper. John and Steven Sidgswick’s penny of 1672 shows the circular iron used by fullers for pressing cloth. The fourth Settle token is a rare town piece. Tokens were issued by corporations or public bodies and could be used in several places. Only four towns in Yorkshire are thought to have issued these: the undated Settle halfpenny bears the inscription: ‘For the company of - agreed in one - Grocers in Settle’. Even small villages such as Long Preston had a token. It must have been frustrating to arrive at Settle Market with a handful of tokens from the drapers, or from Kendal, when all you wanted was a pie or a farthing pint. Most towns are thought to have had a farthing changer who doubtless made a good living out of the transaction.

The restoration of the monarchy brought a determination to put an end to the tokens. The Royal Mint finally produced copper farthings and halfpennies, and in 1672 a royal proclamation was issued declaring tokens illegal. Most were probably melted down, but some have been found with holes drilled in them and were presumably worn as pendants.

Metal detectorists have added a lot to our knowledge of tokens, how many were produced and their quality; they have also shown that tokens were chiefly lost in their local areas. One such find unearthed in 2014 near Knight Stainforth has been donated to the Museum of North Craven Life in Settle. The museum’s home is The Folly, the showpiece house built by local bigwig and lawyer Richard Preston in the 1670s. As far as we know Preston never issued his own tokens, but then he was not the kind of man to deal in cash or to give change. The museum is open five days a week from Easter to the end of October. If you agree to pay our modest admission fees we promise to give you change in legal coin of the realm.

Anne takes up the story:

It is a happy coincidence that at the very time Mary Slater was transcribing and researching the will and probate inventory of Settle draper John Hargreaves (as reported in this 2015 Journal), a metal detectorist was uncovering a penny trade token issued in 1668 by fellow draper William Taylor. As the inventory reveals, William Taylor, woollen draper, was one of the expert appraisers brought in to assess John Hargreaves’ stock on his decease.

The token is made of copper alloy and is complete, though worn and oxidised. An example is illustrated by Brayshaw. It has a diameter of 27.5 mm, is 1.5mm thick and weighs 4.53g. Obverse legend: rosette emblem WILLI[AM] [TAYL]OR : IN : SETLE; obverse field: the Drapers’ Arms (described by the company of Drapers as, ‘three sunbeams issuing from three flaming clouds crowned with three Imperial crowns of gold on a shield of azure’). Reverse legend: I * WILL * EXCHAI(NG) MY * ; reverse field: 1668 / PENNY / * rosette *

Metal detecting is often viewed with a degree of suspicion, but when properly regulated it can make an important contribution to archaeological discovery. The National Council for Metal Detecting is the chief organisation for metal detectorists in the UK and publishes a code of conduct to encourage good practice. Detectorists must obtain permission before venturing on any land and must cause no damage. Importantly, they are encouraged to report all finds to their local Finds Liaison Officer, so that everything can be properly recorded and photographed. Fortunately, ‘our’ detectorist, who lives near Halifax, abides by the rules and after having the Settle trade token recorded by his FLO in West Yorkshire, was pleased to donate it to a local museum. Although the Craven Museum in Skipton is the official repository for archaeological finds in Craven, on this occasion the Curator felt it was right for the token to ‘come home’ to Settle. We have been hoping to acquire one or more of the four known Settle trade tokens for a long time and now all we have to do is find examples of the other three! Our metal detectorist is on the case.


  • Berry, G. 1969. Discovering Trade Tokens. Shire.
  • Brayshaw, T. and Robinson, R.M., 1932. A History of the Ancient Parish of Giggleswick. Halton & Co., London.
  • Dickinson, M.J., 1986. Seventeenth Century Tokens of the British Isles and their Values. Spink and Son Ltd; 3rd Revised edition.
  • Williamson, G.C., 1889. Trade Tokens issued in the Seventeenth century. Reprint, Seaby, 1967. (Note: this can be read online without charge. Volume 2 includes Yorkshire).
  • Withers, P., 2010. The Token Book: British Tokens of the 17th 18th and 19th Centuries and their Values. Galata, Llanfyllin.


© A. Read
Drawing from Brayshaw and Robinson

© A. Read

Drawing from Brayshaw and Robinson