Those persons interested in the early coinage of the United States frequently see the statement that the Philadelphia Mint fell short of making enough coins for the public. It was not, in fact, until the 1830s that the output of American mints was equal to public demand.
Yet the above belief is misleading to a certain extent. From the 1790s to the 1850s there was widespread use of Spanish and Mexican silver coins, in particular the one real (worth 12.5 cents) and two reales, equal to a quarter dollar. There were usually enough silver and copper coins to serve the marketplaces even though they were not all made in the United States.
In comparing Great Britain with the United States, in terms of coins for the public to use, the Americans actually did a better job with the necessary coinage. During most of the reign of George III (1760-1820) the monetary situation in Britain and Ireland was little short of a disaster. Silver and copper coins were virtually non-existent in the marketplaces and gold was used only by the wealthier members of society.
The last major British coinage of silver in the 18th century came under George II (1727-1760) in 1751 though there were some shillings and sixpence pieces struck in the late 1750s. Under George III the minting of silver fell to almost nothing. One minor exception came in 1763 when £100 worth of shillings (2,000 pieces) was struck for public distribution in Dublin by the Earl of Northumberland in his new role as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
In 1787 shillings and sixpences were struck in some quantity but these were not meant for circulation but rather to enable the public to make small gifts to children. Both coins are readily available today to collectors.
The coinage of copper was poorly managed by the Treasury and the public was the loser. The first copper coinage under George III was an oddity. In 1762 and 1763 the London Mint struck 3.7 million farthings (quarter pennies) but from dies dated 1754 and carrying the portrait of George II.
In 1770 the Mint began to strike copper again, this time both farthings and half pennies. Quite a few were minted but many of the pieces were bought up by criminals and used as raw material for lightweight counterfeits which were produced in great numbers over the next several years.
Although there were laws in Britain concerning counterfeiting, they applied only to the paper money and coins of precious metal. It was not illegal to counterfeit the copper coins as long as a few precautions were taken, such as changing the legends slightly. Many of these counterfeit coins were even sent to America where they circulated in the marketplaces.
From 1770 to 1775 the London Mint struck a considerable number of copper coins but they did not circulate all that well. The official issues appear to have been outdone by the counterfeiters; in 1787 an official commission reported that less than 10 percent of the copper coins in daily use in Great Britain were genuine issues of the London Mint.
Although the number of genuine copper issues in the hands of the public was relatively small, not all of the remainder was counterfeit. By 1787 private tokens had begun to be made by Birmingham coiners and these also circulated in the marketplaces. Theoretically these private tokens could be redeemed but this was seldom the case.
One of the curiosities of the copper coinage in the 1770s and 1780s was that coins bearing the head of George III were not accepted in Scotland by the general public.
The London Mint ended its copper coinage in 1775 and then the institution lapsed into virtual idleness. No silver was made for circulation and gold mintages were not all that heavy. The British silver coins that did circulate were so worn that the pieces passed by size, the design being completely worn away.
By the early 1790s there was little in the way of official coinage circulating in Britain. The copper void was filled by counterfeits and the growing number of private tokens; the latter are called Conder Tokens today, after James Conder, who studied this series and published several books on the subject.
At this point Matthew Boulton enters the picture. Beginning in the late 1760s Boulton, in partnership with James Watt, became a leading figure in the production of steam engines and copper products. By 1776 Boulton had about 700 employees at his plant in Soho, a suburb of Birmingham. At the same time Boulton was perfecting a screw press that would be driven by steam power rather than manpower.
(Beginning in 1796 Boulton also furnished cent and half cent planchets to the Philadelphia Mint. The shipments of copper blanks to America lasted until 1837, which helped keep the United States well supplied with copper coins.)
During the 1780s Boulton kept improving his coining press until it was the best in the world. In the early 1790s he struck some of the private tokens but his real interest was in getting a contract from the British government to strike copper coins for the public.
By 1794 Boulton had several influential political leaders asking the Treasury to grant a copper coinage contract to Boulton but the government was very slow to act and it took several years before officials turned to Boulton to produce a good copper coinage for the public.
Boulton believed that the copper coinage, in order to keep counterfeiters at bay, ought to contain its full value of copper. The current official British copper coins (of 1770-1775), on the other hand, were well below intrinsic value, which allowed the Royal Mint a considerable profit. The halfpenny, for example, was struck at 46 pieces to the pound, meaning that each piece was supposed to weigh 9.86 grams, the farthing half of that.
The weights suggested by Boulton were revolutionary for Britain. He thought that the halfpenny ought to weigh 14.175 grams (a half ounce), a dramatic increase. This change was a sticking point for the Treasury, which was not all that pleased by the proposals.
Actually Boulton went even further. He suggested that four different copper coins be struck: the farthing, halfpenny, penny, and twopence. All would be struck at the heavier standard. The two larger values had never been struck in copper for the public.
The Treasury would probably have done little or nothing indefinitely but international events soon played a hand. The French Revolution and the resulting military adventures by Napoleon had played havoc with British currency and the Bank of England had been forced to stop paying out gold for its bank notes. Gold was flowing out of the country at an alarming rate.
On June 9, 1797, a contract was signed between the Treasury and Boulton. It provided for the coinage of 500 tons of copper, with 20 tons being made in pieces of twopence and the remaining 480 tons into pennies. The penny pieces were to weigh one ounce each (28.35 grams) and the twopence twice that.
The British public had never used the twopence or penny of copper but they were useful coins for two reasons. The first was that a growing inflation required larger coins. The other was the lack of silver coins for the public to use and the copper pieces would serve to fill that void to some degree.
Boulton was required to find the copper supply on his own and did just that. He purchased the 500 tons at £108 per tons, a significant outlay of cash although he would of course be reimbursed by the government as the coins were struck and turned over to the Bank of England.
English law required that the king issue a proclamation for new coinage and this was done on July 26, 1797. These two copper coins were now legal tender up to one shilling, another innovation for the new Boulton coins.
The Soho Mint began striking the two coins within a short time of the contract being signed. Patterns had been made and submitted to the Treasury and the king, who had approved the designs in short order.
For this era the coins were little short of spectacular. Boulton and his chief engraver, Conrad Küchler, had collaborated to produce magnificent coins.
The designs were the same on both coins. The obverse has the bust of George III with the legend GEORGIUS III D G REX, or “George III by the Grace of God, King.” The dies were signed with the letter K (for Küchler) on the truncation. The lettering is incuse, which Boulton felt would be more difficult for counterfeiters to copy. (The full weight was also a major deterrent to criminal activity.)
The reverse carried the simple incuse legend BRITANNIA and the date of 1797. The figure of Britannia was superbly executed by Küchler. A three-masted warship is at the lower left, symbolizing Britain’s mastery of the seas. At the lower right we find SOHO in small letters, a nod to Boulton and his innovative mint.
Not only was the weight pegged to the full ounce or two ounces for the penny and twopence, the diameters were also special. The twopence coin was 1.6 inches in diameter, meaning that 5 coins would be exactly 8 inches wide. For the one penny coins five coins were 7 inches in total, each coin being 1.4 inches in diameter.
In addition to the 500 tons of copper turned into coins in 1797, there was a further 500 tons so used for coinage by Boulton in 1798 but still using the 1797 date. The proportions were the same for the penny and twopence.
These new coins proved very popular with the British public. However, a sudden rise in the price of copper during late 1798 meant that many of the pieces were later melted for profit by manufacturers specializing in copper ware.
In December 1798 Boulton was now authorized, by royal proclamation, to strike halfpennies and farthings. The rise in the price of copper, however, meant that these pieces were struck at a lower weight. The halfpenny now weighed 12.6 grams instead of the 14.175 grams they would have weighed if struck in 1797. For the 1799 coinage Boulton’s contract called for 550 tons of copper.
The farthings and halfpenny coins of 1799 were of a simpler design than the 1797 coinage. The incuse legend was abandoned but an engrailed edge was added, the 1797 pieces having had a plain edge. For the two smaller denominations the royal titles are slightly different, DEI GRATIA (“by the Grace of God”) appearing instead of DG as in 1797.
As with the 1797 coins, the 1799 pieces proved popular with the public. However, copper continued to rise in cost and by 1805 had reached the unheard of figure of £165 per ton, £57 more than 1797. With copper at such a high price, large numbers of the 1797 and 1799 copper coins were melted by industrialists seeking a good supply of that metal at a reasonable cost.
The resulting loss of copper coins meant that a fresh supply was needed. The Tower Mint in London was incapable of coining large numbers of copper coins and, moreover, a new building was underway that would soon house a modern mint capable of such coinage. In the meantime the Treasury again turned to Matthew Boulton.
In April 1805 the first order for a renewed copper coinage was given to Boulton, for 600 tons of penny, halfpenny and farthing coins. No twopence pieces were ordered. The high price of copper dictated lower weights and the penny was now 18.9 grams, the smaller coins in proportion. These new weights were actually slightly below the standard in effect for the copper coins struck from 1770 to 1775. The wheel had turned full circle.
Demand for the new copper coins was strong and Boulton received two further orders: in September 1806 for 600 tons and the same amount in September 1807. No coins were dated 1805 despite the original order and coining seems to have commenced in the latter part of 1805 using the date of the coming year. Coins of this new order were dated only 1806 and 1807; both dates are easily found by collectors at nominal cost.
The designs on the 1806-1807 issues are a modification of the 1799 designs. Perhaps the main difference is that the date now appears on the obverse rather than the reverse.
In all, from 1797 to 1807, Boulton minted 257 million British copper coins, composed of the following: twopence – 722,000, penny – 74.6 million, halfpenny – 171.8 million, and farthings – 10.1 million. It was an enormous undertaking.
Matthew Boulton died in 1809, knowing that he had performed a valuable service to the British public, by furnishing copper coins for their daily needs in the marketplaces.
Collectors desiring to obtain specimens of the various denominations and dates will find them generally reasonable except, perhaps for the two pence coin of 1797, which is worth more than $200 in Very Fine condition.
The copper coins struck by Boulton are complicated by the fact that the dies for these issues were sold at public auction in 1850 and purchased by W.J. Taylor, a coin dealer. For several years he made restrikes from these dies for sale to collectors and distinguishing restrikes from originals is not always an easy task.
This article was originally printed in World Coin News. >> Subscribe today.
More Collecting Resources
• More than 600 issuing locations are represented in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1701-1800 .
• The 1800s were a time of change for many, including in coin production. See how coin designs grew during the time period in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900 .