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From small beginnings: collecting Scottish tokens

Edinburgh halfpenny 1790 - the first token in Macmillan's collection

Edinburgh halfpenny 1790 – the first token in Macmillan’s collection

A halfpenny.  Just a common old Edinburgh halfpenny given to a child.  From such modest beginnings grew a great national collection.  Andrew Macmillan has been collecting Scottish tokens for some 50 years.  It all started with the halfpenny from his home town, Edinburgh, bearing St Andrew and his cross with the famous devise Nemo me impune lacessit (no one messes with me) and the arms of Edinburgh, Dalton & Hamer Lothian 23.   The reverse of his coin ticket reads “ 1 / In hand (ex father) /?date” .  Everyone has their own story of how they started collecting and this gift is not in any way unusual. However, what is unusual is the way it is documented, on the ticket and in the notes, just like the thousands of others in Macmillan’s extensive collection.

This is now lot 375 in the Simmons Gallery Mail Bid 71 sale of tokens (10 February 2015). The Macmillan part of the sale contains 448 tokens as catalogued by Dalton and Hamer. Of these 258 are farthings (57.6%), 186 halfpennies (41.5%), plus two Pennies (0.45%) and two Shillings (0.45%).

The use of farthings in the 18th century does appear to be more extensive in Scotland than in other parts of the UK. Accurate comparisons are made difficult as Dalton & Hamer included tokens made for collectors and some purely commemorative pieces. In general most counties have none or only a few farthings made for circulation.

One of the reasons that there are so many farthings in Scotland is the inclusion in the literature of lead tradesmen’s tokens collected in 1781-2 by Dr Thompson, noting provenance. These lead tokens were subsequently acquired by Sarah Sophia Banks in the early 1800’s and are now in the British Museum. This group shows that lead tokens were widely used in Edinburgh as small change for local traders. They are all farthings and some have the denomination indicated by the letter F as in this example, lot 196 in the sale.

Edinburgh baker Peter Hutchison's lead farthing token with wheat sheaf

Edinburgh baker Peter Hutchison’s lead farthing token with wheat sheaf

An example of this token was collected by Dr Thompson (D&H 66) with the attribution to “Peter Hutchison Baker, Opposite the Guard” (the entrance to Edinburgh Castle).  Hutchison has been traced to the Lawnmarket.  It is clear that without this pioneering collector the baker’s token would join the ‘unattributed lead tokens’  in collections.

Lead tokens made and issued after Dr Thompson’s herculean efforts are rather better made and have a little more information, like the sugar loaves on grocer, J Dunlop’s token of Carnegie Street Edinburgh (lot 203).

Dunlop's lead farthing with sugar loaves (MB71/203)

Dunlop’s lead farthing with sugar loaves (MB71/203)

An additional problem with the Dalton & Hamer catalogue is that a number of farthing tokens were included despite the issuer being active much later than the 18th century. Some of these are more appropriately listed as Unofficial Farthings. W & G Meikle Ironmongers and Grocers of Leven in Fife can be traced to have been active between 1825 and the 1850’s (see lot 17).  The relatively new catalogue of unofficial farthings by Paul & Bente Withers includes this as BUFS 7511.  By the way, just reading through the token list you have an idea of an awful lot of establishments selling not just groceries but gallons of tea, wines and spirits!

Meikle of Leven, Fife; the grocer's unofficial farthing - early 19th century

Meikle of Leven, Fife; the grocer’s unofficial farthing – early 19th century

The blurring of the distinctions between the token series requires further study by collectors but despite the questions and unknowns, it is clear that the Scots used farthing tokens rather more than much of the rest of the UK from the 1780’s right through to the 1850’s. It is possible that the distance from London made availability of small change difficult at times or there may be other factors.  The only other substantial series of attributed lead tradesmen’s tokens are from Dublin.  These are equally as rare and difficult to find!

Another feature of the Macmillan collection is that it illustrates that most of the Scottish tokens were made for circulation.  Therefore the condition is not uniformly wonderful as would be expected from Kempson or Spence tokens.  Andrew collected the best available but he was reluctant to upgrade beyond a decent VF.  Despite this there are some very attractive high grade tokens.

Glasgow halfpenny D&H Lanarkshire 3b (lot MB71/318) exceptionally nice!

Glasgow halfpenny D&H Lanarkshire 3b (lot MB71/318) exceptionally nice!

However a true collector seeking comprehensiveness does not turn down anything in their field on the basis of poor condition or damage. This is especially true of lead tokens and some of the very rare local issues. There are 70 lead tokens in this collection; few can be described as attractive however all are very rare.  Some are possibly unique.  The collection now being dispersed included the communion tokens (which we sold several years ago) coins and banknotes, with lots more tokens to come from advertising to colliery, masonic to shop, market and transport.  It is unlikely that the opportunity to collect so widely and in such depth in Scotland will come again.  So this presents a wonderful opportunity to fill holes in any collection of Scottish or thematic tokens.

Further details:   catalogue online at www.simmonsgallery.co.uk.

References:  Dalton & Hamer, The Provincial Token-Coinage of the 18th Century, originally published 1910-1918, reprinted Davissons 1990

Withers, Paul & Bente, The Token Book 2 – Unofficial Farthings and their Values 1820-1901, published Galata 2013

This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of Coin News

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