Merchant Countermarked Dollars of the Late 18th & Early 19th Centuries.
Eric C Hodge
During the latter half of the eighteenth century, fluctuations in the gold-silver
ratio, coupled with the financial strain of foreign wars, especially during the Napoleonic
period, helped to bring on a severe dearth of silver coin in Great Britain. Very
few silver coins were minted in the sixty five years between 1751 and 1816, though
gold was plentiful enough.
It was not that there was a shortage of silver, far from it. There were plenty of
Spanish American silver dollar sized coins available as bullion. The lack of coins
in Great Britain was solely due to the inability of the Royal Mint to afford the
purchase of silver for recoinage. By an order issued in 1601, the Mint could only
purchase silver at 5s 2d an ounce, generally below the current market price in the
mid to late 18th century. Finally the New Coinage of crowns to sixpences, initiated
in 1816-1818, saw the beginning of the end for the desperate need of private silver
issues in Great Britain.
The earliest and longest-lived attempt to provide a silver medium of exchange during
those difficult years was the stamping of private tradesmen’s countermarks on Spanish
dollars and their fractions. French coins were used for a few issues and occasionally
another foreign crown or dollar sized coin was marked. Weekly quotations were published
on the London bullion market, throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century,
for Spanish American dollars, so that these could be purchased by any trader for
use in his business. To avoid the withdrawal and melting of countermarked tokens,
their stamped valuations obviously had to be higher than their bullion value, but
not so high as to invite extensive counterfeiting with false punches.
Problems for the issuers arose when the market price fluctuated by more than a few
pence. A drop would bring on a flood of demands for redemption of the tokens at their
countermarked value. A significant rise would mean the countermarked tokens could
be sold, more profitably, back into the bullion market. In either case, the issuer
would not want to reissue redeemed tokens at their original countermarked valuation.
One solution was melting, another was to repunch a revised value on the coin (Figs
1 & 9) and a further option was to cancel the coin countermarked value and issuer’s
name, with either a grille pattern or by individual punch marks. (Fig 2)
The need for an increased supply of silver coinage was exacerbated by the Industrial
Revolution. The workers had to be paid. Initially this could be in kind, but this
created extra burdens on the employers. Much better to pay in cash, and let the workers
fend for themselves. Slowly the idea of works’ shops was implemented, first to make
extra money from the workers, but latterly as a genuine attempt by philanthropic
leaders of industry to improve the lot of the lower classes.
Hover your cursor to
see the coins in detail
Production of one’s own currency, therefore, had its benefits. One could either tie
the worker to one’s own shop, or conversely give additional benefits to the employee
who used the works’ facilities. The countermarked dollars did both. They had their
own intrinsic value in the silver, and also a higher value marked on them for use
at the works, or as commonly became standard, in the surrounding community that survived
from, and supported, local business.
The most prolific issues came from Scotland. Of the approximately seventy known business
issuers of countermarked dollars, over 85% were in Scotland, one quarter being in
the cotton trade. Of the remaining, known, Scottish countermarked dollars, over 50%
are from the cotton trade. Why was this?
There is no definitive answer to this question because there are so few records about
countermarked dollars and also about the businesses that issued them. However the
answer seems to lie in a mix of: distance from London, so even fewer silver coins
from an already short supply; a desire to retain labour attracted from the Highlands
or agriculture in general, to factory conditions; a ready supply of dollars, perhaps
from the tobacco and other trades to America and the Caribbean developed from Glasgow;
some of the larger issuing businesses being controlled by the same family, the Finlays;
a realisation how effective these issues were, coupled with the difficulty of the
Government in London to exercise its legislative powers in Scotland; the slower use
of steam power driving the cotton factories into the city.
In England, it was the use of steam power, over water power, that gave rise to the
enormous growth of the cotton trade in Manchester which, using its own banking system
and paper money, precluded the necessity of countermarked dollars. No issuers are
known for Manchester.
The remaining issuers were mainly grocers and other merchant traders, and some banking
concerns. The merchant traders would, of course, benefit greatly from their ability
to give change for gold, where this was offered, ensuring continued future trade.
Of the six recorded English issuers, three were in the cotton trade: Revolution Mill,
Cromford Mill and Cark Cotton Works.
The Revolution Mill countermark is purely an ampersand with a crown above it. (Fig
3) There is no mark of value and no indication of the issuer. The details would have
probably remained unknown, were it not for Sarah Sophia Banks, (sister of Sir Joseph
Banks), whose collection of coins was bequeathed to the British Museum, together
with note books and manuscripts detailing the coins and their sources. Under the
details of the Ampersand & Crown was written ‘Spanish dollar stamped for circulation
at the Revolution Mill in East Retford Notts 1794’, 1794 being the date she acquired
An additional facet to the collecting of this series is, due to the lack of contemporary
records, it is not possible to assert what is genuine and what is not. Experience
counts for a lot but also provenance is very important in ascertaining how long certain
marks have been known. Revolution Mill provides a perfect example. About ten genuine
countermarks are known, (per the Bank’s example), punched in front of the bust. There
are, however, three ‘counterfeits’ known with a similar stamp, but much thicker and
heavier-looking, stamped on the bust. The ‘counterfeit’ may have been contemporary,
but is believed to be a post Second World War concoction for the collectors’ market.
Another English countermark is from Cromford in Derbyshire. (Fig 1A enlarged from
Fig 1). Sir Richard Arkwright was an influential figure in the development of the
English cotton spinning industry. Not only did the Arkwrights build the mill at Cromford,
but they also built the town to accommodate their workers. The surviving countermarks
are of two valuations of 4/9 and 5/-. More than half the 4/9 host coins are dated
before 1800, and all before 1811, suggesting an issue period from about 1790 to 1810,
after which the bullion price of dollars generally remained at or above five shillings
until mid 1815. Of the 5/- issues, there are at least six where the 5/- punch is
believed to be over 4/9 (Fig 1) indicating a sensible re-use of coins and showing
that at least some of the 5/- tokens came after the 4/9. It is likely that the 5/-
issues were prepared about 1815.
Another English cotton issue is that from the Cark Cotton Works. (Figs 4 & 5) This
is an unusual issue as the obverse of the coin has the business name, whereas the
reverse of the coin has the issue value, in words and not numbers, which would tend
to indicate an early issue date when new ideas were being tested. Cark is a small
village near Cartmel in the southern Lake District. There are eleven tokens known,
all to the value of 4/6. The obverse countermark reads Cark Cotton Works 1787, and
as ten of the tokens are dated 1785 and earlier, with the eleventh dated 1792, it
would tend to confirm an early issue up to the mid 1790’s. It is presumed that 1787
is the date the tokens were first issued.
We now travel to Scotland to look at a selection of the tokens issued by the burgeoning
industrial concerns around Glasgow. One of the biggest of these businesses was the
Lanark Mills situated 25 miles south east of Glasgow. New Lanark was a completely
new and self contained village. In the 1780’s Arkwright visited Scotland and teamed
up with David Dale, a Scottish banker, to build the Lanark Mills, using Arkwright’s
patents and Dale’s money.
The Lanark Mills countermarked tokens are the most prolific in the entire merchant
series. (Fig 6) They are known for values of 5/-, 4/9, 4/6 and 2/6. The 2/6 tokens
are on French half-écus. No company records remain to help in the sequencing of the
various issues, so it is assumed, from the increasing value of silver bullion throughout
most of this period, that the tokens were made in ascending order of value, and this
appears justified by comparing the dates of the host coins. However enough of the
various tokens remain for it to be evident that special privy marks, star and lozenge,
were also in use, presumably to help control the issues and the accounting for them.
The marks appear to be made of two punches, one for the named outer ring, and the
other for the value. There are quite a few anomalies with these issues and a lot
of further research is still required. The 5/- issues are the most common of all
the countermarked series.
The Industrial Revolution was fuelled by a number of factors, but it was oiled with
money. Banks and finance were important ingredients in the overall mix that increased
the wealth of the businessmen and owners of the industrial concerns. So it is no
surprise to find that two banks issued merchant countermarked dollars, the Thistle
Bank and the Glasgow Bank.
The Thistle Bank countermarked dollars are known in three values, 4/9, 5/- and 6/-.
Two separate punches are known for the 4/9 value. One of these punches was used in
conjunction with a reverse punch of a thistle. (Figs 7 & 8) The other 4/9 punch was
applied without the reverse thistle. All the 5/- and 6/- punches were applied with
a reverse thistle mark, and this thistle was always in the upright position with
its flower head at 12 o’clock. However, with the 4/9 value with thistle, the thistle
is always sideways with its flower head to 9 o’clock.
There were many other concerns involved with all aspects of cotton spinning and weaving
and one of the most interesting, when looked at from the angle of countermarked dollars,
is the Catrine Cotton Works. Catrine was owned by the Finlay family as was Deanston
Cotton Mill and Ballindalloch Cotton Works, both countermarked dollar issuers. Catrine
had a variety of values being 6/6, 5/6, 5/- and 4/9 but the strange and unique factor
with these countermarks is that they are all individually numbered. (Fig 9 and the
enlarged number Fig 9A)
The estimated order of issue of the countermarks is 4/9, 5/6 punched over 4/9, 5/-,
6/6 and 5/- again, punched over 6/6. However even though the marks are individually
numbered, these do not appear to be in any sequence, certainly not in the order of
issue. The 5/- issue is also interesting because there are two types, one in an oval
and one in a circle. The oval shape is also odd because in all three legible examples,
the stop after the five appears to be over a scraped area, which seems to have originally
had a three. No Catrine tokens are known for 5/3, so the punch may have been altered
to 5/- before any were struck. The lowest number in the series is 471, on 5/-, with
the highest being 4826, on 4/9. So quite a confused and interesting issue, if only
original records could be found.
Thistle Bank Reverse
Thistle Bank Obverse
Catrine Serial Number
Another Scottish cotton concern that issued countermarked dollars was the Rothsay
Cotton Works. Rothsay lies about forty miles southwest of Glasgow at the head of
a bay on the Island of Bute.
The Rothsay Mills tokens are quite varied and unusually this was the only concern
that countermarked cut Spanish dollars to the values of 2/6, 2/4 and 1/8. (Fig 10)
The dollars were marked in two denominations of 5/- and 4/6. (Fig 11)
Only one of the 5/- value is known, now with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The
4/6 values are found in two distinct forms, one with a small privy punch-mark below
the shield on the reverse (Fig 12), the other without this mark. The actual 4/6 countermark
reads ‘Rothsay Cotton Works 4/6 1820’. This date would suggest that 1820 was the
initial date of issue.
Rothsay Cut Piece
Another countermark, using both an obverse and a reverse mark, was that for J. Muir,
manufacturer, Paisley. (Fig 2) The reverse mark was the Prince of Wales feathers
bearing the motto 'Ich Dien' (Fig 13) With such a common Scottish name, it is difficult
to allocate this mark with ease. It is currently linked to a family who worked as
plaid merchants and shawl and muslin manufacturers. Maybe the reverse mark of the
Prince of Wales feathers was somehow linked to the designs used in the plaid or shawl
businesses. There are about nineteen of these coins known and at least nine of them
have been cancelled, but with different cancellation marks. Some are cancelled with
a grille pattern, whilst others are marked with digs or controlled pear-shaped punches
(Fig 2), or cut marks.
Another issuer is the firm of McFie Lindsay & Co. Greenock, listed as being in the
wholesale grocery trade between 1815 and 1834. One of their tokens is severely double-struck
(Fig 14) a very rare occurrence in the tradesmen’s countermarked series. It is believed
the issue dates from around the early 1820s, several years before their withdrawal,
as reported in the Greenock Advertiser of the 29th August 1828. ‘The subscribers
will thank those persons holding the Spanish dollars issued by them at 4/6 to send
them in to their place of business as early as convenient to be exchanged, silver
being now so plenty that they are no longer required for the convenience of trade.
MacFie (sic) Lindsay & Co.’ This advert appeared a good twelve years after the recoinage
In this short article we have touched only the surface of this fascinating subject.
There is so much research still to do that the rarity of the coins themselves is
of secondary importance to the seeking of information. A dream subject for the economic
and social historian, the tokens constituted a vital link between the industrialists
and the local communities in which they operated and also that they served. It required
a set of most unusual circumstances for them to exist. These, in turn, allowed the
countermarked coins to flourish. It required war, it required inventions, it required
raw materials, it required men of vision, it required great markets, it required
large labour forces, but most of all and truly most bizarrely, it required the inability
of the Royal Mint to coin silver. Upon such small matters can history be made.
Tokens of the Industrial Revolution - Foreign Silver Coins Countermarked For Use
In Great Britain c. 1787-1828.
By Harrington E. Manville. Published by Spink, 2001.
Articles by the Author in Spink Numismatic Circular for January 1979, March 1980,
October 1986, April 2001, June 2002, February 2005, April 2005, June 2006, October
2006, April 2007, October 2007, December 2007, December 2009 and September 2010.
Article by the Author in the British Numismatic Journal, vol 79, 2009