In Great Britain, a shortage of small denomination coinage had been reported as early as the late 14th century. Such a shortage made it difficult for workers to be paid, and for transactions of daily life to be carried out. The shortages persisted and worsened through the late 17th century and became particularly problematic by the middle of the 18th century. The shortage of small denomination coinage reached a critical mass with the move of many workers away from agricultural jobs and into the work force in factories during the Industrial Revolution. The growing payrolls of factories were nearly impossible to meet for employers with no supply of coins. At the same time, the population growth rate of Great Britain between 1750 and 1800 nearly quadrupled. The situation was only made worse by the outflow of British silver coins via Gresham's law, the preponderance of counterfeit copper coins in circulation, and the Royal Mint's sporadic production of non-gold coins from the late 17th century to the late 18th century. For many years, no copper or silver coins were minted at all, and in 1775 King George III had halted the production of copper coinage at the Royal Mint.
A halfpenny token issued by the Parys Mine Company of Anglesey in 1788. The hooded druid design was used for many years, and was the first of hundreds of token designs.
In 1768, one of the largest veins of copper in the world was found at Parys Mountain on the island of Anglesey in the northwest of Wales. In 1785, Thomas Williams (the "Copper King"), acting as a representative of the Parys Mine Company, met with the master of the British mint to propose that regal copper coins be struck using a counterfeit-deterrent method of edge lettering, and offering this technology to the mint free of charge. The stipulation was that the supply of the copper for these new coins would come from the Parys Mine Company. The British mint master did not entertain the offer.
By 1786, two-thirds of the coins in circulation in Britain were counterfeit, and the Royal Mint responded by shutting itself down, worsening the situation. Few of the silver coins being passed were genuine. Even the copper coins were melted down and replaced with lightweight fakes. The Royal Mint struck no copper coins for 48 years, from 1773 until 1821. On the rare occasions when the Royal Mint did strike coins, they were relatively crude, with quality control nonexistent. In February 1787 Williams oversaw the minting of the first of many privately issued copper tokens, some being used to pay workers at the Parys Mine Company. These first tokens bore the image of a hooded Druid, and within two months time were receiving attention in London as a possible solution to the shortage of small denomination coin. Not long after the appearance of the Druid tokens, other cities, businesses, and proprietors would follow suit and begin designing and minting their own small denomination coinage.
Matthew Boulton and The Soho Mint
A token minted by Boulton
in late 1794 for the proprietor Christopher Ibberson. Note the edge lettering stating "PAYABLE AT THE GEORGE & BLUEBOAR LONDON".
The demand for small denomination coin flourished, and with it the popularity of copper tokens that approximated the size of the halfpenny grew rapidly. One of the most prolific producers of these private tokens (struck on behalf of merchants) was Matthew Boulton. In fact, during his lifetime Boulton would strike millions of these merchant pieces. Boulton was no stranger to the manufacture of small metal items, having grown up with and managed his family business for many years, which specialized in buckles. In the mid-1780s Boulton had turned his attention to coinage; in his eyes coins and tokens were just another small metal product like those he had manufactured for years. He also had shares in several Cornish copper mines, and had a large personal stock of copper, purchased when the mines were unable to dispose of it elsewhere. However, when orders for counterfeit money were sent to him, he refused them: "I will do anything, short of being a common informer against particular persons, to stop the malpractices of the Birmingham coiners." In 1788 he established the Soho Mint as part of his industrial plant. The mint included eight steam-driven presses, each striking between 70 and 84 coins per minute.
Boulton spent much time in London lobbying for a contract to strike British coins, but in June 1790 the William Pitt Government postponed a decision on recoinage indefinitely. Meanwhile, the Soho Mint struck coins for the East India Company, Sierra Leone and Russia, while producing high-quality planchets, or blank coins, to be struck by national mints elsewhere. The firm sent over 20 million blanks to Philadelphia, to be struck into cents and half-cents by the United States Mint.
The national financial crisis reached a point of despair in February 1797, when the Bank of England stopped redeeming its bills for gold. In an effort to get more money into circulation, the Government adopted a plan to issue large quantities of copper coins, and Lord Hawkesbury summoned Boulton to London on 3 March 1797, informing him of the Government's plan, and he was awarded a contract at the end of the month. According to a proclamation dated 26 July 1797, King George III was "graciously pleased to give directions that measures might be taken for an immediate supply of such copper coinage as might be best adapted to the payment of the laborious poor in the present exigency". The proclamation required that the coins weigh one and two ounces respectively, bringing the intrinsic value of the coins close to their face value. With the return of large quantities of government issued small denomination coin (twopence and pennies were minted at the Soho Mint in 1797, and halfpennies and farthings followed in 1799), the need for locally issued token coinage waned.
The return of government coinage
By 1802, the production of privately issued provincial tokens had ceased. However, in the next ten years the intrinsic value of copper rose. The return of privately minted token coinage was evident by 1811 and endemic by 1812, as more and more of the Government issued copper coinage was melted down for trade. The Royal Mint undertook a massive recoinage programme in 1816, with large quantities of gold and silver coin being minted. To thwart the further issuance of private token coinage, in 1817 an act of parliament was passed which forbade the manufacture of private token coinage under very severe penalties.