In A New History of The Royal Mint, edited by Dr Challis, leading historians present us with a masterpiece of late 20th century scholarship. It lays before us a history of the English mint from Anglo-Saxon times, in great detail, copiously annotated and backed up by scores of statistical tables. On its pages we find dozens of skeletons fearlessly dragged from cupboards, as the regular bouts of bribery, corruption and insider dealing at the mint are put on display. Previous scholars are explicitly chastised for their errors. But what of the central issues, are they really addressed? The devil is in the detail. In a work which even tells us who swept the floor of the 18th century Royal mint, we cannot find an answer to the central question:
Why was the mint not striking coins?
The Royal mint stopped striking silver in 1758. Trivial issues aside, it did not resume until 1816. Likewise copper ceased in 1754 and a short resumption in the 1770’s did not repair the deficit, which continued until contracts were placed with Boulton in 1797. Only gold was being struck. This was the most important deviation in minting policy in England between Offa and the abandonment of silver in 1947. For numismatists working in the English language, it must be taken as a benchmark for the study of denomination change. If we cannot find a satisfactory explanation for this event in modern scholarship, what point is there in even reading speculation about the more remote monetary circumstances of medieval times, never mind the Romans, Greeks, Arabs or Chinese?
The publication in 1992 of a major study of English minting matters: A New History of the Royal Mint, edited by Dr Challis, should give the layman like myself the opportunity to find out where contemporary scholarship stands on this matter, but unfortunately it does not. Let us see how Dyer and Gaspar treat this subject in A New History Of The Royal Mint. On pages 398-9 of this study the 18th century coinage is recognised as being allowed to fall into an increasingly disgraceful condition. The authors allow that this was due in part to the lack of attention by those in authority: absentee, uncaring officers, and that it arose from the failure of government to tackle the fundamental problems which beset the economy. Unfortunately that is all they say, exactly why and how this government failure came about is left a mystery.
The authors are free to construe the limits of their study as they choose of course. The present matter is of such importance however, that readers should reasonably expect at the very least reference to be made by the authors to such treatments of the subject as exist elsewhere. It does not. This is a standard reference work. It tells us who was responsible for sweeping the floors of the Royal Mint from 1780 to 1800, but does not assist us in discovering why it was not striking coins.
As something of an after thought, Dyer and Gaspar do hint at an alternative explanation of the lack of change in 18th century England. It derives from the contemporary debate, repeated in mint reports concerning copper coin: the public suffer themselves to be imposed on by the most bungling imitations (p 436). Presumably the argument behind this runs as follows: by striking copper the mint sanctioned copper circulation; by circulating copper, production and passing of copper fakes was encouraged; by the failure of members of the public to personally police the passing of fakes, trade was damaged. Therefore copper should not be struck by the mint.
I do not think that this argument has any place in scholarship. Surely this derives from the comment of some 18th century Bufton Tufton, who paid a good sum for his seat in parliament, and was determined to get it back 10 times over as a ‘consultant’ by serving the interests of his clients with the best bits of nonsense he could think up on the spot. It is a near perfect example of the sort of glib statement that Cairncross (Introduction to Economics p. 548) suggested is the stock in trade of all official hierarchies; precisely because of the difficulty of communicating sound practical judgements throughout bureaucratic systems where a grasp of basic economic realities is less than universal. One fears that such glib comments might easily get transplanted intact from the official hierarchy of 18th century English government to the official hierarchy of 20th century British scholarship, if care is not quickly taken to root them out.
It is by no means impossible to imagine a society which policed its own coinage. A species of labourer might be imagined who would starve to death rather than suffer the indignity of taking fake coppers in payment. A whole society might be imagined which scrupulously observed all transactions, and rose up mob handed to serve summary justice on any who tendered fakes. I think I even once read an account of such a society, in a science fiction story. Perhaps in some high Himalayan or rural American fastness, some devout cult has actually lived such a life of rigorous integrity. Such mental perambulations are irrelevant to 18th century England. Their problem with change was that the authorities failed to pass the necessary legislation to create and protect it. The fault lay with the government, and the authors were unwise to stray from that position.
Consider the following 18th century events, taken from the pages of Lady Stanhope’s diaries. Whilst out riding with her cousin, Lord Camelford, the two passed through a turnpike. The Lord, normally careless with money, examined his change carefully. He then handed the reigns to his cousin, jumped from the carriage and gave the turnpike man a good hiding. He later explained to lady S. that turnpike men kept barrels full of bad halfpennies to give in change. To you and me it does not signify, but some poor carter has perhaps nothing but his change to pay for supper, and will find that he cannot get his bread and cheese. I wanted to teach that blackguard a lesson. Now I should need to know more about the Lord C.’s opinion of lady S. before I attempted to fully explain this admirable display, combining concern for economic justice with virile manhood. Nevertheless, we surely cannot assume that the typical 18th century carter was a puny shrinking violet. The only obvious explanation of Lord C’s action is that he judged the scales of local justice to be weighted against the carter who stood his ground, but not the Lord who stood up for him.
Turning to greater matters, consider the affair of the Yorkshire coiners c. 1765-73. At its heart was an illegal trade of clipping gold guineas (down to an intrinsic value of 15/9d). Counterfeit Portuguese moidores were made from the clippings. Manufacture of fakes was dominated by four ‘mints’, but if we include those who clipped the coin, and those who provided good coin for clipping, the trade encompassed hundreds in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Almost the entire population was associated with the fraud to the extent of passing adulterated coin. It was near impossible to trade otherwise, but dissatisfaction with the policies of the government no doubt encouraged many to take part, as a mark of protest.
One man who did try to remedy the matter was William Deighton. He did not pursue the matter as an individual, out of a simple love of justice. Deighton was collector of excise tax for Halifax. He had a big problem balancing the standard of the coin tendered in Halifax with the standard required in London. In order to try bring the false coiners to justice he bought the evidence of an informer against one of the ‘godfathers’ of the illegal trade, David Hartley, (universally known as ‘King David’). This man was taken, and locked in York castle. Hartley's gang soon tracked down the informer and got a retraction from him, but to no avail. They appointed a local attorney to seek bail, but the magistrate prevaricated. So a subscription was raised amongst the ‘upper hands’ of the coiners. £100 was put on the head of Deighton. He was shot dead around 1 am, 10th November 1769. The contract killing was done by Matthew Normanton and Robert Thomas.
This was the fate of a senior member of the official bureaucracy, backed by the law, when he sought to protect the gold coinage. Surely it cannot be sensible for us to blame deficiencies in the silver and copper on ordinary members of the labouring poor, with no backing at all, aside from the occasional eccentric aristocrat?
If we look for fundamental reasons for the decline of coining at the Royal mint in the 18th century, then the loss of confidence in silver must play a part. The 18th century British wealthy were not the first to discover that by making gold a measure of value (including rent value) as well as a commodity, and then by buying up gold, they got not just a short term gain in the commodity value of gold, but also a long term gain in their income from rents. If gold alone was driven up, silver would, like all else, be driven down, and who would then want to take it, who need not? In addition, 18th century British merchants would be well aware that the orient was stuffed with silver, and its regimes tottering. They might justifiably fear a coming tidal wave of oriental silver, leading to the destruction of funds held in that metal. A similar fear, that as silver failed, despised copper might come to replace it as the staple of trade, soon led to the cessation of copper coining also.
Acting in concert with these attitudes, but more fundamental still, were matters to do with the competition for the retail trade between markets and shops.
In early medieval times the concepts of town, market and mint had been almost inseparably intertwined. The shop was clearly a later development, though I have found it difficult to get information concerning early retailing from shops. Certainly they existed in some form in later medieval times, Chaucer for instance refers to them, but detailed accounts seem to be found only from the mid 16th century. Traditionally it has been held that upto the mid 18th century, the bulk of retail transactions took place at periodic fairs and weekly markets.
Markets were in principle egalitarian affairs. The authorities expected payment for creating and policing markets, but trade was otherwise unfettered. Of necessity, transactions were chiefly settled then and there in cash, payed and quit. The earliest records show that this was not true of shops. Entry to the shopkeeping trade was regulated by guilds and apprenticeship systems. Further, the trade was dependant upon wholesale merchants, not merely for stock, but also for capital. Many transactions, in and out, were done on credit.
It is crystal clear that markets and fairs were more dependant upon ready money than shops. The philosopher Berkeley (The Querist, 1737) gives witness to the difficulties markets were already facing with regard to change in the early 18th century, when he asks: Whether business at fairs and markets is not often at a stand, and often hindered, even though the seller hath his commodities at hand, and the purchaser his gold, yet for want of change?
During the subsequent half century of inactivity at the mint, shops displaced markets as the vehicle of commerce. As Cobbett puts it (Rural Rides 1826): Wens (cities) have devoured market-towns and villages, and shops have devoured markets and fairs. Cobbett goes on to characterise markets as wise institutions of our forefathers, ... which bring together the producer and the consumer...and enable them to act for their mutual interest and convenience. He characterises shops as hiding from both the producer and the consumer the real state of matters. He sums up with the judgement that whole bodies of men live in idleness, in consequence of the current of the laws running in favour of the trafficking monopoly.
Since a seat in parliament could be bought for cash, it is easy to see how a vicious circle arose. Monopoly directed legislation and its enforcement, yielding profits which boosted of the grip of that self same monopoly. Centralisation of production put stock in the hands of great manufactures. Growing use of credit strengthened the hands of the distributors of stock, wholesalers who supplied not only stock but also credit to shops. The lack of change favoured shops at fixed locations over market stall holders, since the former could readily offer credit facilities, the later could not. This was how the lack of small change fed the growth of the combination of great manufacturers and wholesalers.
Presumably Napoleon saw things in just this way. How else can we understand his celebrated remark:
England is a nation of shopkeepers