Coin of the Moment

Thomas Ewin, Copper token, 1668

Image["Image of the obverse of a copper token of Thomas Ewin"]
Image["Image of the reverse of a copper token of Thomas Ewin"]

Stocking up on candles?

A shopper buying candles in Thomas Ewin’s shop in Cambridge in the 1660s might have paid for their candles in official, silver coinage, but received the ‘coin’ above as change. But what is it? Clearly it isn’t an official coin - instead of a monarch gazing regally down, it shows a chandler (candle-maker) making candles by dipping a line of wicks into tallow or wax. The inscription reads on one side ‘THOMAS EWIN IN’ and the other ‘CAMBRIDGE 1668/ HIS HALF PENY T. E E’. This is a copper half penny issued by Thomas Ewin himself to give as change to his customers. If we got something like this in our change today we would think we were being short changed but this kind of ‘token’ money was common in the 1660s - and it met a real need.

Token money

Parliament stopped the production of copper small change in 1644, which had been a hated royal privilege (as it was a monopoly). This pause in the making of low denomination coins continued until Charles II began making copper half pennies and farthings in 1672. Thus for nearly a quarter of a century there was a shortage of small change. So merchants like Ewin made small change, from copper or lead, which could be saved up by customers and converted to real money later. The Queens’ College collection recently desposited at the Fitzwilliam includes nearly 3,000 such seventeenth century tokens.

A link to the past

While these tokens were useful for shoppers in the past, they are also of interest to us today, as they are form records of local history. We can trace Thomas Ewin in Cambridge history. He was the son of John Ewin, mayor of Cambridge at the restoration of Charles II in 1660. According to a contemporary account, ‘On Fryday the 11th May 1660 King Charles was proclaimed King by John Ewin Chandler then maior of Cambridge. The maior himself read the Proclamation, the Towne Clerke more audibly spoke it after him’. The Ewin family house at 69 Bridge Street still stands.

Tokens today

We don’t use privately issued ‘subsititute’ money nowadays, of course…or do we? While we wouldn’t expect to receive tokens in our change, we do use privately issued ‘money’ for all kinds of things today, as you can see from the examples below from The Fitzwilliam's collection of modern tokens.

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Telephone token, Italy, 2001


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Transport disc, Warrington Borough Council, 1993


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Restroom token, Vermont Transit System, USA, 2001


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College token, St Edmund Hall, Oxford University, around 1971


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Sales tax token, Missouri USA, 1991


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Carparking token, Moat House Hotels, 2001



The Fitzwilliam Museum : Coin of the Moment

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