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Tokens of Revolution

The Propaganda Coins of Thomas Spence and his Contemporaries
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Image of the obverse of a copper halfpenny token of Thomas Spence, late eighteenth century

(Reverse of a copper halfpenny token of Thomas Spence, 1795, Trinity College Collection, CM.TR.1574-R)

Image of the reverse of a copper halfpenny token of Thomas Spence, 1795

(Obverse of a copper halfpenny token of Thomas Spence, late eighteenth century, CM.BI.1929-R)

With these pieces Spence's hatred of injustice and authority somewhat 'o'erflowed the measure'. Although the message is not explicit on either piece, the head that has replaced the traditional Liberty Cap on the Tree of Liberty at left is clearly that of the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, which Spence's own description of this piece glossed as "the head of the protector of men's liberties", perhaps himself aware that this advocation of violence, if made clear, was one step further than the authorities might accept. Likewise, although it is not supported by any endorsement in the legend, the associations of a guillotine, apparently awaiting business, would have been clear to anyone picking up the piece on the right.

Conservative coppers

The revolutionaries of course had their countervailing opponents, and these made almost as much resort to monetary propaganda as did Spence and his contemporaries. Some such issues addressed general issues of correct political order, for example making strong traditional statements about the organisation of the realm that used the power of the visual almost as arrestingly as did Spence and James.

Image of the obverse of a copper halfpenny token engraved by Roger Dixon, late eighteenth century

(Obverse of a copper halfpenny token engraved by Roger Dixon, late eighteenth century, Queens College Collection, CM.QC.3716-R)

Image of the obverse of a copper halfpenny token of William Williams, 1795

(Obverse of a copper halfpenny token of William Williams, 1795, CM.BI.1934-R)

The piece at left arranges the three powers of England, King, Lords and Commons, into an unbreakable triangle whose centre is labelled "Constitution". It should be noted that, although clearly conservative compared to Spence in as much as the lords remain, the reference to a constitution could have been read progressively, as a written constitution for the country was a common aim of reformers. Was the unknown issuer here saying that the three estates combined were a sufficient constitution, or that they should be fixed into one? Or was the ambiguity deliberate on the part of William Lutwyche, the manufacturer, so as to sell to as many people as possible whatever their views? William Williams, the issuer of the second piece, was less ambiguous with his employment of the Prince of Wales's crest as the primary device, but even here the Biblical legend "Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's" could have been intended as an implication that there were things beyond a citizen's obligation that the ruler might not demand.

Image of the obverse of a copper halfpenny token engraved by William Mainwaring, 1794

Image of the reverse of a copper halfpenny token of William Mainwaring, 1794


(Obverse and reverse of a copper halfpenny token engraved by William Mainwaring, 1794, Queens College Collection, CM.QC.3784-R) (double size image)

This piece perhaps makes the medium work too hard. Taking as the basic theme a conceptual map of France, the obverse depicts HONOR trodden underfoot, the THRONE overturned, GLORY obliterated with cross-hatching and RELIGION shattered into pieces, while FIRE burns at every corner and the whole design is surrounded with daggers and runs with wavy lines intended to represent flowing blood. The sententious legend of the other side, "May Great Britain ever remain the reverse", puns on the medium of issue in a different way. Although the allusions may seem over-clever to us, William Mainwaring had struck metaphorical gold with this design of his, which is known in twenty different issues and three different metals (though gold is not one of them). Its popularity can be explained by English horror at the new developments in France as the Revolution there reached its final and bloodiest stages.

Attacking Spence in person

Because of his outspokenness, both textual and visual, and also no doubt because of his undeniable self-importance, Spence and his ideas were a particular target for other token issuers whose views were more in keeping with the establishment. In this his opponents were particularly able to profit from the fact that, although Spence and James made the dies with which Spence's issues were struck, once the commissioned issue had been completed, the dies remained the property of the manufacturers and could be commissioned by anyone else who so chose. This gave Spence's opponents the glorious opportunity of twitting Spence with his own designs.

Image of the obverse of a copper halfpenny token issued in the name of James Spence, late eighteenth century

(Obverse of a copper halfpenny token issued in the name of James Spence, late eighteenth century, Trinity College Collection, CM.TR.1468-R)

Image of the reverse of a copper halfpenny token engraved by Thomas Wyon, 1796

(Reverse of a copper halfpenny token engraved by Thomas Wyon, 1796, CM.BI.1869-R)

Image of the obverse of a copper farthing token of an unknown issuer, 1793 Image of the reverse of a copper farthing token of an unknown issuer, 1793

Obverse and reverse of a copper farthing token by an unknown issuer, 1793

The token at upper left above makes malicious fun of the humble origins of Spence's family by retooling a design of Spence's that shows a begging ex-sailor, now with the legend "J. Spence, Slop Seller, Newcastle", which was indeed the occupation of Spence's brother. Less harmless is the morbid revision of Spence's 'Three Thomases' motif at upper right with the three "Noted Advocates of the Rights of Man" hanging on a gibbet mocked by Spence's own legend. Similarly unpleasant mockeries of Spence's works are depicted on the lower pair, obverse and reverse of the same anonymous farthing token, on the former of which a hanged man is associated with the legend, "The End of Pain", probably to be read as a reuse of a gloomy artistic motif to evoke the wish for a similar end for the eponymous radical and 'third Thomas', since his work, and also Spence's Plan under its second populist title, are mocked by the reverse, which shows an open book entitled, "The Wrongs of Man". That Spence's issues evoked such malicious responses is perhaps a measure of their pervasiveness, either in pockets or in talk of the time.

Socially conscious currency

For all that conservative opinion would brook little talk of it, the problems to which Spence and other protestors did not cease to exist. Some comments on these issues in the form of tokens borrowed Spence's tactics, in particular the juxtaposed pair of contrasting images for obverse and reverse. The token below plays with such a device to comment on the unlucky situation of those discharged from service in the Royal Navy after loyal service in a way that Spence would happily have adopted. The obverse shows the hero, 'Tom Tackle', in full patriotic fervour swinging a cutlass, the incomplete legend around the lower edge reading "For King and Country" on better examples of this piece; but the reverse shows the peg-legged ex-sailor with cap in hand, and the lower legend this time reads, "My Country Serv'd".

Obverse and reverse of a copper halfpenny token by an unknown issuer, late eighteenth century, Trinity College Collection, CM.TR.1449-R

Image of the obverse of a copper halfpenny token by an unknown issuer, late eighteenth century Image of the reverse of a copper halfpenny token by an unknown issuer

Perhaps the most famous social token of the whole period, whose imagery was so powerfully used by William Wilberforce, was this one, known in many variants and proclaiming the essential injustice of slavery. On the obverse a kneeling negro pleads, "Am I not a man and a brother?" while on the reverse linked hands are placed inside the motto, "May slavery and oppression cease throughout the world". This particular piece was probably issued in Dublin.

Obverse and reverse of a copper halfpenny token issued by the Society for Suppression of the Slave Trade, Trinity College Collection, CM.TR.1442-R

Image of the obverse of a copper halfpenny token issued by the Society for Suppression of the Slave Trade, late eighteenth century Image of the reverse of a copper halfpenny token issued by the Society for Suppression of the Slave Trade, late eighteenth century

A Last Word by Spence

In so far as one can be so in a silent medium, Spence was indubitably a loud-mouth, cocksure and self-congratulating, who made his living by exploiting the popular readiness to buy tokens, prints and pamphlets espousing revolutionary ideals. He was unafraid to try and ride the coat-tails of other more famous, successful and respected radicals, and for all these things his opponents freely attempted to deflate his pretensions. On the other hand, he was inudubitably motivated by a sense of justice in a society whose trangressions he perceived clearly and could express powerfully, in imagery perhaps more than in print (though his sloganeering ability would be the envy of many a modern marketing department). He spent most of his life close to poverty because of his relentless pursuance of his cause, and although he made good capital out of his few months in Newgate Jail this should not diminish the fact that he genuinely had been a political prisoner of the state.

Image of the reverse of a copper halfpenny token of Thomas Spence, 1795

Reverse of a copper halfpenny token of Thomas Spence, 1795, Trinity College Collection, CM.TR.1574-R

Image of the reverse of a copper halfpenny token of Thomas Spence, late eighteenth century

Reverse of a copper halfpenny token of Thomas Spence, late eighteenth century, Trinity College Collection, CM.TR.1573-R

Two final tokens of his show that he was not unaware of his less-than-stellar importance in London's political ferment, but also defend his radicalising activity as a genuine strategy to end injustice and oppression. On the former, a lion representing tyranny is harassed by the loud crowing of a cockerel perching on its rump, a likeness which both Spence and his opponents might have agreed upon, although perhaps not with the legend, "Let Tyrants Tremble at the Crow of Liberty". On the latter, another of James's fabulous pastoral scenes is used to frame a humble snail, to which Spence added the defiant legend, "A Snail May Put His Horns Out". Even today, various protestors might find some fellow-feeling in this expression of the power of the humble.

Further Reading

Spence's tokens were catalogued by the numismatists Richard Dalton and Samuel Henry Hamer in their substantial catalogue of eighteenth-century tokens. Originally a part-work, this has recently been updated and reprinted as a single volume and remains the standard work: R. Dalton & S. H. Hamer, The Provincial Token-Coinage of the 18th Century Illustrated, rev. Allan Davisson (Cold Spring: Davisson's 1990). A more current reference is now provided by P. & B. R. Withers, The Token Book: 17th 18th & 19th Century Tokens and their Values (Llanfyllin: Galata 2010), but this illustrates only a few pieces. The details of the manufacture of and market for tokens can be accessed via Richard Doty's The Soho Mint and the Industrialization of Money (London: British Numismatic Society 1998), or two articles from 2003, Peter Mathias, "Official and Unofficial Money in the Eighteenth Century: the evolving uses of money. The Howard Linecar Memorial Lecture 2003" in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 73 (London: BNS 2003), pp. 69-83 & David Dykes, "Some Reflections on Provincial Coinage, 1787-1797", ibid. pp. 160-74. Neither have anything substantive to say of Spence, however, whom Dykes calls a "hare-brained radical". A detailed study of Spence's dies and discussion of others that may or may not be his, as well as extensive quotes from his works in which the tokens were grounded, can instead be found in R. H. Thompson, "The Dies of Thomas Spence (1750-1814)", British Numismatic Journal Vol. 38 (London: BNS 1969), pp. 126-162, and "The Dies of Thomas Spence (1750-1814): Additions and Corrections", ibid. Vol. 40 (1971), pp. 136-138.

On politics and society in the period, a good introduction can be found in Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (London: Penguin 2nd edn. 2001). An avowedly left-wing account of the revolutionary patriotism of the age is Hugh Cunningham, "The Language of Patriotism, 1750-1914" in History Workshop Journal Vol. 12 (Oxford: OUP 1981), pp. 8-33.

Spence's most important work, "The Real Rights of Man" in Pig's Meat No. 3 (London: 'The Hive of Liberty' 1795), pp. 220-229, was reprinted in M. Beer (ed.), The Pioneers of Land Reform: Thomas Spence, William Ogilvie, Thomas Paine (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1920), and also in H. T. Dickinson (ed.), The Political Works of Thomas Spence (Newcastle: Avero 1982); most of both books are online and can be found at http://www.ditext.com/beer/land.html and http://www.ditext.com/spence/dickinson.html as of 20th November 2008. The latter has extensive additional bibliography on Spence and his works.

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