Coin and Currency Sites to Visit on Your Vacation: UK Edition

If you are heading out on vacation or planning one in the near future; there’s no reason not to celebrate your hobby on the road! Here’s a list of coin- and currency-related attractions and exhibits that you can visit while traversing across the United Kingdom! And don’t forget to check out our part one, with stops in all 50 states and part two for travels in Canada.

Llantrisant, South Wales: Tour The Royal Mint and learn about over 1,100 years of coin history. At the mint you can strike your own Britannia 50 new pence and learn more about the detailed processes involved in producing a coin, the work that goes into it and the history behind Britain’s coinage. Plus more; with weekly events and it’s own cafe, the Royal Mint truly is a desirable destination for any numismatist.

Blaenafon, Wales: Go underground to a real coal mine at the Big Pit National Coal Museum. Learn about old mining families and have the blacksmith experience. From minting coins to casting swords, this coal mine has supplied Wales with raw materials for hundreds of years.

Glasgow, Scotland: The University of Glasgow features The Hunterian museum, home to many fascinating exhibits and artifacts.The Hunterian is Scotland’s oldest public museum and home to over a million magnificent items ranging from meteorites to mummies and Mackintosh. Within this diverse collection you will find astounding artefacts, amazing art and an astonishing array of animal life. Including a huge variety of gold and base metal denominations produced by Byzantine mints in the exhibit: “Byzantium: A Golden Era of Coinage”. Admission is free!

Byzantine coins

Belfast, Northern Ireland: Visit the Ulster Museum to discover a unique human story of this part of Ireland and collections that will take you to all corners of the globe. Things to see include medals such as the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize and as a temporary exhibit discover buried treasure hoards from across the UK.

London, England: In the heart of London you can stop by The Bank of England Museum. Inside the museum you can pick up a gold bar and discover why the building is on top of one the world’s’ largest stores of gold. You’ll learn why people started to use paper money and how the Bank of England makes their notes difficult to copy.

Learn what the Bank of England does and how this affects the average citizen. Find out how they work to keep prices stable (the cost of things like food, televisions and train tickets). At the heart of our museum is the ‘Stock Office’ and this shows what the inside of the Bank of England would have looked like 200 hundred years ago.

Goldsmith’s Hall

London, England: Check in with the Goldsmith’s Hall to see if there are any open days where you can get a tour. Goldsmith’s Hall is where the Trial of Pyx is held every year.

The Trial of the Pyx (pronounced pIks) is a procedure in the United Kingdom for ensuring that newly minted coins conform to the required standards. These trials have been held from the thirteenth century to the present day, normally once per calendar year.

The Hall itself was erected in 1634-6 and restored after the Great Fire of 1666. It lasted for almost two centuries, but was eventually demolished in the late 1820s. The present Hall, by Philip Hardwick, remains much as he designed it, although there have been changes to the decorative schemes and the use of rooms.

The Hall narrowly escaped complete destruction when in 1941 a bomb exploded inside the south-west corner. Faithfully restored on the exterior after the War and internally modified, it retains much of the charm of an urban palazzo. A major refurbishment which was completed in 1990 has further adapted this great building for the 21st century.

Woburn, England: What’s a visit to England if you don’t have some afternoon tea? When going to the Woburn Abbey and Gardens you can view various numismatic exhibits  and sit down for tea the Duchess’ Tea Room. Explore over 22 rooms such as The Silver and Gold Vaults and the Holland Library. Numismatic materials are incorporated into several of the permanent displays.

Silver Cobs

In the mid-1500’s, additional silver deposits were discovered in the colonial territories and there was a pressing demand to export it to Spain. Starting in the reign of Philip II, the mints produced irregular coinage called cobs. Instead of rolling out a bar of silver into a sheet of a specific thickness that could then be cut into smooth round planchets; a bar of silver was simply cut into chunks of the appropriate weight. These small sliver clumps were then treated as if they were finished planchets and got hammer struck between crude dies. The size, shape and impression of these cobs were highly irregular but they were the proper weight, cobs were quite thick and disfigured with large cracks. The uneven clumps made poor planchets and it was common for only a small portion of the image on the die to be impressed on the silver. If a cob was overweight the minter simply clipped a piece off, further disfiguring the coin. During the seventeenth century a few full sized finished coins called “royal or presentation strikes” by present day collectors were also produced but it was only the crude cob that was mass produced.

With intention of easily being able to ship to Spain, these crude but accurately weighed cobs were produced. In Spain the cobs would be melted down to produce silver jewelry, coins, bars and other items. Cobs also circulated as coinage, with many cobs making their way to the English colonies where they were used both as coins in commerce and hoarded for their silver content. The cobs’ unusual shape and sizes made it quite easy for colonials to clip off some silver and then pass the coin off at full value. Furthermore, because of their crude design it was easy to make lightweight counterfeit cobs using the clipped silver. Many clipped and lightweight Spanish cobs were melted down in Boston to make the Massachusetts silver coinage.

Cobs were produced in denominations of one, two, four and eight reales under Philip II Coin2 (1)(1556-1598) and Philip III (1598-1621). A half real cob was added under Philip IV (1621-1665). Cobs continued to be produced through the reigns of Charles II (1665-1700), Philip V (1700-1724 and 1725-1746), Louis I (1725), Ferdinand VI (1746-1759) and Charles III (1759-1788). The obverse of a cob displays the crowned Hapsburg shield with the mintmark and assayer initial to the left and the denomination to the right of the shield. The legend, although frequently missing from the planchet, was some variation of the name of the king with DEI GRATIA (By the Grace of God). The reverse displays the arms of Castile and Leon within a quatrefoil design. Starting in the seventeenth century most cobs were dated but this information was added to the obverse legend and was usually not picked up in the stamping of the coin.

The first mint in the Americas was established in Mexico City in 1535. A royal decree authorized Herman Cortes to “melt, cast, mark, and put aside the royal-fifth”  of the precious metals taken from the Aztecs; he set up the foundry in the palace of Axayacatl. The Casa de Moneda was officially established when the Queen of Spain signed the Viceroyalty of New Spain into existence on May 11, 1535. The mint began operations in April of 1536.

British colonists were usually prohibited by law from minting coins (with a few exceptions), and colonists often found themselves using Spanish coins. During the Revolutionary War, the new nation tried to implement paper currency, which quickly collapsed. (For fans of the musical “Hamilton,” this is referenced when the young aide-de-camp sings, “Local merchants deny us equipment, assistance, they only take British money, so sing a song of sixpence.”) Spanish dollars continued to be used as reliable currency; when cut into eight pieces, each 1-real piece was referred to as a “bit.” The United States established its own currency in 1792, with the creation of the US Mint, but the terms “two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar” have remained in our vocabulary for over 200 years.

Dating and locating a cob can be difficult. If an assayer’s initials are present and the mint Coin1 (1)is known then some dating parameters may be determined, as the dates of appointment are available for many assayers. Also, particular details on the obverse shield differ for each ruler so some examples without other clues can often be dated to a specific king, if the shield is distinct. If the mintmark is missing the reverse cross may assist in identifying the mint. Such as, a Jerusalem cross with a ball at each extremity denotes the Mexico mint. A variety of other specific details may assist in making attributions; consultation of regional studies may allow one to narrow the possibilities, especially if a coin can be assigned to a specific time period.

Past and Present Mix in a Coin Rite

 

It’s long been thought that rituals involving the sacrifice of a coin (wishing wells, coins on the eyes of the dead, etc) date back to ancient practices of sacrificing precious metals to appease or garner favor with the gods.

 

One of the more interesting variants on this basic rite can be found at Wayland’s Smithy, a long barrow from the Neolithic era. It’s located near the famous White Horse of Uffington, a figure that dates to the late Iron Age or early Bronze Age. The barrow itself likely dates back to a time shortly after agriculture was introduced to Britain from the main European continent. It is one of the better-preserved barrows of a type known as the Severn-Cotswald group.

 

The mound originally measured 185 feet long by 43 feet wide, though it currently looks somewhat different due to excavations. The burial remains of at least twenty-two individuals have been found in and around the barrow so far.

 

Völund.jpgThe name of the barrow indicates it was associated with Wolund, a smithing god of the Germanic peoples (Volund in the Norse legends); however, research indicates the name was only given to the place when the Saxons settled there, about 4000 years after it was built. The name was first documented by Saxon King Eadred in 955AD.

 

 

 

Sometime between 955 and 1738 (when the ritual is mentioned by Francis Wise, a tradition arose around the barrow: if one had a horse that had thrown a shoe along the road, he need only tie it to the barrow and leave a coin. When he returned later, the coin would be gone and his horse would be perfectly shod. Coins have been left at the site in modern times since at least the 1960s; visitors began wedging coins into cracks in the stones. The coins are currently removed by wardens and donated to local charities.

 

Ceri Houlbrook, a folklorist, stated that the coins “contribute to the ritual narrative of a site.” By participating in these ancient traditions, we feel connected with the peoples that have passed that way for millennia; by leaving our coins, regardless of what we believe about the legends, we offer our respects for humanity’s long-ago past.

 

Cover image is by Wikipedia user Msemmett, used under CC BY-SA 3.0

All About Christmas Crackers

Christmas crackers are a traditional Christmas treat in the UK – and they’ve been popular for over 100 years. Fans of vintage collectibles will get a kick out of them. Crackers take center stage at Christmas parties or Christmas dinner. One person grabs each end of the cracker and pull. It’s a literal bang; a tiny strip of chemicals reacts to pressure and gives off the sound of a snap when participants pull the cracker.

What do these crackers contain? Small toys, jokes or paper crowns are traditional.

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So how did these crackers start? How did flimsy paper products become so popular?

It all starts with Thomas J. Smith of England, who designed the cracker shape to wrap candy bonbons (sweetmeats) in. But the bonbons were not as big a hit as Smith hoped for, so he started brainstorming other marketing methods. He had already designed the twist candy wrapper we’re familiar with, so he figured he’d try putting something other than bonbons in the middle. At first he tried putting love notes in the wrappers; later he changed the contents to trinkets we’re familiar with today (one of his sons later added the paper crowns and cheaper toys). Australians still call them bonbons based on their original design!

Smith came up with the cracker’s “bang” based on the crackle of logs on a fire. It’s half the fun!

Smith and his family even got their own memorial fountain in London in honor of the invention of Christmas crackers. And over 150 years later, the crackers are still going strong.

Does your family use Christmas crackers? What’s your favorite prize?

The Drama of the London Penny Post

What did the city of London do before people could send private letters through the mail inside the city?

In the mid-17th century, mostly just merchants and traders sent messengers to carry information outside of London. Only one post office existed, and private posts were few and far between.

Then William Dockwra and Robert Murray stepped in to change up the postal system forever. London’s sorely needed inner-city mail system started with Dockwra and Murray’s London Penny Post in 1680.

As the name would suggest, posts through the service cost only a penny. Suddenly, pricier posts through private carriers became unattractive and unnecessary for citizens of London. They took advantage of the Penny Post to send inner-city mail for cheap. Carriers traveled between participating receiving houses throughout the city dispatched letters once an hour for shorter distances and five times a day for longer distances.

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The business venture was popular – so popular that it faced opposition. In 1680, Murray was arrested under accusation of distributing “seditious” materials on the Duke of York. Dockwra was left to lead the business himself; during that time he solidly established the business and designed the Post’s triangular postmarks. Because of this, Dockwra continually fought to be recognized as the one who brought major success to the business.

But legal issues continued to get in the way of the Penny Post, and in 1682 the government stepped in to establish the Post as part of the government’s General Post Office. Dockwra continued to petition for recognition and compensation for his creation of the service; he received a management post for four more years but got laid off again under accusations of poor management.

The price of postage gradually increased over time. The London Penny Post eventually inspired a number of other Posts in the UK and the US.

The Fable Behind Willow Pattern Pottery

In simpler times, a romantic tale emerged. The story was set in China, but actually came from an English designer named Thomas Minton. The English often romanticized far-off, exotic places in the 18th and 19th century, so it only made sense that the tale would come around at that time.

Minton designed the now-iconic blue and white porcelain in 1790 and it has stayed in vogue ever since. The traditional willow pattern always features a willow tree and a bridge. The popular story behind willow pattern pieces was based on the design itself, rather than basing the design on an already existing story.

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A traditional willow pattern plate. Photograph CC 3.0

 

The story goes like this (via Wikipedia):

“Once there was a wealthy Mandarin, who had a beautiful daughter (Koong-se). She had fallen in love with her father’s humble accounting assistant (Chang), angering her father. (It was inappropriate for them to marry due to their difference in social class.) He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin was planning for his daughter to marry a powerful Duke. The Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride, bearing a box of jewels as a gift. The wedding was to take place on the day the blossom fell from the willow tree.
On the eve of the daughter’s wedding to the Duke, the young accountant, disguised as a servant, slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped with the jewels, the alarm was raised. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand. They eventually escaped on the Duke’s ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they lived happily for years. But one day, the Duke learned of their refuge. Hungry for revenge, he sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves (possibly a later addition to the tale, since the birds do not appear on the earliest willow pattern plates).”

The style is so iconic that willow pattern pieces are often used in TV and film to imitate a classic 19th century setting. It’s truly a beautiful, traditional design that will doubtless stick around for a long, long time.

Christ’s Hospital Boarding School Coins

Christ’s Hospital is, in fact, not a hospital at all. Instead, it’s a boarding school in Sussex, England that gives poorer children the chance for education that they would so often miss out on. The school’s founders started it in the 16th century.

It all started as a vision of King Edward VI, and the vision saw fruition starting in the year 1552.

The Hospital saw its fair share of catastrophes over the years. Thirty-two children died during the Great Plague of 1665. The next year, the Great Fire of London demolished most of the Hospital – but with no casualties. The children were sent away so the school could be rebuilt.

A second royal charter in 1673 created the Royal Mathematical School branch of the Hospital, which trained future naval officers and seafarers.

A few famous names passed through the school, including the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the writer Charles Lamb, and the writer & critic Leigh Hunt.

The school’s Tudor uniform, including long blue coats, knee-breeches, yellow socks, and neck bands, stays the same to this day. Students even voted on whether they wanted to keep or update the uniform, and 95% voted to keep the traditional uniform as it was.

Some interesting tokens emerged from the school. The school did not allow students to buy anything outside its gates; any current currency found in students’ possession was confiscated.

Christ Hospital001

Instead, the students received coins created by the school itself, for use inside its walls by the boys of the school. These coins have delightful designs for such selective currency, including designs such as this one, with a bust of Edward VI on one side and an open bible on the obverse, with the words “Hear – Read – Mark – Learn”. The boys called these coins “Housey-money”.

Christ Hospital002

The Legacy of Raphael Tuck & Sons

 

The company Raphael Tuck & Sons has left quite a legacy in their wake ever since its start as a family business in 1866.

The company is especially known for its postcards. Between the late 19th century and early 20th century, postcards became hugely popular, and Raphael Tuck & Sons capitalized on this.

However, they didn’t start with postcards; when Raphael Tuck and his wife Ernestine opened up a small humble shop in England in 1866, they simply sold pictures and frames.

Four years later his sons joined him in the business. As well as continuing with pictures and frames, the family established themselves as great printers of lithographs, chromos, and olegraphs. Soon they also made their first Christmas card.

Raphael Tuck & Sons also made its own books. Pictured here is a childrens' book printed on fabric.

Raphael Tuck & Sons also made its own books. Pictured here is a childrens’ book printed on fabric.

Tuck’s son Adolph created a contest in 1880 for the best Christmas card designs. More than five thousand designs were submitted, some of which were displayed in galleries for viewing. Thousands of pounds were spent on buying entries. The contest was one of the main events that made Christmas cards into an annual tradition.

In 1893 the company even got a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria, letting them show the sign of royal approval on their products.

Raphael Tuck passed away on March 16, 1900 before postcards really hit their peak of popularity. However, the business continued to thrive.

Bad luck hit in London 1940 during the war when tons of bombs hit London. Raphael House was shattered to bits and tens of thousands of original art was destroyed.

Despite this huge setback, the company gained its footing fairly quickly.

A postcard of the Main Street of West Littleton.

A postcard of the Main Street of West Littleton by Raphael Tuck & Sons.

By the 1950s, all of the original family members of the company had passed away, and in 1959 Raphael Tuck & Sons combined with two other companies to become the British Printing Corporation.

 

World War I Silk Embroidered Postcards

Embroidered postcards made their first appearance at the 1900 Paris Exhibition. Collectors can still find these lovely cards today, though it’s difficult to find them in great condition since many have faded from being placed on window sills or displayed close to sunlight.

Embroidered postcards reached a level of popularity during WWI from 1914-1918 that would never be reached again, thanks to soldiers on duty who would send these bright, colorful cards home to loved ones.

You won’t get this level of detail from any postcards today. It was mostly French and Belgian women refugees who hand-embroidered the designs onto silk mesh, which were then sent to factories for putting on postcard material.

Many of these postcards were actually envelopes, prepped for carrying even smaller cards with sentiments like “To my dear Mother.”

Up to 10 million handmade cards were made during the war!

These postcards became very popular with British and American soldiers in France. You can clearly see the patriotic themes in the cards; almost all of them have British, French, or American flags.

Starting in 1930, machines made simpler cards with less character; the unique silks had lost their time in the sun.  But if you’re lucky you can still find and own these special historical postcards.

 

Sources:

Propaganda cards

Library of Birmingham

Vintage Blog

Traveling with Art: Bray, Berkshire in England

Have you ever wanted to escape to the English countryside? This watercolor painting by Albert Rosser offers a small escape into a village in England. Here, Rosser has painted St. Michael’s Church in Bray, Berkshire, a small but accomplished town in the UK.

Bray is just one of many subjects that Albert Rosser has painted in England, which also include lakes and mountains in British National Parks. He’s a go-to artist for natural English beauty. (Here‘s the link to the above painting.)

“And this is law I will maintain
Until my dying day, sir,
That whatsoever King shall reign,
I’ll be Vicar of Bray, sir.”
A ballad commissioned by the Singing Vicar of Bray in the 17th century

St. Michael's Church and its graveyard (via Rob Neild under creative commons)

St. Michael’s Church and its graveyard (via Rob Neild under creative commons)

This particular Bray church was built in 1293 to replace a Saxon church, taking some of the former church’s statues along with it. According to folklore, the builders of the church ran into a little trouble that they attributed to a demonic presence. Work progressed quickly on building the church, but on the night after the first building day, something horrible happened: the start of the structure had been torn down and reduced to rubble. Well, the builders had no choice but to start over again, but the situation occurred again, and again, and again. Citizens attributed the issue to the work of demons who did not want the church built. Finally, they moved the structure’s location and, after prayers to St. Michael from the villagers, no more demons wreaked havoc on the building.

A local cottage reportedly has a tunnel which leads to the church as an escape route for clergymen.

The Fat Duck, a critically acclaimed restaurant. (via geograph.org under creative commons)

The Fat Duck, a critically acclaimed restaurant. (via geograph.org.uk under creative commons)

Bray has two internationally recognized restaurants, one of which, The Fat Duck, was voted as one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. The restaurant plays with molecular gastronomy to create exotic tastes that will surprise your taste buds. Scrambled egg and bacon ice cream, anyone?

A view of Monkey Island (via geograph.org.uk under creative commons)

A view of Monkey Island (via geograph.org.uk under creative commons)

A hotel called the Monkey Island Hotel sits on the nearby Monkey Island. The island got its name from the Old English term Monks Eyot, or Monk’s Island, based on the monks who used to reside on the island. Rubble from the Great Fire of London was dumped on the island, giving it a foundation solid enough and high enough to risk flooding. One can find grotesquely painted monkeys in the pavilion inspired by the island’s name.

Bray, Berkshire has many undiscovered treasures and hidden history within its borders, and at its finest it is a quaint English town with pleasant scenery and historical architecture. Who knows what you might discover if you visit?