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Soho Mint - A World First!



by Chris Leather

Anglesey Pattern Halfpence of 1790

The ‘Great Opencast’ at the Parys Mine, Anglesey, April 2008

Starting with pennies in 1787, and with the addition of halfpennies in 1788, a torrent of copper made the face of the Druid one of the best-known images in the country. The numbers made cannot now be precisely determined, but in 1801 Charles Pye of Birmingham, who knew many of the token issuers of the time, published his estimate of the total stuck at two hundred and fifty tons of pennies, and fifty tons of halfpennies. This is certainly an understatement, as these totals do not appear to include the coins struck by Matthew Boulton in 1789, and 1791, or those struck in London by W Williams in 1791.

Obverse and Reverse of Anglesey Penny Token, 1787

Probably struck at the Parys Mine Mint, Great Charles Street, Birmingham

Obverse and Reverse of Anglesey Halfpenny Token, 1789

Struck either at the Parys Mine Mint, Great Charles Street, Birmingham,

or at the Soho Mint, with dies engraved by John Hancock

But although these dates, 1787, 1788, 1789 and 1791, are well-known to collectors of the Anglesey series, there are other pieces, equally genuine, dated 1790. Some of these are rare, and some are extremely rare. Some were struck by W Williams of St Martin's Lane, London, and some by Boulton. But all were more in the nature of trials, or patterns, than pieces intended for circulation, as the numbers struck were measured rather in dozens of coins than tons of copper.


This note will look at the 1790 halfpence, struck at Soho by Matthew Boulton, which have the distinction of being the world’s first truly modern coins, fully round and of regular size and weight, struck by steam, in a collar.


Boulton had taken over production of Druid halfpence in 1789 when, for a number of reasons, not all of them creditable, Thomas Williams decided to cease operation of his own Parys Mine Mint in Great Charles Street, Birmingham. Boulton had purchased the presses used by Williams, more to suppress them than because of any use they might have been, but he continued to use dies engraved with the now-traditional Druid by Hancock.

But Boulton preferred, unsurprisingly, to have all the aspects of coin production under his own control, and therefore he commissioned his newly-recruited engraver Rambert Dumarest to produce a Druid head pattern for the Anglesey pieces. Dumarest produced, in fact, two slightly different heads, but on receiving the first of these, sent from Dumarest’s home in France in early July 1790, Boulton complained that ‘it has too little relief and would soon be defaced in the striking.’ Remedying the situation could be done by a jobbing engraver modifying Dumarest’s original die, but Boulton preferred to wait upon Dumarest’s arrival at Soho when the work could be done by the master himself.


As, indeed, it was, but it was not done quickly, and by the middle of October 1790 Williams was protesting to Boulton that ‘I am more disappointed than I can express that I have not yet got any Coins from you.’


Dumarest was not the only factor in the delay, however; in addition to developing a new style for the Anglesey coinage, Boulton and his technicians were working on a radical improvement to the way in which his mint operated. The Macclesfield, Cronebane and Anglesey tokens of 1789 had all been struck on steam powered presses, at Soho, but they had all been struck on edge marked blanks without the use of a collar. Boulton’s original collar mechanism, the six segment ‘plateau’ invented by Droz, was unsatisfactory for large scale coin production, and had been abandoned for all except proofs and patterns. The 1789 coins were, therefore, a kind of hybrid, struck by steam but on blanks which expanded at random on striking, in just the same fashion as coins struck on hand presses. They were not truly round, and the edges bulged. They were far short of the great leap forward towards which Boulton was aiming.

But on the second Tuesday in October (the twelfth) Boulton’s records show that success was achieved with the use of a one piece collar, which produced coins truly round, and with an edge precisely at right angles to the surface. The trial pieces produced were Anglesey halfpennies, with Dumarest’s new Druid, and a standard reverse type but dated 1790. The surviving examples show various aspects of the process, including a unique specimen where the collar mechanism has not operated.


At some point between 25th and 30th October, a box of the new pattern Druids (DH380) was sent to Williams, as on 31st October, his pen dipped in vitriol, Williams replied: ‘I am sorry to tell you we sho’d be abused for Issuing a large quantity from this die…it is universally condemned for being not in Character and out of proportion, the face being much too large for the rest of the head which some Critics say is in so small a compass it admits no room for Brains.’

Obverse and Reverse of Anglesey Halfpenny Token, 1790,

with obverse Druid die engraved by Rambert Dumarest.

Struck at the Soho Mint, in a collar, on the afternoon of

Tuesday 12h October 1790


* Obverse and Reverse of Anglesey Halfpenny Token,  1790

On this example, the collar mechanism has failed to operate

leaving a coin which is not quite round

There is, however, one additional feature which makes the 1790 halfpenny so interesting. Boulton had, apparently, experienced problems with some of the earlier Anglesey dies becoming defaced, because of a twist which was imparted to the die as it descended on to the blank. Matthew Boulton had referred, in a letter of 16th July 1790 to James Watt, that the ‘…press makes the ground of a better pollish & will make a few specimens more beautiful, yet it will take from the beauty of a fine Die more than it will add when Tons are to be struck. Such was the Case in the Anglesey pieces I struck for Wms' [presumably the 1789s] 'and was the Cause of Complaints because the Mat of the head was soon pollished off & I am persuaded the beauty of the Engraving will be much better preserved without the twist than with it…’

Section of the obverse of a Dumarest Druid Pattern Halfpenny, 1790,

showing the dragging effect of the twist given by the press. DH380

Obverse and Reverse of Anglesey Halfpenny Token,  1791

The obverse shows the reversion to Hancock’s Druid

At least one of the surviving pieces clearly shows on the obverse, in what may be an extreme example, how the metal has dragged on one side, indicating that the die was twisting about its axis as the coin was struck. Other examples show little or no twist. Boulton goes on to describe '..if a very small twist is wanted it may be given to the round Bolt..' Examples of the 1789 coinages can be found with traces of twist, but it seems as though this process was abandoned after the 1790 experiments


So, 1790 was a time of both success and frustration for Boulton as far as the Anglesey coinage was concerned. A small part of the frustration was mitigated the following year, when the second of Dumarest’s Druid dies, referred to earlier, was used as the obverse for the Cornish Metal Company halfpennies produced for Boulton’s associate John Vivian.

But while Williams’ rejection of Dumarest’s Druid is a matter of historical record, the fairness, reason, or good taste of the matter is for the reader to decide. Personally, I think that Dumarest’s obverse has far greater presence and that Williams allowed personal animus to cloud his judgement. Put a Dumarest Druid among a group of Hancock Druids and it towers above them!




My thanks go to Bill McKivor of the Copper Corner, Seattle, for permission to use the illustrations marked with an asterisk.

* The obverse and reverse of the Cornish Halfpenny of 1791

showing the second of Dumarest’s Druids

Much more likely is that the most significant problem with the new-style Druid was that it had been produced by Matthew Boulton.


‘In short, the old Druid by Hancock is so far beyond anything since produced nothing else is well rec’d and unless we can adhere to that Style & Character I w’d rather give up the Coinage entirely than continue it otherwise.’


Against opposition of this nature, Boulton could not prevail, and a slightly later pattern shows the Hancock Druid paired with a 1790 reverse. (DH378) It was this combination which was repeated on the circulation issues dated 1791. Dumarest, having produced a magnificent obverse in his own style, was reduced to engraving the oak wreaths around Hancock’s Druid.

Droz's Collar

Whilst the first copper token of the industrial revolution was, of course, the Halsall Penny, possibly by Matthew Boulton, which was struck to pay the workers at Colonel Mordaunt’s cotton mill, it is also true that the first copper tokens to be widely circulated were the Anglesey Druids made by Thomas Williams for his Parys Mine Company.

The motivation behind the issue of the tokens is unclear as, unlike Boulton, Williams' business papers have not survived. It is assumed that the Druids were made to facilitate the payment of the miners, thereby overcoming the dearth of small change experienced throughout the country, but there might also have been a little personal interest too. Sales of copper were beginning to decrease, and selling Druid tokens to other industrialists was a handy way of increasing turnover!

The Halsall Penny
Anglesey 1790