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Soho Mint - A World First!

A PROPOSED COINAGE FOR ANTIGUA

by David Vice

 

Published in Spink’s Numismatic Circular, December 1977, and re-published here with the kind permission of Messrs Spink & Son and the author, with whom the copyright remains.

A Proposed Coinage for Antigua

The Antigua coinage was forward looking in another respect. The policy of producing coins whose circulating values were equivalent to their metallic value suggests the abandonment of local currency ratings. Instead, the proposed currency system seems much more reminiscent of those adopted in the early twentieth century. Around this period, several insular colonial coinages were established, along side which Sterling was allowed to circulate at par.

 

Fascinating as many of the aspects of the Antigua coinage are, the fact remains that it was never issued. The explanation for the non-appearance of the coins at a time when everything seemed in their favour, is conveyed in a letter from Matthew Boulton to Anthony Brown, the Agent for Antigua, dated 4th March 1806

 

To Anthony Brown Esq – March 4th 1806

Sir,

I should have acknowledged before now your favour of the 27th ulto but have been prevented by a severe illness and confinement to bed from considering with due attention all the difficulties which oppose themselves to the accomplishment of your desire that I should undertake a Coinage of Silver and Copper for the Island of Antigua.

The result of my deliberations on the subject at length lead me to consider the obstructions alluded to as absolutely insurmountable without forfeiting my agreement with Government for an Irish and a English Copper Coinage which require their completion in 8 or 9 months from the present time.

The quantity of Money required by the order you are disposed to honor me with is not so much an impediment to my wish of undertaking it, as the great quantity of time which would be consumed in preparing the necessary Dies and Tools for Money of so many various sizes to which the mere coining, about 1 week’s work for my Mint, bears no comparison.

From the above circumstances you will perceive that I am precluded from undertaking the intended Coinage for the Island of Antigua.

I am, respectfully,

Sir, your Obedient humble Servant

Matthew Boulton

 

In the circumstances, the refusal to accept the Antigua contract was understandable. Boulton was heavily involved in fulfilling a life-long ambition, namely the major overhaul of the copper coinage systems of Great Britain and Ireland. Between 1804 and 1807 the Soho Mint was responsible for striking in excess of 200 million pieces. Even so, the problem was not one of simply finding a marginal improvement in minting capacity. This was perfectly feasible, as was later proved by the acceptance in 1806 of a small order for the Bahamas. The special dilemma posed by the Antigua coinage concerned the large variety of dies and accompanying tools required to strike seven coin denominations. The natural shortage of skilled engravers combined with the deliberate restriction of personnel allowed access to the secret art of multiplying dies, precluded any expansion in this sphere of operations.

 

With Boulton’s reluctant rejection of the Antigua commission, it is apparent that no satisfactory alternative manufacturer could be found, and consequently the whole project was abandoned. Numismatists can only reflect on what might have been. An Antigua coinage would have made a welcome and attractive addition to a British Colonial series whose early issues are strictly limited.

The West Indian Island of Antigua offers very little of numismatic interest. It can boast only a solitary coin type. This is a small copper token farthing issued by Hannay & Coltart, merchants of St John. Although the piece bears the date 1836, it is unlikely to have been issued prior to 1847. The year 1836 is believed to refer to the foundation of the issuers’ business.

 

No official local coins were issued by the Antigua authorities although the scarcity of small value coin during the period 1775-1838 resulted in application to England in 1796, 1803, and 1834, for special colonial coinages. Chalmers refers to the two earlier applications in the following terms:

 

“As regards Antigua, the inconvenience of an insufficient subsidiary coinage led the Colony in 1796 to ask for an insular coinage of £5,000 in small silver. The matter having been shelved by the Imperial authorities, a Colonial Committee in 1803 asked again that the coinage might be supplied, with the device of a windmill and the legend ANTIGUA. The Committee asked that the denominations might be 2s., 1s. and 6d. A copper coinage was also asked for, but nothing was done in the matter of either the silver or the copper coinage.”

 

Evidence has come to light in the Soho Mint Records which hints at the reasons for the eventual failure of the application of 1803. Surprisingly, the blame cannot be laid at the door of an intransigent and disinterested home government, as seems the case with so many colonial coinage requests of the past. Indeed, to be fair, during the first decade of the nineteenth century, the Privy Council Committee on Coin seemed more disposed towards making currency experiments than at any other period during its history. Much of the credit for this change in attitude belongs to one man – Sir Joseph Banks. Banks is, of course, best known for his journey to the South Seas in 1768 with Captain Cook, for his Presidency of the Royal Society, and for his valuable botanical collections. Yet, as a Council Member, he was also influential in other spheres of life. He maintained a passionate interest in currency matters, and was the owner of an extensive library on the subject. He also openly admired the developments made in coining techniques by his friend Matthew Boulton, whom he recognised as being something of a mechanical genius. As may be seen by the letter below, Banks always attempted to advance the cause of the Soho Mint whenever the opportunity arose.

 

Letter from Sir Joseph Banks to Matthew Boulton – dated 28th March 1804

 

“Antigua want to coin £5000 Sterling into small Silver and Copper for the use of the Island. I have this morning told the Agent that you can execute such a work much cheaper than the Mint will do. He listened to my information, how it will end I do not know but I wish to see all coins well struck and of course wish on all occasions for the assistance of your Mint.”

 

This letter should not be misconstrued as simply Banks showing undue favouritism towards the Soho Mint. The reasons for Banks’ obvious reluctance to award the Antigua contract to the Royal Mint were not confined to matters of expense. The state of the antiquated coining presses employed at the Tower Mint was such that they were incapable of producing a well struck coinage. In comparison, there was a great deal of truth to Boulton’s claim that at Soho he operated ‘the best and most powerful Coining Apparatus in the World.’

Despite the early warning of an intended coinage for Antigua, Boulton was not officially approached on this issue until almost two years later, when the following letter arrived:

 

To Matthew Boulton Esq. Gower Street, February 27th 1806

Sir,

His Majesty’s Minister in consequence of a late application on the Part of the Island of Antigua having been pleased to permit an Issue of a new Silver Coinage of small Pieces for the use of that Island not exceeding in Value of all the Bullion employed the sum of £5000 Sterling, I take the liberty of referring myself to you for the purpose of ascertaining whether it could be agreeable to you to undertake the Coinage alluded to, what would be the Expense attending it, and in what Space of Time it could be completed so as to be forwarded to the Island of Antigua?

For your full Information it is necessary to state that the whole of the Silver Coinage as proposed to be issued in the following proportions:

£ 750 into Pieces of the Metallic Value of 4 Shillings

£ 750 into Pieces of the Metallic Value of 2 Shillings

£1000 into Pieces of the Metallic Value of 1 Shilling

£1250 into Pieces of the Metallic Value of 6 Pence

£1250 into Pieces of the Metallic Value of 3 Pence

And the 500£ Copper into equal Proportions of Penny and halfpenny Pieces.

Every piece is to bear the Impression of His Majesty’s Head encircled by his Name and Titles on the one side and on the Reverse the Impression of a Windmill encircled by the Letters of the word ‘Antigua.’

I pray the Favor of your answer as soon as convenient and if any further Explanation should be necessary to enable you to determine on the Expenses of preparing the Coinage, I shall be ready to give it on receiving Intelligence of the Points on which you may desire to be further informed.

I am Sir

Your very Honourable Servant,

Anthony Brown,

Agent for the Island of Antigua

 

This letter is interesting for several reasons. It confirms that official sanction for an Antigua coinage was assured. It demonstrates how the West Indian Islands were the most cherished of national possessions, and, as the chief source of wealth outside England, were an object of special attention. Any colony which was granted a coinage was favoured, but for that coinage to include silver denominations was almost unknown. Why such a singular honour should be awarded to Antigua it is difficult to say. Perhaps it was because of the military presence on the island, and the importance attached to the naval dockyard at English Harbour. Whatever the reason, it represents a remarkable gesture at a time when Britain herself was suffering from a silver famine.

 

Other facets of the proposed coinage are also worthy of note. The original recommendations of the 1803 Colonial Committee to supply Antigua with three silver denominations, had been extended to five, to include a threepence and a four shilling piece. Neither of these values were represented under the existing British currency system. It is true that silver 1d., 2d., 3d. and 4d. pieces were minted, but these were struck specifically for the Maundy ceremony and not intended for general circulation. It was not until 1834, at the special request of Jamaica, that a threepenny piece was struck for colonial use. Similarly it was not until 1887 that a short-lived experiment for the introduction of a four shilling piece, or double-florin, occurred.