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Soho Mint - A World First!

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The end of Matthew Boulton’s French Enterprise


By Chris Leather

Monnerons Banned!

At the beginning of 1791, Matthew Boulton was considering the future direction and prospects for his mint. Fully operational but denied the opportunity to coin for the Government, the Soho Mint was getting by with contracts for private tokens. Cronebane tokens for Roe and Company in 1789, Druid halfpence for the Parys Mine Company in 1789 (and again, later in 1791) and the first of the pieces for John Wilkinson, Iron Master, in 1790. But these were relatively small orders which would not require the capacity and expertise of the world's most advanced mint. More and bigger orders were needed. So, in January 1791 Boulton asked John Motteux, an acquaintance and customer, and official of the Honourable East India Company, who had extensive connections in France, to ease the path for a proposal on a truly Boultonian scale to provide a new coinage for the French Government. Or, failing this, to sell his mint to the French for them to strike their own coins and, if necessary, to buy the recently confiscated church bells and to process the metal ready for coining.


Boulton had no more success with the French Government than he had had with the British. The political system was in a state of flux, with parties and factions vying for supremacy, while King Louis XVI was undoubtedly more concerned to keep his head on his shoulders than on his coins.


As always, people made do with whatever could be found. For example, Frederic Droulers estimates that in the mid 19th century, even as late as the reign of Napoleon III before the introduction of the bronze coinages, half to one percent of the coppers in circulation consisted of sestertii, dupondii and asses of the Roman period!


But the ongoing problems with the coinage, and the public response to these, mirrored the state of affairs in Great Britain to the degree that a prominent business house, Monneron Freres of Paris, commissioned Boulton and Soho to produce a series of copper tokens, of half, two and five sols denomination, although in the event the half sol was never struck.

The first shipment of two sols, featuring a seated Liberty leaning on The Rights of Man - was there a subconscious message here? -  with the French Coq on a pillar, was sent in November 1791 dated that year and also as 'l'an III de la liberte.' Subsequent issues were dated 1792/year III and 1792/year IV.

Five sol tokens were issued next, showing Liberty seated with a stone tablet inscribed 'Constitution' with troops and militias swearing an oath of loyalty...

...and, on a tablet on the side of a small altar, a portrait of Louis XVI looking distinctly uncomfortable. These too were dated 1791/year III. To reinforce the revolutionary message, the obverse also carried the date 14 juillet 1790, the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, when this Fete de la Federation was held. Subsequently, issues appeared dated 1792/year III, and 1792/year IV.


The initial distribution of tokens in Paris was received with considerable enthusiasm. Boulton's agent, Dr Francis Xavier Swediaur, wrote to Boulton that 'the demand for our current medals is beyond what you can imagine; the people are so eager for them...we were so far from being able to satisfy the thousandth part of the demand.'


The edge inscription on a number of the tokens expressed the view that 'la confiance augmente la valeur' or 'trust increases the value' and the tokens were described in the legends as 'medailles de confiance' though the fact that the pieces were sold for two and five sols, as medals, may well have been a device to insulate them from official complaint.


The strains and stresses of producing large numbers of large tokens caused continual mechanical problems at Soho, and there is no doubt that the design weaknesses of Boulton's mint were highlighted in the most foreceful fashion. Notwithstanding the problems, Soho created around 120 tons of tokens for the Monnerons before, in March 1792, a financial crisis forced the firm to suspend payments. A period of restructuring allowed business to restart in May 1792, and a further 22 tons of five sol pieces were shipped, to be followed by forty five tons of two sols in July. This marked the first time that Soho had achieved its target production rate of two tons per day.

The Ban

More than 180 tons of tokens were sent to France from Soho in the months that the Monneron contracts were in place but, possibly as a result of their success, a political momentum to prohibit the production and circulation of private money grew to the point when, on 3rd September 1792, the Provisional Executive Council of the National Assembly issued a law to suppress private tokens.

Two laws were issued on that day. The second, and obviously less important (!) was for the construction of a canal or navigation at the cost of the Sieur Joseph Chevalier. The first, and much more significant, was for 'Defense d'emettre & de faire circuler dans le royaume, une monnoie sous le nom de Medailles de confiance.' Prohibition of the issue and circulation, within the Kingdom, of a money under the name of medals of confidence.


The text of the law indicates just how seriously the matter was taken by the authorities - bear in mind that the decree was issued only three weeks after the storming of the Tuileries, and the arrest and suspension of the King, and that between 2nd and 7th September, during which time this law was being written, more than 1,400 people were murdered and executed in revolutionary upheavals in Paris alone. The King's comment was a masterpiece of understatement: "Ah, the leaves are falling early this year."


THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY, on the report which has been made concerning those who would issue and circulate within the Kingdom a money under the name of medailles de confiance:


Considers that the manufacture of money is a prerogative of the Sovereign, and that the national interest requires that this prerogative is maintained....and decrees the following:


Article The First


It is expressly forbidden to all to make or have made, directly or indirectly, to introduce or to circulate within the Kingdom, money of metal of whatever form or denomination, either as medailles de confiance or otherwise, subject to the penalty of being punished with fifteen years in irons, and confiscation of the money.


Article The Second


Those who have issued such money must withdraw this from circulation within one month, counting from the day of the promulgation of this present decree, to be exchanged fairly against assignats.


IN THE NAME OF THE NATION, the provisional Executive Council orders and ordains to all Administrative Bodies and Tribunals that these presents should be registered, read, published and posted up within their respective departments and areas, and executed as law. In expectation of which we have signed these presents and have caused the seal of the State to be affixed. In Paris, the twentieth day of the month of September, one thousand seven hundred and ninety two, the fourth year of Liberty.


Signed MONGE    Countersigned DANTON    And sealed with the seal of the State.


And that was the end of the Monneron Tokens. Or maybe it wasn't. There is a report of barrels of Monneron tokens being seized as late as May 1793, and the tokens, especially the five sols, turn up with reasonable frequency even these days - many of them showing signs of considerable circulation. There can be no doubt that they fulfilled a genuine need.

Interesting Extras

The monarchy was abolished and the French Republic, One and Indivisible, was declared on 21st September 1792, the day after this law was signed. Might this have been the very last law passed under even the semblance of the ancien regime?


The law was signed by Monge and Danton.

Gaspard Monge was a brilliant young scientist from Beaune, where he began to lecture in physics at the College de la Trinite at the age of only 17. Later, he submitted a number of papers on partial differential equations to the Academie.

A strong supporter of the Revolution, he became Minister of the Navy under the Republic, but lasted only eight months. He was dazzled by Napoleon, becoming firstly a Senator for life, and then President of the Senate in 1804 and Comte de Peluse in 1808. The defeat of Napoleon in 1815 meant the end of the good times for Monge, and he died in 1818.

Georges Jacques Danton was a lawyer from Arcis-sur-Aube whose first appearance in the Revolution was as President of the Cordeliers club, a centre of agitation for popular sovereignty. Danton was said to have been a leading figure in the massacres of September 1792, which may explain his almost instant rise to the Ministry of Justice. Danton voted for the death of Louis XVI and became one of the nine members of the infamous Committee of Public Safety which administered The Terror. He was executed with the connivance of Robespierre in April 1794.

This copy of the Act bears the library stamp of E. DEWAMIN, Author of 'One Hundred Years of French Numismatics' and is item number 94 of his collection. Emile Dewamin published his work in 1889 and reviewed the history of French coin issues since the start of the Revolution in 1789. His book, published in an edition of 250 copies, would be scarce to rare today, were it not for the fact that it was reissued in 1989 to mark the bicentenary of the Revolution.


Although the National Assembly banned the Monneron and other tokens in September 1792, successive governments did nothing to relieve the shortage of official coins until Year 4 of the Republic, 1796, when new decimal coins were issued in denominations of one and five centimes, one and two decimes.

Monnerons Banned!