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Soho Mint - A World First!


by David Vice


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

The Barbados ‘Pineapple’ Pennies of 1788

In the past there has always been a certain amount of controversy regarding the status of these copper pieces. Are they the result of an official coinage made by the Barbados authorities, or are they merely tokens struck and circulated on the orders of a private individual? Major Fred Pridmore writing in his book ‘The Coins of the British Commonwealth of Nations – Part 3 West Indies’ has no hesitation in siding with the latter train of thought. Several factors conspire to make it extremely unlikely that the Barbados pieces represent a Government issue. The omission of the reigning Sovereign’s head on the coin acts as a powerful argument against an official attribution. Equally convincing is the absence of any traceable documentation giving the currency legal tender status in Barbados. The choice of obverse design may also be described as unusual. A blackamoor’s head with the motto I SERVE has obvious connotations relating to the negroes’ position in society. Whilst one can imagine such a sentiment being popular amongst West Indian plantation owners, it would have received a distinctly frosty reception from the anti-slavery lobby in Britain. All-in-all, an inconceivable set of circumstances for a legal coinage issued by a British colony.


To the numismatist, the Barbados ‘Pineapple’ penny series is additionally complicated by the presence of several proof restrikes and specially concocted pieces. From this maze, Major Pridmore has succeeded in isolating what he concluded to be two totally separate currency issues of the 1788 penny. The first of these types was struck in October 1788 for Sir Philip Gibbs Bt . The mintage was restricted to only 5,376 pieces, each weighing half an ounce of copper, struck from dies engraved by John Milton . This information is obtained from the writings of the Rev. Roger Ruding who himself is quoting an ‘Extract from the late Mr Milton’s MS List of his works.’


Information on the second currency type penny is much more difficult to acquire. The issuer, the date struck, and the manufacturer, are all unknown. This despite the fact that it is by far the commoner of the two issues, and from a comparison of occurrences must have had a mintage approaching 200,000 pieces. Major Pridmore suggests that this repeat order was very probably minted by another manufacturer who simply copied Milton’s original design. He further surmises that the manufacturer in question may have been J G Hancock of Birmingham. This hypothesis is based upon the examination of a Barbados 1788 penny (Pr 21A) which is struck on a blank with the edge inscription PAYABLE AT THE WAREHOUSE OF RICHARD PALEY . XX . This identifies the nature of the original blank as being prepared for striking the 1791 Leeds halfpenny tokens of Richard Paley. According to Pye five tons of the Paley tokens were manufactured by John G Hancock who was also given credit for engraving the dies. While, therefore, seemingly a natural conclusion to associate the Barbados piece with Hancock, this by no means should be treated as an absolute attribution. Such are the vagaries of the British eighteenth century token series that the muling of dies and blanks belonging to different manufacturers is quite commonplace.

These terms proved acceptable to W & P Cunningham’s customer, who on 8th July revealed his identity by corresponding with Matthew Boulton directly. The text of the letter, appearing below, has had the worst of the spelling mistakes corrected for ease of reading!


Mr Matthew Bowlton

Dear Sir,

Messrs W & P Cunningham Was favoured with yours on the 4th Current. The 40,000 halfpennies (!) they wrote you about, was, for a friend that I have got in Barbados – which will probably give you Several Commissions – and I agree to your offer at 14d per lb and each halfpenny (!) to weight half an ounce – They must be made the very Same as this penny piece which you will receive in my Letter – and please Forward This Small order as fast as possible – and get them packed in Casks; and you will address them to Mr John Arnot & Co. Bakers at Bridge Town Barbados West Indies.

I don’t think that there is any occasion for insuring them. Their freight will be paid there, but you may make agreement with the Ship master and send them with the first Ship that Sails to Barbados and write a letter to them along with the halfpennies (!) You will please draw upon me at Sir William Forbes’s & Co Bankers and the Money shall be paid. The Engraving of the Dies I agree to pay and you Can keep them by our for to be at Redress when ever you get another order – and when they are done with them, you Can give them at what they may be worth to you. I think the whole will amount to about £94-10-0d. Sterling. The 40,000 Barbados Penny pieces and the Making of the Dies and Casks to hold the halfpennies (!) – you will be so good as to write me when you receive this. If you must have the Money before the Work be Done or which way you would wish to have the Money to you Sent, and you think on any other way better than Drawing on me, you may let me know.

I am, Sir,

Your Most Humble Servant

William Arnot

PS You must not put nothing round the Edges of penny piece, make it the very self as the enclosed piece.


Mr William Arnot ran a bakery business from Canongate, Edinburgh, and was ordering the coinage on behalf of his brother who was the proprietor of a firm of bakers under the name John Arnot and Co of Bridgetown, Barbados. Strict instructions were given that the new coins should be exact replicas of those ordered for the Island by Sir Philip Gibbs in 1788.

New evidence has come to light in the Soho Mint Records which not only supports Major Pridmore’s suppositions regarding the Barbados 1788 penny, but confirms that a third issue was contemplated. In June 1791, Matthew Boulton received a letter mistakenly directed to the firm of Boulton & Watt – the business of which was steam engines, not coinage – from W & P Cunningham, Goldsmiths, of Lady Stairs Close Edinburgh.



Having been inform’d you are the most proper people to exicute an order which is described as under have taken the opportunity of writing you.

We are apply’d to for Forty Thousand Copper Coins same as an impression herewith inclosed they weigh one half ounce each but before they will give the posotive order for them they must have an estimate which they will come about. We are perfectly unacquainted how such may be given to begin course you will write and instruct the Charge of cutting the Dye etc., and what the neat cost of them including it will be. Iff they agree the charge make not the least doubt but a much greater quantity will be wanted an an after period.

If you think it necessary shall send the Coin itself, beging attention to this our first correspondence. We are

Your Most Obedient Humble Servants

W & P Cunningham

PS Beneath the head the impression is faint but the words are I SERVE and round the reverse (which is a pineapple) BARBADOES . PENNY . 1788 – address us Goldsmith, Lady Stairs Close.


Boulton replied to the letter on 29th June 1791


Messrs W & P Cunningham


Your favour of the 24th instant addressed to B&W should have been sent to me only.

The Copper Pieces of half ounce each I can furnish you with, I flatter myself to your satisfaction as I have the best and most powerful Coining apparatus in the World.

The quantity you want is so very small as to oblige me to charge the Engraving of the Dies and puncheons which will cost me much more than 20 Guineas, tho I shall only charge them that sum. If you had Order’d Ten Tons I should not have charged them anything or if you order 5 Tons I should charge the ten Guineas but as the 40,000 will only weigh about ½ Ton or 11cwt will not amount to more than 16 or £17 over and above the cost of the Copper.

The Edinburgh ½ pence are not perfectly round or of equal Diameter because they are not struck in steel collars, whereas all I do are like Medals struck in collars. They are also of a better polish than others.

My price for such halfpence put on board one of our Canal boats is 14d per lb and 20s per Ton of money for New firm Ironbound Casks containing 300lb each.

In case my terms are agreeable to you I should be glad to receive the piece of Money from which you impressed the paper sent me, so it will be more distinct for my Engraver.

You also please inform me if you would have any inscription upon the Edge and What –

In hopes of your speedy reply I remain

Your most Obedient and Humble Servant

Matthew Boulton


In order to satisfy such a small order, most of the effort at the Soho Mint would have gone in the preparation and engraving of the punches, matrix dies and money dies. This was reflected in the high die charges of twenty guineas. All the other costs including copper, coining and packaging, etc., amounted to only £80.

IThe fourth and final letter in the series was written early in November 1791 and contains a request that all further work on the coinage should cease.


Matthew Bowlton


Your Servant James Murdock called and I paid him Five Guineas, according to your order he wanted More but I did not agree to it.

I have received a letter from my Brother in Barbados and he writes me that there is so Many of the penny pieces that I gave you and order to make, Sent from England to the Island of Barbados – That they are all Cryed Down, and down goe for nothing. I Beg if you have not made the penny pieces to Stop and if they are made and not Sent off – you will not Send them – Till I consider how I am to get off in this Misfortunate Concern – you will be so good as to write Me and give Me your best advice in this – I am very much afraid that they will come upon Me for apart of the loss – for I exceeded their order – I gave you an order for 40,000 then their order was only 24,000. But as I saw it if they had succeeded, that me exceeding their order will have been of Service to them; but as it happens they blame me very much, but I did it for the best. You will please advice when ever this comes to hand.

I am Dear Sir

Your Most Humble Servant

William Arnot


All-in-all it seems as though the writer is feeling rather sorry for himself. It would appear that through sheer greed, initial instructions relating to the quantity of penny pieces required had been ignored. To make matters worse, the currency situation in Barbados had undergone a rapid transformation. At the beginning of 1791 the colony had been desperately short of copper coin, yet within the space of a few months the island had become swamped with ‘pineapple’ penny pieces. Supply outstripped demand and surplus copper coin was left in the hands of the issuer. Faced with this situation, John Arnot & Co decided to cancel their order. Fortunately preparations were not too far advanced, and Boulton was able to oblige in this matter.


On the face of it, the lack of progress made by the Soho Mint on the coinage for Arnot & Co is rather puzzling, yet it must be remembered that 1791 was the year in which Boulton encountered great difficulty in recruiting a permanent engraver. In the spring of that year, Boulton dispensed with the services of Jean Pierre Droz. His replacement, Rambert Dumarest, departed some three months later on 21st July, when by mutual agreement the homesick engraver returned to his native France. His place at Soho was taken by another Frenchman, Noel Alexandre Ponthon. Although Ponthon’s contract as staff engraver with Boulton dated back to 1st July 1791 he was unavoidably prevented from taking up his position until the second week in August. In the midst of these difficulties the Soho Mint was attempting to fulfil their two largest and most important contracts to date. The Barbados coinage must have paled in significance when compared with those ordered by the Paris merchants the Monneron Freres, and by the United East India Company for their Bombay Presidency. The Mint was working at full capacity and in order to assist with the engraving of days, Boulton recruited the temporary services of Thomas Wyon. There is a journal entry against the 28th November 1791 which states the following:


“Paid note to Thomas Wyon for sinking the negro die and other things in the months of August and September last – 81/-“


The ‘negro die’ mentioned obviously refers to the Barbados coinage. A more complete description of this die is given in the catalogue of the Soho Mint closure sale held on Tuesday 30th April 1850:


“Lot 240 – HEAD OF A NEGRO. With Crown & Prince of Wales’s Feathers, beneath, the motto ‘I serve.’ One obverse die and punch.”


Although the Soho Mint version of the Barbados penny never materialised, the correspondence connected with it provides valuable information regarding the series in general. Boulton’s obvious willingness to undertake this coinage must remove any lingering suspicion that the copper pieces ever represented a Government issue. Boulton, unlike many other Birmingham manufacturers, steadfastly refused to copy coins of foreign governments, let alone those belong to the British Crown. Instead, the Barbados ‘pineapple’ penny should be treated as tokens ordered by private individuals. Ironically, in view of the failure of later government copper issues in the West Indies, these tokens found some measure of success. The first issue, made by Sir Philip Gibbs in 1788, must have proved popular and encouraged a different issuer to risk ordering a much larger quantity. This second issue, on the evidence of William Arnot’s letter of 2nd November, many now be allotted to the year 1791. This is the same year as J G Hancock struck the Richard Paley token of Leeds. It suggests that the coin bearing an impression of a Barbados penny on a blank belonging to the Leeds token may be a strictly contemporary striking, and, if so, considerably strengthens the claim of Hancock to the second issue of the ‘Pineapples’


Numismatists and collectors can only speculate what kind of superior version would have emanated from Soho.

Barbados Pineapples

This piece appeared in Spink’s Numismatic Circular for June 1937, when it was offered for sale for £6.0s.0d.

The Obverse and Reverse of a Soho Mint Pattern for the ‘Barbadoes’ Pineapple Penny, but dated 1791. Hover your cursor for a larger view.