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MR CROOM’S HALFPENNIES

 

by D W Dykes

 

Published in Spink’s Numismatic Circular, November 1998, and re-published here with the kind permission of Messrs Spink & Son and the author, with whom copyright remains.

 

Mr Croom’s Halfpennies

In an earlier article on James Wright of Dundee, I had to acknowledge that, for the time being at any rate, the identity of the issuer of the Dundee ‘Infirmary’ halfpenny [Dalton & Hamer Angusshire 16] had to remain a mystery. The only clue that we had, which admittedly did not take us very far, was that on 22nd March 1797, in a letter to Alexander Smellie, the secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Wright had stated that the piece had been ‘ordered for a Grocer here, though his name does not appear on it – a circumstance which I was not altogether pleased with.’

Silver specimen, Dundee 'Infirmary' Halfpenny

Angusshire DH16

As luck would have it, shortly after the article had gone to press, evidence came to light which solved the problem. Working through the Matthew Boulton papers in the Birmingham Central Library, for material on Boulton’s friend Samuel Garbett, the entrepreneur, economic lobbyist and coinage reformer, but still with half an eye on Wright’s activities, it occurred to me that Wright, with his all-consuming interest in coin design, might well have corresponded with the Soho manufacturer, and so he had – on 1st September 1797 – and, in passing, had put a name to the issuer of the ‘Infirmary’ token.

 

Wright’s prime purpose in approaching Boulton, as he explained, was to gather material for the ‘preface’ he was writing to James Conder’s Arrangement of Provincial Coins ‘with a view of impressing the Reader with some idea of the importance of the Topick treated.’ Wright wished ‘to give some general statement of the Gross amount of the whole value, minted, of such pieces, of all varieties, in that period’ [i.e. the previous twenty years] and ‘in great deference to your extensive opportunities of acquiring & communicating information on that point’ he had, he said, written some weeks previously

‘to Mr Barker, requesting he might converse with you on it. But his son just writes me, that he is absent at Cheltenham, on account of Mrs Barker’s indisposition, and on this ground, fearing delay, which would derange Mr Conder’s schemes of publication, within a certain Space, I have thought of addressing yourself; hoping, & trusting, from your known liberality that you will excuse this freedom.’

What Wright actually wanted from Boulton was

‘your idea, in round numbers, as it cannot be quite accurate, what the whole sum might be estimated at, of all the varieties struck - & the whole copper used, expence of Dies, & Labourage also included. This perhaps may be very difficult for you to estimate, but I presume you could favour me with a Guess what is the whole amount cost of all the private mintages within these sizes, and that period, struck in Birmingham and Soho. If I had an estimate of these, I think I could pretty tolerably calcoulate on the London Mintages.

I particularly, and earnestly solicit your attention to this matter, & that you oblige me by an answer with your first spare leisure time.’

 

What Boulton’s reaction was to such an importunate request can only be imagined. But it comes as little surprise to find no evidence in the Boulton archive of any reply from someone who observed the utmost reticence over his own business affairs and who had an ambivalent attitude towards trade tokens anyway. In any case, the rather self-opinionated Wright could hardly be said to have served his interests well by concluding his letter with what he called ‘a few strictures’ on the design of Boulton’s state-of-the-art Cartwheel coinage.

Wright, of course, considered himself something of an expert in coin design. As he somewhat smugly confessed to Boulton ‘I am the writer who treats of Coins under the signature ‘Civis’ in the new excellent London Monthly Magazine…from which papers, provided you can spare any of that time which you can so usefully devote other ways, to peruse them, you will see, that, at least, I have paid some attention to the best mode of fabricating & forming Coins.’ To be fair, Wright had put his ideas into practice in the tokens he had designed for himself and other Scottish projectors, including the Dundee ‘Infirmary’ halfpenny itself, characterised by what Wright had described elsewhere as the ‘beautiful invention’ of a sunken ellipse.

 

All this is incidental to the actual problem of the attribution of the ‘Infirmary’ halfpenny which in itself is tangential to the purpose of Wright’s letter. For it was simply in introducing himself that Wright felt constrained to remind Boulton that he had previously ‘corresponded with your House – relative to a Dundee Halfpenny ordered by Mr W Croom – bearing our Infirmary – but your terms happening to be

higher than he was able to afford, Kempson of Birmingham was employed. Who, though he could not engrave so nicely as your superior artists, does work cheaper, and more adapted to such small undertakings.’

 

Thus, through what it little more than an aside, the conundrum of the ‘Infirmary’ halfpenny is happily

Unravelled and the token can be confidently attributed to William Croom, a shopkeeper and wholesale merchant, who operated from the Union Hall in Dundee’s High Street. In the way of these things, Croom is now a relatively shadowy figure. Most likely an incomer to the town, perhaps from Perthshire, we do know that he married Anne Speid, a local merchant’s daughter, in April 1791, and that through her, ‘the lawful daughter of the deceased James Speid, Merchant Burgess of Dundee, he attained the estate of Merchant Burgess himself in October 1794. Perhaps it was a real-life instance of the classic fictional scenario of an apprentice marrying his master’s daughter and succeeding to the business. Whatever, such evidence as does exist suggests that the Crooms had become a significant Dundee merchant family by the early part of the nineteenth century but that they gradually disappeared from the local commercial scene.

 

While there does not seem to be any trace of Wright’s earlier letter in the Boulton archive, a note from Croom himself dated from Dundee on 27th July 1796 does exist. Croom writes

 

I Received a few Copper pieces from Messrs Wilson & Smith in Decmr & Feby last which they had of you – be so good as write me in Course saying what you charge per cwt present money I wish to have them well finished & if the additional expence be not verie considerable would have the letters sunk in same manner as 1/96 Rupee done for the united East Indea Compy or a Lancashire halfpenny of Daniel Ecclistone – I beg every information as to your terms, as if moderate more may be wanted afterwards besides this present intended order.

 

One assumes that, nudged by Wright in his campaign to improve the design of provincial coins what Croom had in mind was what was eventually to take shape as the ‘Infirmary’ halfpenny but, if so, his approach to Boulton, as we have seen, was to come to nothing. By return, on 1st August 1796, Boulton replied personally to say that the cost of sheet copper was ‘much raised’ – it had, in fact, leapt to £126 per ton – and that his current price for ‘coin struck in bright collers’ was now £147 per ton (15¾d per lb) ‘to which must be added the cost of casks and carriage.’

 

As Wright was to explain, such costs were too great for the economically prudent Croom so he took his business to Peter Kempson of Birmingham who, according to the 1801 edition of Pye’s work ‘Provincial Coins & Tokens’ struck ten hundredweights of the ‘Infirmary’ tokens from dies by Thomas Wyon. These were of very good weight, existing specimens examined averaging out at 11.20 grammes, intimating a weight standard of 40 pieces to the pound. The condition of surviving specimens suggests that the attraction of these pleasing pieces was essentially medallic, although the prevalence of forgeries – lighter and crude, as for example DH16a – does imply that they did pass as small change in the town. Despite their anonymity the identity of their issuer must have been well known in Dundee and Wright’s Latin legend, bluntly translated by Miss Sarah Sophia Banks as ‘We get our money by sea and commerce’ must have struck a meaningful chord among Croom’s fellow merchants.

 

The ‘Infirmary’ halfpennies are dated 1796 and were presumably manufactured towards the end of the year or very early in 1797, sometime, that is, between Croom’s exchange of correspondence with Boulton, and Wright’s donation of a bronzed proof specimen of the piece to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland enclosed with his letter to Smellie.

But, of course, the ‘Infirmary’ halfpennies are not the only pieces to have been circulated by Croom. There are, in addition, the named but undated tokens with a utilitarian reverse legend announcing that he SELLS WHOLESALE WOOLEN & LINEN DRAPERY GOODS WATCHES &c &c CHEAP [DH12-15] coupled with an heraldic obverse that would have been the despair of Wright. The spelling of WOOLEN – now an Americanism – was not necessarily an error as is suggested by some modern authorities since it was a perfectly respectable eighteenth-century variant of the now-standard British WOOLLEN. Nor was there any necessary conflict between the token’s descriptive legend and Wright’s reference to Croom as a ‘Grocer’ in his letter to Smellie, since Wright was obviously using the word in its primary sense of someone who bought and sold in the gross, a wholesale dealer or merchant in other words. The Crooms who issued the two tokens were one and the same man.

 

On the evidence of Pye, Matthew Boulton has been traditionally credited with the production of those named tokens struck in a collar [DH12-13a] the die sinker having been said by Thomas sharp, in his catalogue of the Chetwynd collection, to have been Noël-Alexandre Ponthon.

 

Ponthon took up his duties at Soho in August 1791 and although his presence at the manufactory was erratic, he seems to have continued in its full time employment until the summer of 1795. He had left Soho by the time of Kűchler’s arrival in the August of that year, but remained in Birmingham until late 1795 or early 1796 and, his finances being always in a parlous state, he appears to have received occasional out-worker commissions from Boulton for some time after his departure from the manufactory.

 

While the named Croom tokens could, therefore, have been produced over a fairly wide spectrum of time, the weight of extant pieces at an average of 9.89 grammes suggest that they were struck in the mid-1790s. Miss Banks, who was scrupulous about such matters, dated her specimens – which she received from Boulton directly – to 1796. It is not unreasonable to conclude that they are the same tokens to which Croom alludes in his letter as the ‘few Copper pieces’ he had received from Boulton via the Birmingham factors Wilson & Smith in December 1795 and February 1796, in which case the dies would presumably have been engraved by Ponthon as an out-worker after the formal termination of his contract at Soho.

 

Croom’s note is confirmed by entries in the Soho Coinage Day Book which record the dispatch of ‘Dundee Coin’ to Wilson & Smith’s warehouse on 16th December 1795 and 20th February 1796 and, more than this, tell us the quantities involved, their cost and their average weight.

 

On 16th December 1795, four boxes of ‘Dundee Coin’ containing 26,437 pieces, cased in paper packets of 84 tokens each, were sent at an overall cost of £39.4s.6d. They were struck at the rate of 46 halfpennies to the lb (i.e. at an average weight of 9.85 grammes each, a figure that, as we have seen, is confirmed by existing specimens.

 

The breakdown of costs, as invoiced on the basis of six months’ credit, was:

Copper – 579lb 10oz at £100 per ton: £25.17.6d.

Coining Charges at 4½d. per lb: £10.17s.4d.

Cases, paper and string: 7s.8d.

Six dies: £2.2s.0d.

The account was discounted to £37.14s.6d. if paid by bill at two months. It was, and was settled by Wilson & Smith on 23rd January 1796

 

A month later, on 20th February 1796, four further boxes were sent to Wilson & Smith. These contained a similar quantity of coin, though the actual number is not specified on the invoice. On the basis of 46 pieces to the lb, there would have been 27,048 tokens in the consignment – together with two silver and twelve bronzed pieces, at a further cost of £39.9s.6d. The Coinage Day Book would thus suggest that some 53,485 tokens were produced for Croom, the first consignment comprising DH12 and the second DH13.

 

The February invoice broke down the cost as:

Copper – 588lb at £102 per ton: £26.15s.6d.

Coining expenses at 4½d. per lb: £11.0s.6d

Cases, paper and string at 1s.6d: 7s.10½d.

2 Silver Pieces at 2s.2¾d: 4s.7½d.

12 Bronzed Pieces at 1d: 1s.0d.

Again there was a discount - £1.11s.6d. – for prompt payment, and the reduced account was settled on a draft at two months on 19th March 1796.

Bronzed Proof of William Croom's Dundee Halfpenny

by Matthew Boulton, Soho Mint , Angusshire DH13

No further named tokens were struck by Boulton for Croom himself, but the February consignment to Wilson & Smith was not the end of the story. Pye tells us that a further ten hundredweights ‘were afterwards made by Kempson without collar’ from dies by Thomas Wyon. These are the tokens with the rounded edge listed by Dalton and Hamer as Angusshire 14 and 15, but misattributed by them to Boulton. Although they are of reasonable weight – the average of extant specimens examined is 9.65 grammes – they do not compare in fabric or finish with the Boulton halfpennies and are simply a slavish copy of the original.

 

Unhappily, unlike the Boulton archive, there are no surviving Kempson records to give us any insight into the latter’s production costs or dates of manufacture. It is not unreasonable, though, to assume that the rounded edge halfpence are post July and August 1796: Croom was then still in contact with Boulton negotiating the abortive new issue which was eventually to appear from Kempson’s coinery as the ‘Infirmary’ token. The rounded edge pieces are presumable subsequent to the latter, too. The most likely scenario is that the hard-headed Croom, though seduced by Wright for a time into sponsoring the medallic ‘Infirmary’ halfpence, decided that his business interests were better – and more cost-effectively – served by reverting to a re-issue of his more utilitarian shop ticket; and having discovered in Kempson a cheaper manufacturer than Boulton, abandoned aesthetics for even greater commercial gain.

Second Issue of William Croom's Dundee Halfpenny

by Peter Kempson, Birmingham, Angusshire DH14

Mr Croom's Halfpennies