MATTHEW BOULTON'S STEAM MINT - THE TOKEN STORY: 1786-1791
by Chris Leather
Although Matthew Boulton and his Soho mint are remembered for the huge numbers of
cartwheel pennies and twopences, and other copper coins, token collectors can be
alternately gratified and saddened by the fact that the first pieces struck by steam
at Soho were tokens, and the last pieces struck by steam at Soho were also tokens.
Boulton was not the first coiner of tokens, nor the most prolific. During the Golden
Age of token issuing, he and his mint struck tokens for seventeen customers in the
British Isles, to a total weight of around seventy tons. This compares with the three
hundred tons of tokens struck by Thomas Williams for the Anglesey Mines, and the
sixty or seventy customers whose tokens were struck by Lutwyche, another Birmingham
But the tokens Boulton made were incomparably the most important, not just in Birmingham,
or even in England, but in the world, because they were the trigger for the development
of industrial minting techniques, though the first apparent connection between Boulton,
Soho and tokens was rather tenuous, and may not even have involved Boulton in any
kind of manufacture.
The first private tokens of the industrial revolution consisted of a modest issue
of pennies from a small Lancashire village. Unfortunately little is known of these,
just that they were made for Col Charles Mordaunt, who owned a mill, now vanished,
in Halsall, near Southport. In the Birmingham City Archives, there is a letter from
John Moon, Superintendent of the Halsall Mill, to Boulton, dated 2nd December 1783
His Honor order’d me this Day to write to you for a Die to Stamp Copper for the support
in payment of the hands at his Works. The Die with the Earl of Petersbourgh’s Coat
of Arms on one side; And the word HALSALL across the back As you are coversant in
Novels; I wish you to make (or procure made) the above mentioned Die for His Hons
use; In this youl merrit the esteem of His Honr
Were the dies made at Soho? Did Boulton strike the coins? We have no definite indication
that Boulton took the job on, even though the tokens we see today closely match Mr
Moon’s description. We think we know that Boulton did not have a mint until around
1789, which would suggest that the striking was done elsewhere, but we do know that
he had been producing coin weights since at least 1775…. and in manufacturing terms
there is little practical difference between a coin weight and a coin! But we don’t
really know. As for its acceptability, a contemporary survey of tokens in circulation
in Liverpool in 1791 reported that Col Mordaunt’s token was not found which, at least,
suggests that it was well-enough known to have been expected.
Matthew Boulton’s first definite involvement in coin production was with a series
of pieces for the East India Company in 1786 and 1787. The blanks for these coins
were rolled and cut at Soho, before being shipped by canal barge to London, and struck
on a hand press set up by Boulton, and paid for by the EIC. This seems to have convinced
Boulton that, firstly, he wanted to make coins and, secondly, that there was a more
profitable way of doing it. And it was during the next year or two that his ideas
Boulton was fully aware of the benefits to be gained by gathering all the relevant
processes on to one site - what we would call vertical integration. And as a manufacturer
of steam engines, the use of this cheap, reliable, power would not have occupied
a second’s thought. Connect a steam engine to a mint, and profit lies ahead. And
that profit would come from making official copper coins for the Government, more
cheaply than they could make the coins themselves.
Of course it wasn’t that simple. It never is. The official coinage of the country
was in a desperate state, and the increasing importance of cash wages meant that
the shortage of coins was coinciding with an ever-increasing demand for them. Into
this monetary desert came, in 1787, the pennies, then, in 1788, the halfpennies,
of the Parys Mine Company of Anglesey.
Obverse and Reverse of 1 Keping, 1786, struck for the
East India Company ‘Factory’ at Bencoolen in Sumatra
Obverse and Reverse of Anglesey Pattern Penny Token, 1787
Probably struck at Holywell, in North Wales, from dies engraved by John Hancock,
before production of Anglesey Druids moved to Birmingham
Here come the Druids
Seeking new markets for the copper being produced at his mine, and with an eye on
a possible contract for Official coinage, Thomas Williams, “Fair Play Tom,” started
to produce his own tokens. Of good weight, and with the portrait of a Druid by John
Gregory Hancock, the first pennies were struck at Williams’ rolling mill at Holywell
in North Wales. They were something new, intended to provoke no reaction from the
authorities. No-one had made anything like them before - apart from Col Mordaunt
of course - and they were an instant hit, being found in London within weeks of their
But their arrival merely highlighted the deplorable state of affairs, and Boulton
began what would prove to be nearly ten years of lobbying for the contract to produce
Official coppers. As work on his mint progressed, Boulton became ever more active.
He wrote to every politician and peer who might have any influence. He communicated
with the Lords of the Privy Council Committee on Coin. And he recruited a Swiss Engineer
and Engraver employed at the Paris Mint, Monsieur Jean Pierre Droz. Having seen the
Anglesey coins, Boulton wrote to Droz instructing him to “engrave a Dye with my head
of the size of the Anglesey penny, for if our Gov’t will not make a new copper coinage
we shall force them to it by coining for ourselves such copper pennies.”
Before Soho, and indeed for many years after, the vast majority of minting was carried
on by screw presses, and Boulton initially made no significant change to this technology.
His first major contribution was to change the motive power of the screw from man
or beast, wind or water, to steam. But looking at the problems from an industrial
point of view led Boulton to develop a solution on an industrial scale. Not for him
the harnessing of steam to a single press. The first Soho mint would allow no fewer
than eight presses to be connected to the engine, by means of a large rotating drive
wheel and associated escapements. Each press could be connected and disconnected
from the rotating wheel by the operator, whom Boulton specified as being a boy of
eleven or twelve years of age, wearing a red and blue uniform coat, washed weekly.
There is, however, a little ambiguity as to whether it was the coat, or the boy,
which was to be washed weekly.
But however good Boulton’s Mint was, or however good he thought it to be, there were
two things lacking. A workable mechanism for containing the coins within a collar
while they were struck, and a superior engraver who could produce dies for coins
which would be their own advertisement for the quality of Soho’s output. In Droz,
Boulton believed he had the answer to both of these issues. Droz claimed to have
invented a working “plateau,” a segmented collar which would result in truly round
coins, marked on the edge with designs or lettering as required. But as Boulton waited
endlessly for pattern halfpence to show the Committee on Coin, and as the plateau
could never be made to work reliably, it became obvious that Droz and his works were
It was also becoming obvious that the Committee on Coin would lead nowhere, too,
and that no official contract for copper coin would be forthcoming any time soon.
Whatever possibilities there might have been were put on hold when, in the autumn
of 1788, King George III became ill with an unknown and, in the view of his contemporaries,
potentially fatal affliction.
Boulton’s Escapement, shown with one press in place.
From the Patent Application of 1790
Obverse and Reverse of the medal for the King’s Recovery
Soho Mint, 1789, Jean-Pierre Droz
And the bills keep coming
By this time, Boulton had spent several thousand pounds on the equipment for his
mint, and hundreds more on the incredible Monsieur Droz, and had achieved nothing.
He was beginning to feel the financial strain. By mid-April 1789 he reckoned that
he was more than five thousand pounds out of pocket, and he began to consider ways
of bringing money into the business. This could only be achieved by the manufacture
of coins, and if they were not to be coins for the Government, they might just as
well be coins for the private trade.
The situation led him to take on the striking of tokens for John Westwood, a metal
roller, designer and diesinker, who had contracted to produce halfpence for two related
companies, Roe & Company and the Associated Irish Mine Company.
This token came from the collection of James Watt Jr. later a business partner with
Matthew Robinson Boulton, after the death of Matthew Boulton
Cronebane and Macclesfield
The subcontract for the Macclesfield and Cronebane tokens was the first commercial
minting work that Soho undertook. The blanks were prepared and edged by Westwood
before delivery to Soho, where the striking of the designs was completed. Boulton’s
Chief Clerk calculated later that the total weight of Roe and Cronebane tokens was
over 20 tons and while we cannot tell how many of each were struck, there would have
been about 1.6 million coins in total, at an individual weight of 36 to the pound.
And although Boulton reported in a letter to Thomas Williams, in July 1789, that
Mr Roe was impatient for the Macclesfield tokens and unconcerned about the Cronebane
tokens, we also do not know for certain which take the honours for being the world’s
first steam powered coins. For that is what they were. Transitional in many respects,
blanked and edged using traditional methods, struck without a collar and therefore
not truly circular, they were, nonetheless, flag-bearers of the new order.
Charles Roe & Co, Macclesfield, Halfpenny, 1789
Rare type DH9: this coin was the plate coin in Dalton & Hamer
The ‘Despotick Sovereign’
And it was with another kind of circularity that Soho’s next work should have come
from Thomas Williams. In 1789, following two highly successful years issuing Druid
tokens, the output of the two Parys mines was beginning to decline, and with no Government
contract in the offing, Williams decided to give up coining. There still remained
a market for the Druids, and the production of these was now contracted to Soho.
But, like all Boulton’s dealings with Williams, nothing was straightforward. As part
of the contract, Boulton would have to buy Williams’ minting equipment. Of course
he didn’t want it: the steam powered Soho presses were by now striking at a rate
of 40 coins per minute, a rate which no traditional mint could maintain. But, for
Boulton, the removal of a potential competitor for the anticipated national coinage
was worth the price, and the deal went through.
Parys Mine Company, Anglesey, Halfpenny, 1789
Struck in Birmingham: possibly at the PMC mint in Great Charles Street,
or possibly at Soho
John Wilkinson, Iron Master
Meanwhile, Boulton’s engineers were inventing their way past the problems which inevitably
arose, but they had not yet solved the problem of striking within a collar, and the
first production of Druid halfpennies, dated 1789, were transitional coins of the
same stamp as the Macclesfield and Cronebane types. From the records, it appears
as though the total weight of 1789 tokens was 12 tons 13cwts 14lbs. The copper was
delivered to Soho in the form of copper blanks, already edge marked, ready for striking,
and weighing in at about thirty five to the pound. This amounts to 992,250 tokens.
John Wilkinson, self-styled Iron Master, was another of the Industrial Revolution’s
larger-than-life characters. He had been a friend and business associate of Boulton
for a number of years, and it was his ironworks which produced the precision parts
and cylinders for Boulton and Watt’s steam engines. In common with many other employers,
Wilkinson was tiring of the constant struggle to find small change with which to
pay his workforce. Early in 1787, as soon as the Druids began to appear, he approached
Thomas Williams to make tokens for his own use.
Stamp his brazen face in copper
All of the Wilkinson tokens bore a portrait of the Iron Master, and were the first
widely circulating coins to carry the portrait of a living person other than the
monarch. This fact prompted a number of satirical comments in the London press, of
which Wilkinson took no notice whatever. 'So, thus, in him t’was very proper, to
stamp his brazen face in copper!'
To start with, Wilkinson wanted to issue his tokens at a penny each, but found few
takers; as soon as they were re-tariffed at a halfpenny, demand headed for the skies
and Wilkinson, with commendable customer focus, continued to meet that demand.
But then the supply side hit a problem. Williams left the coining business and manufacture
was promptly transferred to a consortium of John Gregory Hancock, who had designed
the Wilkinson and the Druid tokens, and John Westwood. Both Wilkinson and Westwood
had been partners in Williams’ rolling mills in Holywell, but, perhaps with an eye
on continuity of supply, Wilkinson also commissioned Boulton to produce tokens for
him, and these Soho pieces first saw the light of day in June 1790, with a new portrait
of Wilkinson by Dumarest, and struck at a weight of 32 to the lb. Finely produced
coins they may have been, but they were still of the transitional style, as the collar
mechanism which Boulton’s men were still developing was not yet ready.
John Wilkinson, Iron Master. Token struck in Birmingham, 1787
John Wilkinson, Iron Master. Halfpenny, Soho, 1790
Struck at the first weight standard, 32 pieces to 1lb
The World’s First Mass-Produced Thoroughly Modern Money!
After around a quarter of a ton had been struck, Wilkinson wrote to Boulton insisting
that the coins be made of the “proper size” - 36 tokens per lb, the standard used
by Westwood. Boulton complied, and was rewarded with an order for five more tons.
These were produced in December 1790, by which time the collar mechanism was working,
and these coins became the world’s first, mass produced, steam powered, fully round
There should have been hurrahs and fanfares to commemorate the historic event, but
if anyone noticed they didn’t say anything. The achievement did in fact mean that
Boulton could now make good on his earlier claims. In a paper to the Committee on
Coin, dated 26th June 1789, Sir Joseph Banks had listed Boulton’s Unique Selling
Points: 1. His coins are perfectly round; 2. they are all precisely equal in diameter;
3. the work is exactly concentric to the edge; 4. an inscription or ornament is put
around the edge. And now, 18 months later, these were all true!
But although the late-1790 Wilkinsons were the first mass-produced tokens to meet
Boulton’s exacting standards, they were not precisely the first. Small numbers of
Anglesey halfpence were struck in October 1790, from one of two experimental Druid
dies engraved by Boulton’s new French designer, Rambert Dumarest. A box of these
patterns was sent to Thomas Williams who rejected them out of hand. The face was
too big for the head, and admitted no room for brains, the Druid’s beard looked like
a waterfall, and Williams would rather give up his coinage altogether than issue
Segment of Obverse of 1790 Anglesey Pattern Halfpenny
showing the effect of the twist imparted by Boulton's press
The World’s Very First Thoroughly Modern Money!
But the 1790 Druids were also something of a test-bed for the engineers working on
a rising, one piece, collar mechanism. Some of them show signs that the collar or
ejector mechanism had not functioned correctly. Some also show a rotational twist
given to the descending die by the screw press. By 26th October, when the box of
samples was sent off to Williams, the collar was working reliably. They had succeeded!
Able to mint truly modern coins, Boulton had an unbeatable product with which to
corner the token market. But instead he continued to concentrate on the possibilities
of winning a contract for a national coinage, which would render the production of
tokens both a nuisance and an irrelevance.
Promissory Halfpenny for Taylor, Moody & Co, Southampton
Engraved by Rambert Dumarest, struck at Soho
First to experience Boulton’s sales prevention was Walter Taylor, of Taylor, Moody
and Company of Southampton, block and tackle makers to the Admiralty, and brewers
to the multitude. Taylor had been in contact with Boulton since 1789, and Westwood
had already produced a small number of pattern tokens dated 1790, but by March 1790
Westwood was bankrupt and the field was open for Soho. When Taylor again approached
Boulton, he was told that the expected regal coinage would render private tokens
unnecessary, but Taylor persisted, and eventually, in 1791 with no Government contract
in sight, Boulton gave in. Dumarest produced a classical bust of local Southampton
hero Sir Bevois. The first consignment of tokens was sent off in July 1791 to a less
than rapturous welcome. Taylor complained that the finished coins were not up to
the standard of the specimen pieces he had seen earlier, being scratched and tarnished.
Boulton went to considerable lengths to mollify Taylor, taking back the coins and
cleaning them, before returning them together with some 200 odd silver and copper
proofs for Taylor to give to his connections. This seemingly did the trick and a
total of 194,000 tokens made the journey to Southampton.
But who was Sir Bevois? The probably-mythical founder of Southampton, the legends
tell us that he was the son of Sir Guy, Earl of Hampton. His mother was the daughter
of the King of Scotland whom Sir Guy had married in his declining years. She arranged
for the murder of her husband by her lover – whom she later married – and the sale
of her own son Bevois into slavery. And the rest, as they say, is his story!
Parys Mine Company, Anglesey, Halfpenny,1791
Struck at Soho
Hancock’s Druid has returned within Dumarest’s Oak Wreath
A Bunch of Acorns
The next couple of months saw Soho busy with the last consignment of Druid halfpence
for the Parys Mines, more than a million tokens sent off in September 1791 and, apart
from the work done for the French house, Monneron Frères, the biggest single issue
of tokens undertaken by Boulton. Unfortunately, Dumarest’s Druid had been sacrificed
on the altar of Thomas Williams’ objections, and the new tokens reverted to the original
Druid engraved by Hancock. Dumarest was relegated to engraving the oak wreath.
Cornish Metal Company, Halfpenny,1791
Struck at Soho
The obverse is struck from Dumarest’s second Druid die
The Cornish Halfpenny
Meanwhile John Vivian, of the Cornish Metal Company, had seen the success of the
Anglesey Druids, and wanted some of his own. We shouldn’t be surprised at his choice
of minter, for in 1785 Boulton had been one of the founders of the Cornish Metal
Company – along with the Iron Master John Wilkinson, and Thomas Williams, the Anglesey
Druid himself. Having first approached Boulton in August 1789, Vivian, too, was subject
to Soho sales prevention, and the project went nowhere until the spring of 1791 when
Dumarest was assigned to design and engrave the dies..
Dumarest's two pattern Druid dies: Anglesey on the left, Cornwall on the right.
The greatest differences are in the treatment of the Druid's beard.
In order to speed things up, Boulton offered the two 1790 Anglesey Druid dies to
Vivian, who replied that Boulton should use whichever he felt was better. The one
chosen was the one not used for the Anglesey trials. It is a model of sensitivity,
but it was not until the middle of June 1791 that everyone was happy with the results,
and striking could begin. But the original plan to strike a hundred tons of Cornish
Druids had been reduced to a single ton. 76,000 coins were sent off in October 1791.
A second order, in early 1792, for twenty tons, was almost immediately countermanded,
and the 1791 coins are the sole representatives of what might have been a serious
competitor for Anglesey.
The final British token of 1791 was a halfpenny for Gilbert Shearer & Co. of Glasgow
– a latecomer, in that negotiations started with Boulton only in the spring of 1791.
Once again, the work was by Dumarest, and his figure of a recumbent Clyde was one
of the most popular of the period, being flattered by at least three different copies.
The reverse of the token features an extract from the City motto: “Let Glasgow Flourish,”
a suitably commercial sentiment, though one which rather downplayed the remaining
part of the motto: “through the preaching of Thy Word.” A first consignment of 82,148
tokens was despatched in October 1791, with a further batch of 401,693 sent in February
It seems that little is known of Gilbert Shearer, or his business, except that he
is said to have been a woollen draper. Jones’s Directory for 1787, compiled "as accurately
as the time limited would admit" has an entry for one "Gilbert Shearer, a merchant,
his house upon the south side of Gallowgate." Jones intended his Directory to list
only the Subscribers of the Tontine Coffee Room, but was prevailed upon to extend
the list to “such of the Firms in Glasgow as conveniently could be got,” and presumably
Shearer qualified in this regard.
In order to keep the page size within sensible limits, The Token Story has been split
into two parts. The Second Part, dealing with Tokens from 1792 onwards is easily
found. Just click on the button, to the left.
Alternatively, select which year you wish to see, and choose from the index, also
on the left.