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Tavern Tokens Proliferated in Tumultuous 17th-Century London

by Coin World Staff (03/02/13).

This 17th-century tavern token for the Green Dragon Tavern, found in Rochester in Kent by use of a metal detector, sold in eBay UK for $62.37 in 2011.

By Gerald Tebben

When I was in high school more than 40 years ago, English classes consisted of reading short stories, Shakespeare and excerpts from larger works.

One of the items I most enjoyed was Samuel Pepys’ famous diary. Pepys kept the diary from 1660 to 1669, a tumultuous time when his star was rising in the English bureaucracy and when the awesome forces of plague and fire were unleashed upon his city. The Great Plague of London killed an estimated 100,000 people in 1665. The next year, a fire of such devastation struck that it is still spoken of 350 years on.

Pepys chronicled his era vividly and with great detail. Years after high school I found out about the numismatic connection that intrigues me to this day. Samuel Pepys liked to make “merry” in the city’s taverns and alehouses. And those places often issued their own tokens.

In his 1978 book “Taverns and Tokens of Pepys’ London,” George Berry estimated that of the 3,000 tokens issued during that period, 1,000 were issued by taverns. Pepys mentioned about 90 taverns. Berry was able to catalog tokens for 80.

In his 1978 book, “Taverns and Tokens of Pepys’ London,” George Berry estimated that of the 3,000 tokens issued from 1660 to 1669 in England, 1,000 were issued by taverns.

The typical token showed the tavern’s sign (a swan, for example) and name on the obverse and the street and the initials of the issuer and his wife on the reverse.

Berry said Pepys never mentioned the tokens, but fellow diarist John Evelyn said they circulated for just a block or two around each tavern. Generally, people would accept them only if they knew the issuer.

The Angel Taverne at Tower Hill and Rose and Crown at Tower Staires issued farthing tokens. An angel holding a scroll appeared on the obverse of the Angel piece; a crowned rose upon the other.

Pepys mentioned both taverns in a poignant entry for Sept. 14, 1665, in the year of the plague. He walked past the dead and the dying and reported in the English of the time: “my finding the Angell tavern at the lower end of Tower-hill shut up; and more then that, the alehouse at the Tower-stairs; and more then that, that the person was then dying of the plague when I was last there. …”

A year later, Pepys reported that he was awakened Sept. 2, 1666, by “a great fire.”

He walked through the city and took a boat upon the Thames.

“When we could endure no more upon the water; we to a little ale-house on the Bankside, over against the ‘Three Cranes,’ and there staid till it was dark almost, and saw the fire grow. …”

The Three Cranes issued half penny tokens in 1665. They show three cranes on the obverse and the denomination on the reverse.

Seventeenth-century tavern tokens are all scarce, but they have a tremendous aura of history about them. They are not too expensive, either. A 17th-century tavern token for the Green Dragon Tavern, found in Rochester in Kent by use of a metal detector, sold in eBay UK for $62.37 in 2011.

Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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