A Ha’pennyworth of Sedition, 1796

Image of a metal coin with the bust of John Thelwall in profile on one side and a figure in chains and a padlock on the other

Contributor: Alice Rhodes

Location: The British Museum, London, UK

Description: In the 1790s, Britain was quite literally short on change. Insufficient supply of official coinage from the Royal Mint, combined with high levels of counterfeit money, led many business owners to issue their own coins, in order to pay increasingly large workforces. These private tokens, also known as commercial coins or Conder tokens, quickly became far more than currency. Free from official regulation, capable of being stamped with almost any design, and specifically intended to be circulated locally, they were soon used to advertise almost everything, from menageries to lawyers. And it was these same qualities which made them apt to carry political messages. This 1796 token, minted by Thomas Spence in the wake of the 1795 “Gagging Acts” features an image of radical orator John Thelwall on one side and an image of a “Free-born Englishman”, with shackled limbs and padlocked mouth on the other. But what can this coin say in 1796 that a “free-born Englishman” can’t?

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Erasmus Darwin’s Artificial Bird

Erasmus Darwin's Artificial Bird. Pen sketch of a mechanical bird.

Contributor: Alice Rhodes

Location: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield, UK

Description: Although best known for his careers as poet and doctor (or perhaps for his grandson Charles, who would go on to lay claim to the Darwin name in the public consciousness) Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was also a prolific inventor proposing apparatuses of every kind from systems of canal locks to a steam powered chariot. Many of these, like the “Artificial Bird” pictured above, can be found in the commonplace book which Darwin kept between 1776 and 1787, now housed at Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield. There is no record of the bird leaving the pages of the commonplace book until its reconstruction by Erasmus Darwin House in 2013, yet Darwin’s bird is more than a flight of fancy. Nor was it a mere toy or curiosity. It can be read as an instrument or experiment through which Darwin gained knowledge of both physics and avian physiology, and it hatched from a long European history of creating such mechanisms.

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