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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John Thelwall’s Summer Study

Ruins and greenery, labeled 2004 and 2019

Contributor: Judith Thompson

Location: Ty Mawr, Llyswen, Wales LD3 0UU

Description: This site brings together two iconic romantic objects, a waterfall and a hermitage. They are the more Romantically compelling because both are in ruins, remote and hidden from the public eye, part of a mysterious history only recently and partially recovered, and at the heart of a landscape associated with Druids and legends of King Arthur. Located in the village of Llyswen Wales, overlooking the Wye River below the Black Mountains, they were built by John Thelwall, romantic radical and acquitted felon, poet and polymath, and the original of Wordsworth’s “Recluse.”

Reclusive hermits and and dashing waterfalls have a long association in Romantic-era literature and culture, as Jonathan Falla has shown. Together and apart, they epitomize the neo-gothic sensibility that defined the age, associated with outlaws and bards in northern and border regions, but also stock features of late eighteenth-century landscape aesthetics and fashionable tourism, part of the process of constructing a British nation by assimilating and commodifying its margins. But Thelwall’s was neither the fashionable folly of a propertied dilettante nor the residence of a professional hermit; instead it was a labour of love by an eccentric exile and activist, a retreat for a notorious Jacobin fox-on-the-run, and a place to seek and test philosophies of revolutionary hope and renewal he shared with the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth. In fact, in both cultivating the persona of “New Recluse” and building his modest hermitage and waterfall, he was directly inspired by his friends, and inspired them in turn. Continue reading “John Thelwall’s Summer Study”

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