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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