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?

In 1795, in reaction to mounting calls for political reform and fears of a French-style revolution breaking out in Britain, the British government, led by William Pitt, passed two acts aimed at stifling what they considered to be dangerous political discussion. The Treasonable Practices Act and the Seditious Meetings Act, colloquially known as the “Gagging Acts,” extended the legal definition of treason and proscribed both meetings of over fifty people and lectures on “Matters relating to the Laws, Constitution, and Government and Policy of these Kingdoms.” (36 Geo.3 c.8) This legal “gagging” of the nation’s freedom of speech was widely represented in print and visual satire as a physical padlock, violently clamping shut the mouths of the people. One such of these caricatures is “A Lock’d Jaw for John Bull”, which depicts Pitt himself fixing a lock to the mouth of the nation, personified in the typical figure of John Bull. But it is the image of the “Free-born Englishman” featured on this coin which proliferated more widely, appearing in several iterations throughout the Romantic period with a particular resurgence in 1819 in response to the Six Acts which once again sought to restrict freedom of assembly, following the Peterloo Massacre. While the use of John Bull to represent Britain or England in the “Lock’d Jaw” caricature is fairly straightforward, the national dimensions of the image of the “Free-born Englishman” are more complex. Relative freedom of expression had long been considered an essential and, as the captions to several versions of the “Free-born Englishman” caricature emphasise, an enviable characteristic of British national identity. However, this ironically described ‘free-born’ Englishman looks, in some respects, stereotypically French. In both Spence’s image and the print caricatures, the figure appears in a short jacket, ragged clothing (coloured red, white and blue in the prints), with several of the prints adding a liberty cap at his feet. Together, all of these things, in the visual language of Romantic-era caricature, associate the figure with a French revolutionary sans-culotte. While a loyalist interpretation of this image might suggest that it is only those with extreme revolutionary sympathies who have been silenced by Pitt’s measures, this is unlikely to be the intention of the radical Spence’s deployment of the figure. Rather then, the image appears to suggest that in restricting the Englishman’s freedom of speech, the Gagging Acts have counter-productively turned him into a Jacobin.

It is this same idea which John Thelwall expresses in a 1795 lecture delivered shortly before the Acts came into force. Although Spence’s coins were minted with various combinations of images, this pairing of Thelwall with the image of the padlocked mouth is far from coincidental. The Acts were widely considered to be directed explicitly at Thelwall’s lectures and Thelwall himself acknowledges and indeed encourages this belief, supposing that they were “framed for the express purpose of stopping my mouth.” (Thelwall, 1795) However, just as the image of the “Free-born Englishman” can suggest that the Gagging Acts will turn reformist Britons into French sans-culottes, Thelwall argues that the locking up of mouths will cause peaceable political debate to re-manifest as violent revolutionary action. He describes the Acts as “a despotism that at once seals up your mouths, extinguishes your reason, and leaves you no manly, no temperate means of redress” and continues to argue “that when men are no longer permitted to use their voices, madness and desperation too frequently succeed; and, their voices being gone, they begin to feel whether they have the use of their hands” (Thelwall, 1795).

In 1794 Thelwall remarked that it is “better to be immured oneself in a Bastille, than to have the Bastille put into one’s mouth to lock up one’s tongue” (Thelwall, 1794). But by the end of 1795 Thelwall’s (and Spence’s) own imprisonment on a charge of treason the previous year and the instigation of the Gagging Acts had caused both these circumstances to become reality. However, this coin shows that even with Bastilles put into their mouths, the British public could carry sedition in their pockets. The coin could be kept as a literal and metaphorical token of political allegiance, yet could also be passed on, exchanged and circulated spreading a political message that could no longer be delivered out loud. Moreover, the token does more than defy the Gagging Acts. In its pairing of the image of Thelwall with that of the “Free-born Englishman,” Spence’s coin hints that the Acts are doomed to fail – suppression of speech will not deter, but rather encourage, revolutionary action.

Date: 1796

Creator: Thomas Spence

Subject: Thomas Spence, John Thelwall

Media rights: The British Museum

Object type: coin/token

Format: metal alloy

Language: English

Publisher: The British Museum

Catalogue number: SSB,237.70

Digital collection record: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?assetId=442368001&objectId=1226546&partId=1

Selgin, George. Good Money: Birmingham Button Makers, The Royal Mint, and the Beginnings of Modern Coinage, 1777-1821. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.

Thelwall, John. Political lectures (no. I.) On the moral tendency of a system of spies and informers. London: 1794.

Thelwall, John. The Tribune, a periodical publication consisting chiefly of the political lectures of J. Thelwall, vol III. London: 1796.