At various times throughout our history there have been severe shortages of coinage. Based on face value the cost of manufacturing coins is disproportionately greater for lower denominations, and consequently shortages would often involve small change.
The production of coinage was the prerogative of the King or Queen with unlicensed contraventions punishable by death. After the English civil war in the middle of the 17th century England was no longer a monarchy and became a Commonwealth under a Lord Protector. The upheaval of the civil war had caused a shortage of coinage and traders found it increasingly difficult to transact their business. Accordingly, since there was no longer a monarch to enforce the ultimate penalty, traders, merchants, innkeepers and later local Corporations of the period, took it upon themselves to issue their own.
These tokens provide a fascinating insight into the history of the period. Most have some kind of pictorial device on them representing the name of an Inn; others have the arms of their trading guilds such as Grocers, Drapers, Bakers, Tallowchandlers, Mercers and so forth. Occasionally they feature a pictorial play on words. So for example a token of Thomas Curtis shows two people curtseying. A very frequent device is to have the initial letter of the issuers surname as the apex of a triangle with the Christian name initials of the issuer and their spouse forming the base.
This latter device, along with a sugar loaf, is used on our Find of the Month for July, which is a 17th century copper alloy farthing traders token of John Tucke of Burnham Market. On the obverse face is the legend IOHN TVCKE and the date I666, with a central sugar loaf motif which is usually symbolic of the Grocers’ trade. The reverse side has the legend IN BVRNHAM MARKET, with the triangular letter convention I(J)MT mentioned above, in the centre. The full record for this token can be seen on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website (https://finds.org.uk/database/search) – search using reference number NMS-E0B82D.
This particular token has been very kindly donated to the Norwich Castle Museum by the finder. The Norfolk 17th century token collection of the Castle Museum will be the subject of an exhibition in February 2016 where you will be able to see the full extent of these fascinating snapshots of history.