The neighbourhood of the Tower
The Mint


Centre for Metropolitan History



Walter Thornbury

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'The neighbourhood of the Tower: The Mint', Old and New London: Volume 2 (1878), pp. 100-107. URL: Date accessed: 17 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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The Mint at the Tower—The First Silver Penny—Dishonest Minters—The First English Gold Coinage—Curious Anecdote respecting the Silver Groats of Henry IV.—First Appearance of the Sovereign and the Shilling—Debasement of the Coin in the Reigns of Henry VIII. and Edward VI.—Ecclesiastical Comptrollers of the Mint—Guineas and Copper Coins—Queen Anne's Farthings—The Sources from which the English Mint has been supplied with Bullion—Alchemists encouraged—The Mint as it is.

That the Romans had a mint in London is certain, and probably on the site of the present Tower. In the Saxon times London and Winchester were the chief places for coining money; but while the "White City," as Winchester was called, had only six "moneyers," or minters, London boasted eight. The chief mint of England was in the Tower, at all events from the Conquest till 1811, when, at an outlay of more than a quarter of a million of money, Sir Robert Smirke erected the present quiet and grave building which stands on the east side of Tower Hill. From those portals has since flowed forth that rich Niagara of gold which English wealth has yielded to the ceaseless cravings of national expenditure.

Letting alone the old Celtic ring-money of the ancient Britons, and the rude Roman-British coins of Cunobelin and Boadicea, we may commence a brief notice of English coinage with the silver penny mentioned in the laws of Ina, king of the West Saxons (689—726), the value of which, says Mr. J. Saunders, would be, in current coin, 2¾d. The silver penny of King Alfred is the earliest authentic Saxon coin, says that eminent authority, Mr. Ruding, which can be traced with certainty to the London Mint. The penny sank by slow degrees, through the reigns of many adulterating monarchs, from the weight of 22½ grains to about 7 grains. The great object of our monarchs seems to have been to depreciate as far as possible the real value of the coin, and at the same time to keep up its current value. We find, in fact, even such a great and chivalrous king as Edward III. shamelessly trying to give false weight, and busy in passing spurious money.

With this perpetual tampering with the coin, which pretended to a value it never possessed, clippers and coiners of course abounded. They were given to the crows by hundreds, while the royal forgers escaped scot-free. Justice, so called, like a spider, let the wasps escape, but was down swift upon the smaller fry. Law was red-handed in the Middle Ages, and swift and terrible in its revenges on the poor and the unprivileged. In the reign of Edgar, the penny having lost half its weight, St. Dunstan (himself an amateur goldsmith) refused one Whitsun-day to celebrate mass till three of the unjust moneyers had had their guilty right hands struck off.

In the reign of Henry I., when the dealers refused to take the current money in the public markets, the hot-tempered monarch sent over a swift and angry message from Normandy, to summon all the moneyers of England to appear at Winchester against Christmas Day. Three honest men alone, out of ninety-four of the minters, escaped mutilation and banishment. In 1212, when Pandulph, the Pope's legate, excommunicated King John at Northampton, the king, who was making quick work with a batch of prisoners (being, no doubt, not in the best of tempers), ordered a priest, who had coined base money, to be immediately hung. Pandulph at once threatened with "bell, book, and candle" any one who should dare touch the Lord's anointed; and on King John at last surrendering the priest, the legate at once set the holy rogue free, in contempt of the royal laws. As for the Jews, who had always an "itching palm" for gold and silver, and filed and "sweated" every bezant they could rake together, Edward I., in an irresistible outburst of business-like indignation and religious zeal, on one occasion hung a batch of 280 of them. But the prudent king did more than this, for he confirmed the privileges of the Moneyers' Company, and entrusted them with the whole coinage of the country. In the following reign a Comptroller of the Mint was appointed, who was to send in his accounts distinct from those of the Warden and Master. The Company consisted of seven senior and junior members, and a provost, who undertook the whole coinage at fixed charges.

With Henry III. English money, says a good authority, began to improve in appearance, and to exhibit more variety. The gold penny of this monarch passed current for twenty pence. This was the first English gold coinage. In the reign of Edward I. silver halfpennies and farthings were for the first time made round, instead of square. About this coinage there is the following story. An old prophecy of Merlin had declared that whenever English money should become round, a Welsh prince would be crowned in London. When Llewellyn, the last Welsh prince, was slain by Edward, his head, probably in ridicule of this prophecy, was crowned with willows and sent to the Tower for exhibition.

Edward III. (as national wealth increased national wants) introduced several fresh coins: a gold florin, with its divisions, a gold noble, a groat, and a half-groat. The gold florin, which passed for six shillings (now worth nineteen), soon gave place, says Saunders, to the gold noble or rose-noble, as it was sometimes called, of the value of 6s. 8d., or half a mark. On one side of this coin Edward stands in a tall turreted galley in complete armour, in reference probably to his great naval victory over the French at Sluys, when he made an end of nearly 15,000 of the enemy. The reverse bears a cross fleury, and the mysterious legend, "Jesus autem transiens per medium illorum ibat" (Jesus, however, passing over, went through the midst of them); an inscription which was traditionally supposed to allude to the fact of the gold used for the coin having been made by the famous alchemist Lully, who worked for that purpose in the Tower. In the reign of Henry VI. the rose-noble was called the rial, and promoted to the value of 10s.

The silver.groat, says an authority on coins, derived its name from the French word gros, as being the largest silver coin then known.

Of the silver groats of Henry V.'s reign, Leake, in his "History of English Money," relates a curious anecdote from Speed. The coin has on one side a cross (so that the coin could be broken into four bits), and on the other a head of the young king, the crown set with three fleurs-de-lis, and the hair flowing as Absalom's. On each side of the niche are two small circlets, said to be intended for eyelet holes, and to refer to the following story. Towards the close of his reign Henry IV. grew shaken in his mind, and alarmed at his son's loose and unworthy excesses with the Falstaffs of those days, began to fear some violence from his abandoned and undutiful son, "which when," says Speed, "Prince Henry heard of by some that favoured him of the King's Council, in a strange disguise he repaired to his court, accompanied with many lords and noblemen's sons. His garment was a gown of blue satin, wrought full of eyelet holes, and at every eyelet the needle left hanging by the silk it was wrought with. About his arm he wore a dog's collar, set full of SS of gold. the tirets thereof being most fine gold. Thus coming to Westminster and the court of his father, having commanded his followers to advance no farther than the fire in the hall, himself, accompanied with some of the king's household, passed on to his presence, and after his duty and obeisance done, offered to make known the cause of his coming. The king, weak then with sickness, and supposing the worst, commanded himself to be borne into a withdrawing chamber, some of his lords attending upon him, before whose feet Prince Henry fell, and with all reverent obeisance spake to him as followeth: 'Most gracious sovereign and renowned father, the suspicion of disloyalty and divulged reports of my dangerous intendments towards your royal person and crown hath enforced at this time and in this manner to present myself and life at your Majesty's dispose. Some faults and misspent time (with blushes I may speak it) my youth hath committed, yet those made much more by such fleering pick-thanks that blow them stronger into your unwilling and distasteful ears. The name of sovereign ties allegiance to all; but of a father, to a further feeling of nature's obedience; so that my sins were double if such suggestions possessed my heart; for the law of God ordaineth that he which doth presumptuously against the ruler of his people shall not live, and the child that smiteth his father shall die the death. So far, therefore, am I from any disloyal attempts against the person of you, my father, and the Lord's anointed, that if I knew any of whom you stood in the least danger or fear, my hand, according to duty, should be the first to free your suspicion. Yea, I will most gladly suffer death to ease your perplexed heart; and to that end I have this day prepared myself, both by confession of my offences past and receiving the blessed sacrament. Wherefore I humbly beseech your grace to free your suspicion from all fear conceived against me with this dagger, the stab whereof I will willingly receive here at your Majesty's hand; and so doing, in the presence of these lords, and before God at the day of judgment, I clearly forgive my death.' But the king, melting into tears, cast down the naked dagger (which the prince delivered him), and raising his prostrate son, embraced and kissed him, confessing his ears to have been over-credulous that way, and promising never to open them against him. But the prince, unsatisfied, instantly desired that at least his accusers might be produced, and, if convicted, to receive punishment, though not to the full of their demerits; to which request the king replied that, as the offence was capital, so should it be examined by the peers, and therefore willed him to rest contented until the next Parliament. Thus by his great wisdom he satisfied his father from further suspicion, and recovered his love that nearly was lost."


The gold angel (with St. Michael striking the dragon) and the half-angel were first struck by Edward IV., and although inferior in value to the noble and half-noble, were intended to pass in their room. Henry VII. originated many new coins—the sovereign, double sovereign, and half-sovereign, of gold, and the testoon, or shilling, of silver. The Saxons had used the word "shilling," but it now first became a current coin. The testoon borrowed its name from the French word, teste, "a head," the royal portrait, for the first time presented in profile.

Henry VIII., to his affectionate character as a husband, and his other virtues, pointed out so ably by Mr. Froude, added to them all the merit of being pre-eminent even among English monarchs. for debasing the coinage. Some of the earlier coins of this reign bear the portrait of Henry VII. One coin struck by Henry VIII. was the George noble, so called from the effigy of St. George and the Dragon, well known to all lovers of their sovereign, stamped on the reverse. Henry VIII. also coined a silver crown-piece, which was, however, issued by his son Edward, with the half-crown, sixpence, and threepence. In Edward's reign the debasement of coin grew more shameless than ever. There were now only three ounces of silver left in the pound of coinage metal. In one of his plain-spoken Saxon sermons, old Latimer denounced the custom of having ecclesiastics among the comptrollers of the Mint. "Is this their calling?" he cried. "Should we have ministers of the church to be comptrollers of the Mint? I would fain know who comptrolleth the devil at home in his parish, while he comptrolleth the Mint."

INTERIOR OF THE MINT. (From a Drawing of about 1800.)

Elizabeth, in these things as in most others, listened to wise counsellors. Sir Thomas Gresham was earnest for a pure and honest coinage. The silver was restored to the fair standard—eighteen pennyworths of alloy in the pound of standard metal. The corrupt coin of her father and brother was called in, and ordered to be melted down for re-casting. The sum thus treated amounted to £244,000, which had hitherto passed current for £638,000. The queen herself came to the Tower, struck some pieces with her own hand, and gave them to her suite. The first milled money (the "mill-sixpences" mentioned by Shakespeare) was coined in this reign, and silver three-halfpenny and three-farthing pieces were also coined (vide our previous account of Tokenhouse Yard) in deference to the national dislike of copper money.

The robbery by Charles I. of £200,000 from the Mint, where it had been deposited for safety by the London merchants, we have before mentioned. Charles coined money suddenly from any Cavalier's plate he could obtain. These coins are often mere rude lozenges of silver, while others are round or octangular. Charles also struck ten-shilling and twenty-shilling pieces. The coins of the early part of Charles's reign were executed by Nicholas Briot, an admirable French engraver; but Cromwell employed Thomas Simon, a pupil of Briot, who far excelled his master, and, indeed, any previous coinengraver since the time of the Greeks.

Simon was dismissed by Charles II., in spite of an incomparable crown-piece which he executed, to prove his skill. Simon attained a finish and perfection since unknown. In this degenerate reign was struck the first guinea—so called from being made from gold brought from Guinea by the African Company, whose badge, the elephant, appears on all coins made from their bullion. The antiquarian crochet, that the name has reference to the French province of Guienne, is absurd. Fiveguinea pieces, two-guineas, and half-guineas were also struck in this reign. The copper coinage was also now first originated, and the Mint poured forth floods of halfpence and farthings, disgraced by the figure of Britannia modelled from one of Charles's mistresses, afterwards Duchess of Richmond. Charles II. also coined tin farthings with copper centres. James, and William and Mary, continued these coins, and added a halfpenny of the same kind. This tin coinage was finally recalled in 1693. Good kings strike good coins. Thus the reign of William and Mary had the purer money (thanks, probably, to the genius of Paterson, the originator of the Bank). It is recorded that, in 1695, 572 bags of silver coin brought to the Mint, which ought to have weighed over 18,450 pounds, only weighed a little more than half. This single re-coinage, therefore, must have cost the Government nearly two millions.

Queen Anne struck no less than six different farthings; some of these are very scarce. George I. struck the first gold quarter-guinea, and for the first time coins bear the letters "F. D." (Fidei Defensor), possibly from the fact that George had no religion at all, and only guarded other people's. Gold seven-shilling pieces, and copper pennies and twopences, first appeared in the reign of George III. The guinea and half-guinea were withdrawn in 1815, when they were replaced by the present sovereign and half-sovereign. Almost the last new pieces were the fourpenny-pieces of William IV., in 1836, and that first approach to the decimal system, the florin, the most insipidly engraved of all our coins, in 1849. Bronze coinage was issued on the 1st of December, 1860.

It is difficult to say from whence our early mints derived their bullion. Edward I., the authorities tell us, drew no less than 704 pounds weight of native silver from Devonshire in one year alone; and down to the reign of George I. money was coined from Welsh and other native mines. In later times Peru sent its silver, Mexico its gold, and, before Californian and Australian gold was discovered, the Ural mountains furnished us with ore.

Our wars, more especially our Spanish wars, have at times brought great stores of the precious metals to the Mint. The day the eldest son of George III. was born there arrived in London twenty wagons of Spanish silver, captured by the Hermione. The treasure weighed sixty-five tons, and was valued at nearly a million sterling. The wagons were escorted by light horse and marines, and a band of music. As they passed St. James's Palace George III. and the nobility came to the windows over the palace-gate to see them pass. In 1804 there was a similar procession of treasure from Spanish vessels we had dishonestly seized before the open declaration of war. In 1842 ten wagons brought to the Bank the first portion of the Chinese ransom, amounting to two millions of dollars, and weighing upwards of sixty-five tons.

For many centuries, as Mr. Saunders has shown, our kings, always in want of money, encouraged alchemists, who believed that they could transmute baser metals to gold, if they could only discover their common base. Thus Lully worked in the Tower for Edward I. Edward III., Henry VI., and Edward IV. also seem to have been deluded by impostors or fanatics to the same belief which Chaucer ridiculed so admirably.

A modern essayist has graphically described the present method of coining money. "The first place," he says, "that I was conducted to was the Central Office, where the ingots of gold are weighed when they come in from the Bank of England, or from other sources, and where a small piece is cut off each slab for the Mint assayer to test the whole by. A nugget of gold may be of any shape, and is generally an irregular dead yellow lump, that looks like pale ginger-bread; but an ingot of gold is a small brick. After the precious metals have been scrupulously weighed in the Central Office, they are sent to the Melting House down an iron tramway. All the account books in the Mint are balanced by weight, so that even where there is so much money there is no use made of the three columns bearing the familiar headings of £ s. d. The Melting House is an old-fashioned structure, having what I may call the gold kitchen on one side, and the silver kitchen on the other, with just such a counting-house between the two—well provided with clean weights, scales, well-bound books, and well-framed almanacks—as George Barnwell may have worked in with his uncle before he became gay. The counting-house commands a view of both melting kitchens, that the superintendents may overlook the men at their work. Although the Mint contains nearly a hundred persons resident within its walls—forming a little colony, with peculiar habits, tastes, and class feelings of its own—a great many of the workpeople are drawn from the outer world. Dinner is provided for them all within the building; and when they pass in to their day's work, between the one soldier and the two policemen at the entrance gate, they are not allowed to depart until their labour is finished, and the books of their department are balanced, to see that nothing is missing. If all is found right, a properly signed certificate is given to each man, and he is then permitted to go his way.

"The gold kitchen and the silver kitchen are never in operation on the same day, and the first melting process that I was invited to attend was the one in the latter department. The presiding cook, well protected with leather apron and thick coarse gloves, was driving four ingot bricks of solid silver into a thick plumbago crucible, by the aid of a crowbar. When these four pieces were closely jammed down to a level with the surface of the melting-pot, he seasoned it with a sprinkling of base coin, by way of alloy; placing the crucible in one of the circular recesses over the fiery ovens to boil. The operations in the gold kitchen are similar to this, except that they are on a much smaller scale. A crucible is there made to boil three or four ingots, worth from four to five thousand pounds sterling; and where machinery is employed in the silver kitchen, much of the work is done in the gold kitchen with long iron tongs that are held in the hand.

"When the solid metal has become fluid, a revolving crane is turned over the copper, and the glowing, red-hot crucible is drawn from its fiery recess, casting its heated breath all over the apartment, and is safely landed in a rest. This rest is placed over a number of steel moulds, that are made up, when cool, like pieces of a puzzle, and which look like a large metal mouth-organ standing on end, except that the tubes there present are square in shape and all of the same length. The crucible rest is acted upon by the presiding cook and another man, through the machinery in which it is placed, and is made to tilt up at certain stages, according to regulated degrees. When the molten metal, looking like greasy milk, has poured out of the crucible till it has filled the first tube of the metal mouth-organ, sounding several octaves of fluid notes, like the tone of bottle-emptying, the framework of moulds is moved on one stage by the same machinery, so as to bring the second tube under the mouth of the crucible, which is then tilted up another degree. This double action is repeated until the whole blinking, white-heated interior of the crucible is presented to my view, and nothing remains within it but a few lumps of red-hot charcoal.

"The next step is to knock asunder the framework of moulds, to take out the silver, now hardened into long dirty-white bars, and to place these bars first in a cold-water bath, and then upon a metal counter to cool. These bars are all cast according to a size which experience has taught to be exceedingly eligible for conversion into coin.

"From the silver-melting process, I was taken to the gold-coining department, the first stage in dealing with the precious metals being, as I have before stated, the same. Passing from bars of silver to bars of gold, I entered the Great Rolling Room, and began my first actual experience in the manufacture of a sovereign.

"The bars of gold, worth about twelve hundred pounds sterling, that are taken into the Great Rolling Room are about twenty-one inches long, one and three-eighths of an inch broad, and an inch thick. As they lie upon the heavy truck, before they are subjected to the action of the ponderous machinery in this department, they look like cakes of very bright yellow soap.

"An engine of thirty horse-power sets in motion the machinery of this room, whose duty it is to flatten the bars until they come out in ribands of an eighth of an inch thick, and considerably increased in length. This process, not unlike mangling, is performed by powerful rollers, and is repeated until the ribands are reduced to the proper gauged thickness, after which they are divided and cut into the proper gauged lengths. Having undergone one or two annealings in brick ovens attached to this department, these fillets may be considered ready for another process, which takes place, after twelve hours' delay, in a place that is called the Drawing Room.

"In this department the coarser work of the Rolling Room is examined and perfected. The fillets or ribands of gold, after being subjected to another rolling process, the chief object of which has been to thin both ends, are taken to a machine called a draw-bench, where their thickness is perfectly equalised from end to end. The thin end of the golden riband is passed between two finelypolished fixed steel cylinders into the mouth of a part of the concrete machine, which is called a 'dog.' This dog is a small iron carriage, travelling upon wheels over a bench, under which revolves an endless chain. In length and appearance this dog is like a seal, with a round, thick head, containing two large eyes that are formed of screws, and having a short-handled inverted metal mallet for a hat. Its mouth is large and acts like a vice, and when it has gripped the thin end of the golden riband in its teeth, its tail is affixed to the endless chain, which causes it to move slowly along the bench, dragging the riband through the fixed cylinders. When the riband has passed through its whole length, the thin end at its other extremity coming more quickly through the narrow space between the cylinders causes it to release itself with a sudden jerk, and this motion partly raises the mallet cap of the backing dog, which opens its broad mouth, and drops its hold of the metal badger which it has completely drawn. A workman now takes the fillet, and punches out a circular piece the exact size of a sovereign, and weighs it. If the golden dump or blank, as it is called, is heavy, the dog and the cylinders are put in requisition once more to draw the riband thinner; but if the weight is accurate (and perfect accuracy at this stage is indispensable), the smooth, dull, impressionless counter, looking like the brass button of an Irishman's best blue coat, is transferred to another department, called the Press Cutting Room.

"In this room twelve cutting-presses, arranged on a circular platform, about two feet in height, surround an upright shaft and a horizontal revolving fly-wheel; and at the will of twelve boys, who attend and feed the presses, the punches attached to the presses are made to rise and fall at the rate of a stroke a second. The ribands, cut into handy lengths, are given to the boys, who push them under the descending punches as sliding-frames are pushed under table microscopes. The blanks fall into boxes, handily placed to receive them, and the waste—like all the slips and cuttings, trial dumps, failures, &c., in every department—is weighed back to the melting kitchen for the next cooking day.

"From the Weighing Room I followed the dumps that were declared to be in perfect condition to a department called the Marking Room, where they received their first surface impression. This room contains eight machines, whose duty it is to raise a plain rim, or protecting edge, round the surface circumference of the golden blanks. This is done by dropping them down a tube, which conducts them horizontally to a bed prepared for them, where they are pushed backwards and forwards between two grooved 'cheeks' made of steel, which raise the necessary rim by pressure.

"From this department I am taken by my guide to a long bakehouse structure, called the Annealing Room. Here I find several men-cooks very busy with the golden-rimmed blanks, making them into pies of three thousand each, in cast-iron pans with wrought-iron lids, and closed up with moist Beckenham clay. These costly pies are placed in large ovens, where they are baked in intense heat for an hour, and then each batch is drawn as its time expires, and is not opened before the pan becomes cool. The grey plastic loam which was placed round the dish is baked to a red crisp cinder, and the golden contents of the pie are warranted not to tarnish after this fiery ordeal by coming in contact with the atmosphere.

"I next follow the golden annealed blanks to the Blanching Room, where they are put into a cold-water bath to render them cool; after which they are washed in a hot weak solution of sulphuric acid and water to remove all traces of surface impurity. Finally, after another wash in pure water, they are conveyed to a drying-stove, where they are first agitated violently in a heated tub, then turned into a sieve, and tossed about out of sight, amongst a heap of beechwood sawdust, kept hot upon an oven. After this playful process, they are sifted into the upper world once more, and then transferred to trays, like butchers' trays, which are conveyed to the Stamping Room.

"The Coining-press Room contains eight screw presses, worked from above by invisible machinery. Below, there is a cast-iron platform; and above, huge fly-arms, full six feet long, and weighty at their ends, which travel noisily to and fro, carrying with them the vertical screw, and raising and depressing the upper die. In front of each press, when the machinery is in motion, a boy is sitting to fill the feeding-tube with the bright plain dumps of gold that have come from the sawdust in the Blanching Room. On the bed of the press is fixed one of Mr. Wyon's head-dies, a perfect work of art, that is manufactured in the building; and the self-acting feeding apparatus—a slide moving backwards and forwards, much the same as in the delicate weighing-machines — places the golden dumps one by one on the die. The boy in attendance now starts some atmospheric pressure machinery, by pulling a starting-line; the press and upper die are brought down upon the piece of unstamped gold that is lying on the lower die, along with a collar that is milled on its inner circumference, and which closes upon the coin with a spring, preventing its undue expansion, and at one forcible but well-directed blow, the blank dump has received its top, bottom, and side impression, and has become a perfect coin of the realm. The feeder advances with steady regularity, and while it conveys another dump to the die, it chips the perfect sovereign down an inclined plane; the upper machinery comes down again; the dump is covered out of sight, to appear in an instant as a coin; other dumps advance, are stamped, are pushed away, and their places immediately taken. Some sovereigns roll on one side instead of going over to the inclined plane, others lie upon the edge of the machinery, or under the butcher's tray that holds the dumps, and the boys take even less notice of them than if they were so many peppermint drops.

"The metal has passed no locked doorway in its progress without being weighed out of one department into another; and it undergoes yet one more weighing before it is placed into bags for delivery to the Bank of England or private bullion-holders, and consigned to a stone and iron strong-room, containing half a million of coined money, until the hour of its liberation draws nigh."