A SMALL COLLECTION OF ANTIQUE SILVER
AND OBJECTS OF VERTU

an article of David McKinley,
for ASCAS - Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver
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The directory of articles about English silver and its marks written by David McKinley

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THE INTRODUCTION OF MECHANICAL MARKING
BY THE LONDON GOLDSMITHS’ COMPANY

By the middle of the 18th century the amount of plate passing through "Hall" for hallmarking had increased to the extent that it was becoming desirable to find a way to speed up the process. Of even more importance was the growing problem of fraud. The form of fraud that was causing the greatest concern was transposition which had become prevalent following the introduction of plate duty on 1st June 1720. This is the practice of cutting out legitimate hallmarks from a small item to solder them into a larger piece or cutting them out of old plate, sent to a silversmith for melting and refashioning, so that, again, they could be used on new pieces which were thus never sent in for assay and proper hallmarking.

As early as the 8th January 1730 the Court of Wardens at Goldsmiths' Hall had met to consider this matter and the following entry appears in the minutes pertaining to that meeting:
"Then (the?) Wardens took into consideration how to remedy an ancient evil practice, amongst ill-disposed goldsmiths, of cutting out the Company’s marks from old pieces of plate, and soldering the same into new pieces, which have never been tryed (sic) at the Hall, and may possibly be very coarse, and the fraud equal to the counterfeiting of the Company’s marks, for which there is a penalty of £500 set by Act of Parliament. Now in order to prevent the said evil practice of cutting out the marks from one piece of plate, and soldering the same into another piece, (the?) Wardens ordered that the officers in the Assay Office, who usually strike the marks on plate, do strike the marks on every piece of plate as farr (sic) distant from each other as the same conveniently may be struck, so that they may not be cutt (sic) out together."(note 1) This shows the concern that the Company had over transposition and it may appear a little odd, therefore, that an examination of plate of this period reveals that this instruction was not followed. This is because several influential silversmiths appealed against it. The reason for this objection is not recorded but whatever the reason two months after its introduction the Company reversed the instruction. However, as initially, it had been instituted some items of plate marked thus do occasionally turn up.

Thomas Long, the engraver to the Goldsmith's Company, set about designing a machine which would be capable of marking plate with all the marks at one strike and do so in such a way that the marks would always appear regular and in the same order. By 1753 his design for such a machine was near completion and on the 1st. March the Standing Committee of the Goldsmiths’ Company met to consider it. The following reference appears in the minute book relating to that meeting.
"Then the Committee resolved the further consideration of the matter of an order of reference made the 26th. day of October last concerning the forwardness of the workmanship of plate before it be markt and the manner of marking it the better to prevent counterfeits and the Com(mitt)ee having been sundry times attended by Mr. Long the Ingraver (sic) who produced two sorts of patterns of engine to strike the marks more true and regular than by the former method both as to order and visibility They directed him to prepare a proper set of engines and tools for purposes by him proposed with what expedition he can at the charge of the Companys Assay Office." (note 2)

Unfortunately Long died in 1754 before he could demonstrate his machine but the Companys new engraver, Thomas Pingo who took office in 1756, immediately set to work on it with the result that at a meeting of the Court of Assistants on 28th May 1757 he offered to "perfect and compleat (sic) the iron fly press and the table and punches for the more exact and regular marking of plate in the Company’s assay office......" (note 3) and on 30th June 1757 the Court minutes read:
"At this Committee Mr. Thomas Pingo the engraver produced several proofs of marks or impressions made on a piece of copper with the Iron Fly Press intended for the use of the Assay Office, and he struck some more impressions or marks with the press on buckles and spoons in the presence of the Committee which were approved by them whereupon they resolved that the said press be used in the Assay Office under the Direction of the Deputy Warden in the marking all such plate as may conveniently be marked therewith, but this without altering the usual mode or form of marking such plate till further order." (note 4)

Thus it was that mechanical marking was introduced for the first time by the Goldsmiths' Company of London. It is believed the machine came into regular use from the beginning of the marking year 1758 (note 5) but, oddly, it was not used on spoons in spite of their success as demonstration pieces and neither was it used on hollow ware. The only plate this author has found on which the "fly Press" was used at this early date is large flatware such as salvers, plates and waiters and its effectiveness can readily be seen by comparison of the marks on a salver of 1740 (Fig I) and one of 1760 (Fig II).
Hand punched marks on a salver by Robert Abercromby London 1740 Press mark on the base of a salver of 1760 by Emick Romer
Fig I: Hand punched marks on a salver by
Robert Abercromby London 1740. Note the punch
outlines which were introduced on 18th July 1739
Fig II: Press mark on the base of a salver of 1760 by
Emick Romer
 
This new method of marking met with a certain amount of success and by the end of the 18th century it was decided to mark small flatware, such as spoons and forks, with the fly press. These items had been marked, during the 18th century, with the lion at a right angle to the other marks in an endeavour to circumvent transposition and this may be why the press was not used on them earlier. This decision was taken after the beginning of the marking year 1781/2 so that some spoons were marked with the letter "f" in the old hand punched way (Fig III) but somewhen between 29th May, when the marking year started, and November of 1781 (probably nearer to November than to May) the press was introduced and there are "bottom marked" spoons (marking on the stem near the bowl) which exhibit this form of marking (Fig IV) though they are very rare.
Hand Punched Bottom Marking on Table Spoon by Hester Bateman London 1781 Bottom 'Fly Pressed' Mark on Spoon by William Tant London 1781
Fig III: Hand Punched Bottom Marking on
Table Spoon by Hester Bateman London 1781
Fig IV: Bottom "Fly Pressed" Mark on Spoon by
William Tant London 1781
It was found, however, that this was unsatisfactory, probably because the pressure of the press would weaken the stem of the spoon, and the following entry appears in the Assay Office Court and Committee Book for 1st November 1781:
"The Accounts of the plate broken since the last Committee were inspected. After which the Committee examined some silver spoons with the Marks struck upon the upper part of the handles And Resolved that it be recommended to the wardens to give their Directions to the proper Assay Officers to mark the table and teaspoons in future upon the upper part of the handles".

From November 1781 therefore spoons and forks were top marked (marking on the wide end of the handle) Fig V. The sequence of marks used on large spoons was the same as for other press marks namely; date, lion, leopard and this differed from the order of hand punched marks which was lion, leopard, date. No fly press stub was produced for use on tea spoons at this time, and a quite different method was adopted for marking these. This was the double mark punch but that is another story.
Top Marked Spoon (Maker's Mark Rubbed) London 1781/2
Fig V: Top Marked Spoon (Maker's Mark Rubbed) London 1781/2
Fly Press Mark struck after 1st November 1781
 
ENDNOTES

note 1 - Prideaux, Memorials of The Goldsmiths' Company 1897 - Eyre & Spottiswoode. Her Majesty’s Printers. London.-(vol.2 ) p214.(Court of Wardens, 8th January 1730)

note 2 - Committee Book 9 (Goldsmiths' Hall) 1st March 1753 p233

note 3 - Court Book 16 (Goldsmiths' Hall) 28th May 1757 p109

note 4 - Committee Book 10 (Goldsmiths' Hall) p56

note 5 - The Goldsmiths' Company recorded the marks in use in a given year by imprinting them with printers’ ink in the margin of the Court minute book. The first record of a fly-press mark was 1760

 
ACKNOWLEGEMENTS
I am greatly indebted to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths for allowing me research facilities and for allowing me to reproduce extracts from their records

Some of the foregoing text was published in 2005 by The Silver Society in their journal 'Silver Studies' number 19

David McKinley
- 2011 -
David McKinley devotes much of his time to researching the history of silversmithing in England with particular reference to hallmarking at the London office.
He writes for The Silver Spoon Club of Great Britain, The Silver Society and ASCAS website.
David McKinley is the author of the book THE FIRST HUGUENOT SILVERSMITHS OF LONDON.
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