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THE BRITANNIA STANDARD FOR WROUGHT PLATE
In the absence of any documentary evidence published by the
government of the day the reasons for the introduction of The
New Sterling Standard (note
1), now known as ‘The Britannia Standard’, for wrought
plate on 25th March 1697
(note 2), apparently without reference to its
suitability as a medium in which silversmiths could work,
remains enigmatic. Equally mystifying is that a short twenty
three years later the then government found it perfectly
acceptable to re-introduce the sterling standard.
The most commonly held view is that it had to do with combating
coin clipping which had, by the end of the 17th. century,
reached untenable proportions but this was only part of the
problem and was itself overcome by the great re-coinage of 1696.
In fact the problem with which the government was faced in the
year 1696 to 1697 was not coin clipping but the use of whole
coin in the melting pots of the silversmiths so that there was a
shortage of coin for commercial use and the government was
obliged to take some action. The question is why were
silversmiths using coin as their raw material at this time?
An examination of the political and economic climate of the day
will, I believe, throw some light on this and in this connection
a brief look at the history of coin manufacture will be useful.
A screw press for the production of round and even coin was
invented in Italy and in use at the Rome mint in 1529. Somewhen
between 1537 and 1545 it was introduced into France and in 1552
machinery was imported into France from Germany which produced
metal strip of even thickness which could be used in a press.
'Good' English Coin of 1672
'Clipped' French Coin of 1583
A Frenchman by the name of "Eloi Mestrell" brought this
machinery to the Tower mint in London in 1561 and its failure to
supersede the hammered coin, coin made from blanks cut out of
hammered sheet silver and stamped with the motifs of
authenticity on both obverse and reverse sides, was due only to
the objections of the Hammermen who feared for their livelihoods
and who had the Warden of the Mint, Sir Richard Martin, to
represent them. Martin, having the ear of the court, had
Mestrell disgraced and dismissed.
A century later Charles II invited the Dutch mint master, Jan
Roettiers, whom he had met while in exile in Holland, to follow
him to England after his restoration and this he did in 1661.
Roettiers was familiar with this machinery and was also skilled
in its use with the result that "The coinage of 1662 was in
marked contrast to the hammered series due to better rolling
equipment and more efficient screw presses"
(note 3). It seems
that at least throughout the 17th Century both hammered and
pressed coin were in issue at the same time and from 1662
onwards the facility existed to defeat the coin clippers.
What cataclysmic event took place in 1696 to cause the
government to call in all the country's silver coin for re-issue
and what happened the following year which resulted in
legislation introducing a new and higher standard for wrought
Throughout the 17th Century England’s largely agrarian culture
was evolving into a commercial one. Both the Hudson's Bay
Company and the East India Company were founded during this
period, as were the West Indian sugar plantations, and at home
manufacturing industry was beginning to take shape. The result
was that a new social class began to emerge which required plate
to furnish its tables and show off its wealth. Contiguous with
this was an expanding range of silverwares introduced from the
continent partly at the ‘Restoration’ and partly by the influx
into this country of Huguenot silversmiths after the revocation
of The Edict of Nantes in 1685.
There was thus a vastly increased demand for the silversmith's
skills by the end of the 17th Century and he would have needed
increased supplies of silver to meet this demand.
Banister states that: "The Act of 1696, aimed primarily at
protecting the coinage, which was being melted down on a large
scale to supply an apparently insatiable demand for plate,
ignored the provincial silversmiths"
On the other hand the Mint had an increased demand for silver at
the same time and this requires some explanation.
When in 1695 £57,200 worth of coin was paid into the exchequer
which should have weighed 220,000 Troy ounces and was found to
weigh only 114,000 ounces the government realised that coin
clipping had got out of hand. An act of Parliament was passed
making the penalty for buying or selling coin clippings a fine
of £500.00 and branding with a hot iron
(note 5) but in spite
of this legislation coin clipping continued.
A declaration was also issued to the affect that by the end of
the following year all silver coin of the realm would be called
in, melted down and re-issued
(note 6). This, of course, was an open invitation to
the clippers who made full use of that twelve months grace.
In 1696, as well as the special provisions made at the Tower
mint in London, provincial mints were set up at Bristol,
Norwich, Chester, Exeter and York and the massive task of
calling in all the silver coin was undertaken.
Because of the warning given to the coin clippers, when the
exercise was over, the Government found itself in deficit by the
enormous sum of £2,700,000 and promptly introduced the "daylight
robbery" (of the) window tax in the hope of recovering this loss
(note 7). All coin in
issue from then on was of the milled/pressed and therefore "good"
type but silversmiths now turned to using this as their raw
material and this was almost certainly because there was now an
acute, albeit short lived, shortage of silver for the following
two reasons; on the one hand silver was being sold in Holland
because it fetched a higher price there than it did in England
and on the other, not only was the mint required to re-issue
coin to its full face value in spite of the fact that the weight
of silver called in was far less than the weight required to
fulfil this obligation but there was also a sudden enormous
demand for more coin.
In order to finance the war with France the government had to
raise funds over and above what was possible through taxation
and had at first turned to a Scottish financier and entrepreneur
named William Paterson who provided £1,000,000. This sum,
however, fell far short of what was required and in 1694
Paterson, taking advantage of legislation introduced by Henry
VIII in 1545 which overthrew the church’s ruling on usury and
allowed money lending at an interest rate of not more than 10%,
suggested raising a further £1,200,000 by subscription. The
interest rate offered was 8% and some 2000 people put money into
the scheme. In order to administer these funds the Bank of
England was founded in 1694.
Now the bank wanted to issue promissory notes
(note 8) but because
doubt was cast on their use, mostly because Charles II had
issued such notes to a total value of £1,500,000 but had reneged
on them in 1672 causing several bankruptcies including that of
Sir Robert Viner, his own goldsmith, the government turned to
John Locke, the philosopher, for advice. Locke gave as his
opinion that such notes would be perfectly satisfactory if
covered by the appropriate amount of coin. Thus it was that
people started hoarding coin and by 1697 it was in short supply.
So acute was the shortage that the government offered 5s 4d an
ounce (4d an ounce above the current value of silver at the time)
for all wrought plate brought to the mint for melting and even
considered imposing a tax on any wrought plate not so forfeited
but this was deemed impossible to collect.
It seems likely that faced with this acute shortage of silver
the silversmiths resorted to the use of, the now good, coin in
their melting pots in the absence of anything else.
It should be noted that, although it seems that it had been
common practice to use coin for plate and plate for coin, it had
been illegal to melt coin for the purpose of the manufacture of
plate since 1335 (note 9)
although the practice is likely to have continued until the
coinage act of 1920 and ceased then only because from that date
coin was no longer of sterling standard.
It seems equally likely that faced with this dilemma the
Government panicked and the result was the introduction of the
Britannia standard which, being higher than sterling, meant that
silversmiths could no longer use sterling coin in their melting
It is less easy to explain why in 1720 the then Government was
happy to allow the use of the sterling standard again but a
possible explanation is that the mint's need for silver declined
In that year Isaac Newton was appointed master of the mint and "under
his guidance the production of silver coinage declined sharply,
while that of gold coins soared to unprecedented heights"
(note 10). (The
precursor to the gold standard which started in 1816 and lasted
This policy continued throughout the 18th century and the
production of both silver coin and also copper coin declined.
Thus by 1720 demand had settled down to a perfectly reasonable
working norm and silversmiths no longer needed to turn to coin
for their raw material. It should be noted that although the
amount of plate passing through Hall for marking declined in
1697, presumably because of the shortage of ingot silver, it was
back to normal again by the end of 1698 indicating that
increased supplies of ingot silver were then coming in from
abroad (possibly Spain).
Virtually all the changes which, throughout history, have
affected the marking of plate in England have been to safeguard
the public against the nefarious activities of some
The introduction of the Britannia Standard stands alone as a
direct reflection of the country's economy of the day and
whatever the circumstances which gave rise to its introduction,
the changes in the marking of plate in 1697 and the concomitant
changes in the makers’ marks have proved useful to both the
collector and the historian alike.
- 2010 -
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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