Exhibitor : Mike Pryor
The Old Cornish Mine series of British matchboxes is an obsession for me. They first appeared in England on 20th September 1962 and quickly became popular with the public and with matchbox collectors (phillumenists). They were produced by the Cornish Match Company of Halsetown, Cornwall until 1966.
Most of the labels show illustrations of Cornish Tin Mines which operated in the 18th and 19th Centuries and made Cornwall the world leader in tin production. Mining in Cornwall took place from around 2150 BC (Bronze Age) until the South Crofty tin mine in Cornwall closed in 1998. In 1870 Cornwall was the premier tin mining producer in the world with over 2000 working tin mines, but in 1872 tin was discovered in Australia which led again to a collapse in the industry by the 1880s and significant emigration of Cornish miners. Demand for tin during the First World War provided some respite, but the final mine closed in 1998
However, a few of the labels in the series do not show Tin Mines, and one of these recently captured my interest : Number 5 TWO PENNIES. It depicts two coins which were in circulation in Cornwall in 1811 and 1812.
This made me ask “why were special coins needed”, “how did they work” and “can I find one” ?
My two Cornish Pennies
Luckily, I have now purchased a couple of Cornish Pennies. One is much darker and dirtier than the other.
The darker one looks exactly like the left hand one on the matchbox label. It says “Scorrier House. One Pound for 240 tokens. 1812” on the obverse, and “Cornish Penny” with the Fleur de Lys symbol on the reverse
- The lighter one say “Cornish Penny. 1811” on the obverse and “For the accommodation of the County” on the reverse with a pilchard, four ingots of copper and three blocks of tin
- both feature a Cornish engine house on the obverse and an old “horse-whim” which was used for raising ore from the pit
I believe the darker one to be a genuine coin, but suspect that the cleaner one is a reproduction from the 1970s. The Scorrier coin shows that 240 tokens were required to make One Pound (because there were twelve Pennies in One Shilling, and twelve Shillings in One Pound).
Coin shortages in the early 19th century
By the late 1700s two-thirds of the coinage in circulation was counterfeit, and Royal Mint actually shut itself down in 1786 meaning that no copper coins were struck by them between 1773 and 1821. This led to a great shortage of small change in the country, which made it very difficult for employers to pay their workers. To fill the gap many private merchants started issuing copper tokens which gained great acceptance across the country.
In 1797 the financial crisis was severe and the Bank of England stopped redeeming its bills for gold. A contract was awarded to the industrialist Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) of Birmingham to mint copper Pennies and Twopences, which were intended to contain their face value in copper and be hard to counterfeit. His Soho Mint was the first to be powered by steam, and was where the first large copper British Pennies were struck.
However, the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) caused the price of copper and silver to rise dramatically at the start of the 19th century and Government issued coins were being melted down and used for trade. This led again to a massive increase in privately minted tokens which reached a head towards the end of 1811.
Like many businesses across the country, Cornish mine owners began striking their own coins in pure Cornish copper. Being worth nearly their face value they gained complete confidence as fair tender and became acceptable currency in the near neighbourhood. These would then be used in the local shops, pubs etc in exchange for goods or services, in a way similar to today’s credit cards. The local traders would then take the tokens to ‘Count House’ of the issuing mine where they would be exchanged for normal currency. Interestingly, Matthew Boulton owned shares in some Cornish Mines.
End of the private tokens
The issue and use of private tokens, though never actually authorised, was approved by the Government until sufficient good legal coinage could be supplied. In 1816 the Royal Mint started a massive recoinage programme, and in 1817 a Bill was passed prohibiting use of private tokens after 1st January 1818. Most of the surviving tokens were then melted down and sold for metal, hence their extreme rarity.
So I am lucky to have found some Cornish Pennies, and they now sit proudly alongside the Cornish Mine matchboxes in my collection.
Click here to return to the Exhibition Catalogue.