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Lead Tokens, Coinage of the Ordinary Man

January 8, 2013

When I was first introduced to lead tokens by my friend and metal detectorist, Frank Taylor, I have to say I was somewhat underwhelmed. Frank on the other hand went into raptures about them – about their beauty and how little we really know about them. ‘There is a PhD in this for some lucky student,’ I remember him saying and I am sure he is right.

If it wasn’t love at first sight with lead tokens and myself, they have certainly grown on me since. I just love the simple designs, the less common ones you get which have an initial on and those with a date on, perhaps even less common. But I love them all. I imagine them being used in exchange for milling corn or to pay wages, being exchanged at the shoemaker’s for a pair of shoes or used to buy food. I look forward to identifying the initials on the tokens. This  short piece is about some lead tokens found in Worfield Parish, East Shropshire.

The practice of using tokens as a means of exchange came to Britain with the Romans. But it was the Babylonians who first cast lead around  3,000BC and moulded the pliable metal into statues. The Romans used lead to make large coin-like objects which acted as closures or seals on official documents. Smaller tokens were used as passes to bath-houses, for meal tickets and simply as money.
The earliest English tokens were pewter. The Church had a monopoly on smelting pewter and by the beginning of the fourteenth century there were about 500 monasteries. Pilgrimages to sacred places such as Canterbury and Glastonbury were significant features of life and tokens were used on the journey as a ticket to hostelries on the way. After the Black Death tokens began to be used for secular purposes and lead  replaced pewter.
Elizabeth 1 recognised that her subjects needed small change in order to go about their everyday lives but provided none. There was talk of halfpenny and farthing tokens being made but nothing came of it. Instead her subjects made their own tokens out of lead and the designs of a cross with or without pellets probably imitated the silver farthings issued by the Tudor monarchs.
Agricultural enclosures gained momentum in England in 1500. Inflation and poor harvests meant many tenants gave up a life on the land. More people worked for wages and some means of paying them was clearly needed. Tokens were the answer. So when you look at these tokens they are not merely interesting in themselves  they encapsulate a dramatic change in the  lifestyle of many and  in the relationship of people. Employment was becoming more commonplace.
One of the things which may surprise you as you look at these tokens is the variety and quality of the designs. Sadly we can only guess at their meaning. Initials we understand were probably those of the issuer of the token, a farmer might pay his workers in tokens and they would collect them to be redeemed  at a later date. Often the initials appear as a reverse image on the token (see IP). Many were only decorated on one side but in the case of the “IP” token there is a B on the other side.  A petalled flower is one of the most common designs and was probably used because of its simplicity.  A crude, but pleasing design was easily created by a compass. Some of these tokens may have been used at mills. Those with a central hub and lines radiating out, or those like a spider’s web, may represent the sails of a windmill. Hatched lines are another common form of decoration and it has been suggested that these may represent a harrow and be used to pay farm workers. Others represent animals, often birds and some are asymmetrical. Only one of those shown has a date on it, 1660. Dates on tokens are unusual, could this have been to mark the restoration of Charles 11?ImageImageImage

And here is the oldest token found by Frank to date, a crude, off centre design supposed to be a bird in flight. The PAS number is HESH-33B398 and a wide date range of 1400-1600 has been given

ImageSo there we have it. Lead tokens found by one man in one parish. In 2013 at the very least I want to gather together the lead tokens found by all the detectorists working in Worfield. I’ll keep you posted as to how I get on.



From → website

  1. Very interesting, a great research job.

  2. Michael P Krouse permalink

    I have a rare token I would like to find out more info on. Its about the size of a half dollar. Shaped like a guitar pick. Stamped 1874 with SGF. Stamped in. Looks to be a jester on it. I’ve talked to plenty of experts and they are all stumped….please help. My name is Michael. My email is

    • So sorry to have been so long in replying. It is hard to envisage what this is like. Wherever you are in the world it sounds as though you need a good metal detectorist to help you out.

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