Coins in the Layton Bequest, 1915

Transcript of an article from The County of Middlesex Independent for 20 February 1915

by “The Watchman”

It would be difficult to over-estimate the value of the study of numismatics. The science has the means of bridging many serious gaps difficult to be understood in the history of past ages; it has confirmed many matters in regard to which there were serious doubts and it has proved the falsity of many well accepted legends misleading tradition has handed down to us.

The late Mr Thomas Layton had a collection of coins and tokens probably equalled by no other private collection in the United Kingdom and this is now in the custody of the Brentford Library. Its financial value must be very high and must become higher with the passage of each successive year. Although in point of numbers the collection is not as huge as that in the British Museum yet in many points it is fully equal, and in one or two instances even better than the national collection. They take their dates from hundreds of years before Christ’s birth and run down to the end of the reign of Edward VII. To enumerate them only would produce sufficient matter to fill a large-sized volume so that in a small article of this description one can only indicate, and that barely, a few of the most beautiful specimens.

At present the arrangement is not complete, though Mr Turner [transcriber’s note – the Brentford Librarian] is working hard night and day to accomplish that desirable end in the shortest possible time. The labour involved is immense and the work is of the most fatiguing description as it involves poring for hours together over the minute markings of coins, some of which are less than half the size of our present threepenny bit. Mr Turner is arranging them on the lines adopted by the authorities in the British Museum. They are first grouped according to their nationality, then according to their chronological order and finally in their respective denomination.

One of the earliest coins yet brought to light is that of Alexander the Great (circa 300 BC). Our great interest at the moment, however, is centred in the early British, the Romans as far they affect our island home and the Anglo Saxon, The unit of the Ancient British coin was the ‘Stater’, the type of which was derived from the ‘Stater’ of Phillip II of Macedon. The early pieces have no inscription on them so it is difficult to assign a precise date as being that of their introduction, but it cannot be later than the second century before the birth of Christ as those of a century later have all got inscriptions.

For a long time after the conquest by Claudius Roman money only circulated in Britain. Quantities of this money were minted in England, but only very rarely were gold coins produced. Silver and copper were principally used and Brentford is to be counted remarkably fortunate in the possession of a number of these beautiful specimens. Despite the passage of years they are in a remarkably fine state of preservation. Long after the Romans had quitted these shores Roman money continued to circulate in Britain and it was not until the Saxons came that a coinage similar to that of Gaul was introduced. Saxon money was mostly of silver.

The earliest British coins in the Library are two superb gold specimens without any inscription. They are of a Gaulish type which Sir John Evans, the greatest of all English numismatists, believes to have been the Stater. Perhaps I shall not be doing a wrong if I here interpolate the comment that Mr Layton received a very tempting offer for the possession of these two coins, but their proud owner esteemed them above any blank cheque.

Next in order of antiquity to these are probably seven curious specimens of early British tin money and all these with one exception were discovered on Eel Pie Island [note: this may be a reference to the island immediately upstream of Kew Bridge, close to Layton’s home, rather than the island of that name at Twickenham]. Like the gold coins just spoken of this tin money had no inscription, but there are some very crude designs there. Mr Turner and the writer had quite an amusing period endeavouring to decide whether the design was meant for a horse or an intelligent anticipation of a futurist painting. Then came the Roman period and it will probably be found when the purely Roman coins are carefully classified that some will cover the intervening period until the arrival of the Saxons.

It must have been supremely difficult to avoid the losing of much Anglo-Saxon money. We often grumble today at threepenny pieces but the Anglo Saxon ‘Sceatter’ which circulated about AD 700 were less than half the size of our smallest coin. There are two Anglo-Saxon pennies, one of which is dated in the reign of Burgred, the last King of Mercia, who ruled from 853 to 874, and the other is of the reign of Hardicanute. The latter would date from 1040 to 1042 and was minted in Oxford. Particular interest will be taken in the coins of William the Conqueror. This reign (1066-1087) is represented by three silver pennies, one of which was minted at Wilton, one at Winchester and the other – to purloin the language of the Censor – “somewhere in England”.

Then occurs a rather long gap for the next coins are of the reign of Henry III. Only two coins were then circulated – the gold and silver pennies. Unfortunately we have not a specimen of the golden penny but there are no less than seven specimens of the silver penny. The first of the silver pennies was known as ‘the short cross’. It has a somewhat crude representation of the King upon it but the head is placed very low down and none of the neck is visible scarcely If readers will remember on their visit of inspection to look at the face closely they will find traces of a short stubbly beard as if the barber had been absent from the royal residence for about a week.

The second issue had a long cross upon it in place of the previous short cross. It would seem that these coins were cut up as the owner wished into farthings, halfpennies or three farthings. You cut along the line of the cross – it is a double line – and made whichever sum you pleased. There is a farthing – that is one of the four divisions – also in the collection. The penny, halfpenny and farthings as separate coins appear to have first made their appearance with the reign of the first Edward but the gold penny seems to have gone out of circulation.The name of the town or city in which the coin was struck was put upon it, and the eleven at the Library were made in Canterbury – two; in Dublin 1; in Lincoln 1; in London 4 and 3 in York. The Lincoln coin it is interesting to note was found at the Brentford Gas Works.

The coinage of the second Edward was similar to that of the first only the workmanship was neater and smarter; there were ten silver pennies in the collection but no half pennies or farthings. The third Edward produced the richest and best coins and anything more exquisitely beautiful than the design of the gold noble was would be difficult to conceive. The noble was 6/8 in value; the florin 6/-; the half noble was 3/4; the half florin 3/-; the quarter noble 1/8. The silver coins were the groat, the half groat, penny, halfpenny and farthing. The gold noble in the collection is a beauty and seems almost in new condition; there is also a fine specimen of the quarter noble – a very rare coin indeed. There are 17 silver specimens of this reign and it is curious to note how many of the half groats were found and near Brentford.

The reign of Richard II is represented by three coins – all of a type similar to those of Edward III – but there are no specimens of the reign of Henry VI. The three coins of Henry V are not important though one is interested to note they (were) all struck at Calais and a large proportion of the coins of his successor came from the same place. A beautiful ‘rose noble’ (representing 10 shillings) is the principle feature in the specimens of Edward IV’s reign but even better than that is a noble of the reign of Richard III. Experts have been consulted in regard to this coin and while they all declare it to be indubitably a noble it is notable that such a coin is not even mentioned in the bulky catalogue of the British Museum. It is obvious therefore that it is an exceedingly rare and valuable specimen. Of the same reign are two silver groats, both minted in London. The mint mark on them is the Boar’s Head, and coins thus marked are said to be very rare and difficult to obtain.

There are ten coins of the reign of Henry VII but none of outstanding importance – comparatively speaking, of course, but there are two specimens of the half sovereign of Henry VIII. These again are very rare for it was not until this reign that the half sovereign was introduced and that issue of these useful coins was – unlike that King’s matrimonial affairs – strictly limited.

The coinage of Edward VI is represented by three shillings – and one of these belongs to the first coinage. There are five coins of the reign of Phillip and Mary, but Elizabeth’s reign is richest of all. The Virgin queen is represented by no less than 60 pieces – two gold and the rest silver including the exceedingly rare three-farthing piece. James I’s coinage has its representation in 28 pieces – nine gold (including the gold laurel which was current for 20 shillings; the half sovereign and the quarter laurel and three gold crowns of different mints). Charles I had 50 coins beginning with fine specimens of the sovereign (two), half sovereign and crown all in gold, while among the 46 copper coins is a diamond shaped coin made at Newark and knows as the ‘Siege’ shilling.

The Commonwealth saw the introduction of a completely different type of coin. There is no portrait as was, and still is, customary but instead are two shields with an inscription round them. There are eleven of those coins altogether, all of them of silver. Two shillings are dated 1653 and 1654, there are two sixpenses of 1653, three half groats (one of which was found at Isleworth) and four pennies which were found on Turnham Green.

The reign of Charles II is well represented and the 45 specimens are particularly fine. There is a half guinea of gold; 5 crowns (one of which seems to have been the work of a contemporary counterfeiter) and a number of other silver coins totally 37 in all. It was in this reign that Maundy money was issued for the first time and it was Mr Layton’s great good fortune to become the possessor of no less than four sets (each set consists of 4d, 3d, 2d and a penny all in silver). This reign also saw the introduction of copper coinage. The first copper coins were minted in 1672, but the earliest in this collection is dated a year after that. There are two half pennies both dated 1673, and there are five copper farthings. James II is not numerously represented, but it is ‘little and good’. There is a golden guinea in good condition of 1685, two silver crowns, two half crowns, two sets of Maundy money and one groat.

Is not the reader tired? This mere cataloguing of the fashion of some of the coins must have become somewhat palling, though we have taken nothing but the briefest and most casual glance through one of the smallest sections of the collection. There are thousands of coins to be seen and studied if one has the interest. We have just glanced at the English coins down to the reign of the second James, but there is a collection of several times this size of Roman coins, Grecian and others while the ‘tokens’ will add almost as many thousands.

To clean each of these cons, search up their records, arrange, describe, classify and index them is a task that might well try the patience of any disciple of Job, but even the Old Testament Patriarch himself would find it difficult to hold his patience if, just as some well worn inscription seemed likely to become readable after the closest inspection under a powerful magnifying glass ,some imperious little Miss imperiously knocks at the Library counter and demands to be supplied with some works of juvenile fiction in a moment. That is Mr Turner’s experience; it is not to be wondered at, therefore, that he prefers to burn the midnight oil and work without fear of the constant interruption from petty causes. The labour entailed in deciphering the design and inscription on coins is enormous, and the research work involved is truly immense.