Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Eighteenth Century ‘Hand-Loom’ Token


Katy Barrett

token Obverse

token Obverse

token Reverse

token Reverse

The Pitt Rivers Collections include a large number of coins, medals and tokens, used as objects of exchange, reward, and commemoration. One such token was donated to the museum in 1918 by Frank Leney. About the size of a modern £2 coin, the obverse shows the date of minting – 1792 – surrounding the coat of arms of the city of Norwich. These arms comprise an escutcheon, which encloses a rampant lion before a three-towered castle. The reverse shows a man operating a Norfolk hand-loom and spinning wheel. Round the edge runs the inscription: “x x John Harvey of Norwich x x”.

Token Coinage

The history of tokens is linked to that of coinage, which has been used as an item of exchange since at least the sixth century BC. Money must essentially be an item that is in short supply in a society, and thus coins have become a universal form of money based on the value of their precious metal. Metal could, in addition, be usefully turned into a standardised token denoting its use through the process of minting, which can also add a commemorative, political, or propaganda message. Tokens with such messages can be minted with or without an intended exchange value. The edges of coins and tokens are roughened or inscribed to prevent devaluation through the shaving off of material.

During the eighteenth century, Europe saw a huge expansion in the production of base-metal coinage for official money, especially due to a crisis in silver quantities for coinage. This initiated the use of monetary tokens, where the value depends on trust rather than the material used. In turn this spread into the use of paper money and allowed the expansion of public credit and national debt in the first half of the century. Such change was part of the appearance of new theories of economic growth during the enlightenment, most notably that of Adam Smith, which argued that commercial value rested in supply and demand rather than the value of money in precious metals. Tokens are different to coins because they are issued by individuals, rather than local or national authorities, and are therefore less easily exchangeable. It can be argued, however, that modern coinage is merely ‘token’ since the abandonment of the gold standard. Company tokens have also been historically used as coinage, and recognised as such by government authorities.

Tokens are especially produced by traders in periods of coin shortage. They thus become redeemable for goods on a barter system, often particularly goods produced by the trader concerned. Historically, such tokens were often intended to equal a farthing (or a quarter of a penny) when no value was minted on them. Two such coinage shortages occurred in England during the Civil Wars in the 1640s-50s, and then in the 1780s-90s. In the latter case, the Royal Mint almost ceased production and traders produced their own tokens. These were larger and more valuable than in earlier shortages, generally valued to a halfpenny or more. They were also more professionally made, with the advent of roller-mill machines, and even steam-powered mints.

The maker – John Harvey of Norwich

This token was minted in 1792 by John Harvey, then Mayor of Norwich. He was also magistrate for Norwich, Norfolk and Suffolk, a Deputy Lieutenant, and the leading partner in the Harvey and Hudson Bank. Norwich, in this period, was a fast-growing industrial city, and an important English textile centre. It was capital to one of England’s most prosperous and populous counties and, until the Industrial Revolution, vied with Bristol to be England’s second city. The date of minting, combined with John Harvey’s positions and history, shows a number of motives for this token’s creation, as it fulfilled philanthropic, commercial, propagandic, and commemorative purposes.

Harvey was a known philanthropist. When decreasing employment combined with an increasing price of bread at the end of the eighteenth century, he started a subscription to supply provisions and coals to the poor at a greatly reduced price. The token’s minting date – 1792 – was during the coin shortage experienced by England at the end of the eighteenth century. It therefore seems reasonable to see the minting of this coin as partly a philanthropic gesture, intended to help his workers to buy food on his ‘credit.’ This also fulfilled his own commercial purpose, in maintaining the flow of goods in Norwich by providing a token coinage, while the Royal Mint was behind in production. As Mayor and partner in the Harvey and Hudson Bank, Harvey would be able to give such a coinage authority between traders in the local area. This would in turn have helped local economic survival by maintaining an exchange system, and would have facilitated sale of his own wares.

As 1792 was the year in which Harvey held the position of Mayor, the token also shows a personal propagandic and commemorative role, marking his authority as a local businessman and civic leader. The obverse design, combined with the edge inscription, preserved his name in this context for posterity. Harvey was specifically a textile merchant, suggesting the further propagandic commercial role of the token. The reverse therefore commemorated and advertised Harvey’s fame within the textile industry for introducing one of Norwich’s best known ‘exports,’ the Norwich Shawl. The man working the hand-loom and spinning wheel thus preserves Harvey’s fame in this context for posterity.

Harvey and the Norwich Shawl

The Norwich textile industry was famous for its high quality weaving, creating worsteds, brocades, damasks, and linen or cotton mixtures, which were traded across Europe. At the end of the eighteenth century, increasing travel and colonial expansion, led to a fashion for exotic shawls. East-India trading particularly introduced shawls from Kashmir, which were light, warm, silky, and easy to drape. They were beautifully coloured and very expensive due to the intensive labour required. Late eighteenth-century fashions for light muslin dresses made such shawls particularly sought after, becoming a mark of the owner’s wealth and status.

English manufacturers thus tried to develop a cloth equal in quality to these Kashmir shawls but cheaper to produce. Norwich manufacturers and merchants had the expertise and knowledge of the exotic necessary to provide the quality and design demanded for such shawls by the fashionable elite. John Harvey was one of the first to achieve this aim. In 1788 he combined a particularly finely spun worsted-yarn weft (which had gained a commendation from the Royal Society) with a strengthening silk warp. This would have created shawls comparable to the Kashmir imports.

The year 1792 therefore provided the perfect opportunity for John Harvey to celebrate his commercial success combined with his local civic authority, and use this to help his workers during economic shortage.

The Donor – Frank Leney

The token was donated to the Pitt Rivers by Frank Leney, who was Curator at Norwich Castle Museum from 1910-1937. He had worked in the Natural History Department of the British Museum and then joined the Castle Museum as an assistant in 1900. He particularly concentrated on putting objects in their historical or ecological context in the Castle displays.

The question remains as to why he chose to donate the token to the Pitt Rivers. It is the only item from Leney in the collections, and the only one associated with John Harvey. Leney does not appear to have particular personal connections with the museum or with Oxfordshire, and the museum has no particular connections with Norwich or with weaving. The collections of the Norwich Castle Museum now include at least three matching coins. Two of these appear to have formed part of a large donation in 1894 so were in the collection in 1918. In this context, Leney may have felt that donating the coin to another museum was more appropriate.

Equally, Leney may have had personal contact with the Pitt Rivers’ then director Henry Balfour as both were active members of the Museums Association in this period. A more precise clue to this coin’s presence at the Pitt Rivers may, thus, be a Norfolk hand-loom for weaving horse hair purchased by the museum in 1913. Spixworth, where this hand-loom was purchased, is near to Norwich so it is possible that Henry Balfour may have consulted with Leney when pursuing the purchase. Perhaps Leney was a rival buyer? Certainly the Norwich Castle Museum subsequently acquired a hand-loom for weaving horse hair in 1914. Otherwise the donation remains a mystery.


Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Token_coin
http://www.norwichchurches.co.uk/monuments/Robert Harvey family/Robert Harvey 1730.html
Hoyte, Helen, ‘Norwich Shawls’ in

Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations

Williams, Jonathan (ed.), Money: A History (London, 1998)