By Jason Sandy
Startled by my loud alarm clock, I awoke to a dark, cold, and rainy morning in London. I seriously contemplated staying in my warm, cozy bed instead of going mudlarking. But, the “thrill of the hunt” got me up and out onto the damp foreshore. I searched for several hours and disappointingly found nothing of interest, so I decided to find a warm café for breakfast and hot coffee. As I was leaving, I noticed a dark patch of the riverbed, which had recently been eroded away by the waves of passing boats. There, lying on the top of the black mud, was a round disc. As I picked it up, I couldn’t believe my eyes! Stamped on the front of the copper token was a horse and the infamous date: 1666—the year when London was destroyed by the Great Fire of London. My heart was pounding with excitement!
The inscription on the 17th-century trade token says, “HENRY HOPPING CARRIER IN CVLLVMPTON, HIS HALFPENY 1666.” Since the token depicts a packhorse and says “CARRIER,” we can assume that Henry Hopping owned a business in Cullompton, Devon, which specialized in transporting goods with his packhorses. I wonder if Henry was in London delivering goods with his packhorses when the token was lost? Hopefully, he was not caught up in the Great Fire of London. Or, was Henry in London after the Great Fire to deliver construction materials with his packhorses to rebuild the capital which lay in ruins?
A few years ago, mudlark Nick Stevens found a unique 17th-century trade token from Pudding Lane, the street where the Great Fire began. Issued by a Vintner (wine merchant) called Brian Appleby, this trade token is dated 1657 and is stamped with the address “IN PUDIN LANE.” Appleby’s shop was located close to the famous bakery where the fire began, so he may well have known the baker, Thomas Farriner.
On September 2, 1666, the hot coals left in Thomas’s oven sparked a small fire in his bakery which quickly spread and engulfed the City of London. The all-consuming fire raged for three days and destroyed most of the city. To escape the intense heat and destructive fire, people grabbed as many of their belongings as they could carry, boarded boats, and crossed the River Thames. During the perilous river crossing, personal possessions were probably accidentally dropped into the River Thames, which could explain how this token could have been lost in the river. It’s hard to imagine what the last person to touch this token experienced during the Great Fire.
During the mid-17th century, there was a lack of small denomination coinage issued by the government. As a result, copper trade tokens were privately issued as pennies, halfpennies, and farthings between 1648 and 1674. Butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers along with grocers, mercers, chandlers, fishmongers, coffee-house owners, fruiterers, shoemakers, tobacconists, and dozens of other traders issued tokens, which could be used in the local area around their shops.
Trade tokens contain a wide variety of creative imagery and symbols representing the issuer’s trade. They were often stamped with the issuer’s name, location of the business, year of issue, and denomination. Unlike standardized coins issued by the government, trade tokens are very special and unique. Mudlark Tom Main found a beautiful, heart-shaped trade token from William Baldwin in Milton, dated 1667. A few years ago, mudlark John Higgenbotham discovered an extraordinary token with the depiction of a hunting dog carrying a duck in its mouth. Dated 1651, the token was issued by the “Dogg and Ducke (tavern) in Southwarke.”
While I was mudlarking along the River Thames in 2018, I found an interesting trade token dated 1650 and inscribed with the words “THE BLEW BELL AT THE OLD BALEY.” The Blue Bell was a pub located near the Old Bailey (the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales) and the notorious Newgate Prison which was in use for over 700 years, from 1188 to 1902. The pub was named after the infamous bell that tolled twelve times at midnight as a “death knell” to give condemned prisoners a last chance to repent before having their “necks stretched” at the gallows the following morning. Beginning in 1605, the clerk of the nearby St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate church rang a handbell outside the condemned man’s cell in Newgate Prison the night before his execution, and he would proclaim:
All you that in the condemned hole do lie,
Prepare you, for tomorrow you shall die.
Watch all, and pray, the hour is drawing near,
That you before Almighty God will appear.
Examine well yourselves, in time repent,
That you not to eternal flames be sent,
And when St. Sepulchre’s bell tomorrow tolls,
The Lord above have mercy on your souls.
Past twelve o’clock!
The blue-colored “Execution Bell” still exists and is now on permanent display in the church of St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate across from the Old Bailey. I was so intrigued after finding the token, I had to go see it for myself. With the Blue Bell token in my pocket, I visited the beautiful, historic church and viewed the Execution Bell in a glass display case. It was an eerie experience! I could just imagine how many poor prisoners heard that bell ringing before their execution in the notorious Newgate Prison centuries ago.
Shortly before the pandemic lockdown in 2020, I found an incredible trade token depicting a mythical unicorn. The token was issued by Edward Betteris, a grocer and fishmonger in Old Fish Street near St. Paul’s Cathedral in Central London. Edward died in July 1666, two months before the Great Fire of London.
When I posted the token on Facebook, a friend did some research and discovered Edward’s will and last testament in the National Archives (UK). I purchased a digital copy online, but I was unfortunately unable to read the Old English calligraphy handwriting in the will. So, I asked my followers on Instagram if they were able to translate it into modern English for me. Janet Foster and Joel Lefever successfully deciphered the cryptic text and send me a good translation.
Dated June 13, 1666, the will gives us a unique insight into Edward’s wishes after his death. He started by saying that he is “sick and weake in body, but of sound and perfect mind and memory.” Upon his death, Edward explained that he would like to live eternally in heaven. He wrote, “first and principally to commend my Soul unto the hands of Almighty God my Creator & of Jesus Christ mye only Saviour and Redeemer… to have free pardon and forgiveness of all my sinns and to inheritt life eternall in the Kingdom of Heaven.” After his debts and funeral expenses were paid for, Edward bequeathed twenty shillings to his son, Robert, and his daughter, Sarah. His possessions listed as “Goods, Cattle, Chattles, Money, Plate, Debts and Estate” were to be sold and the money used “towards the education and bringing upp of my said Children until they shall bee fit to putt forth Apprentised to some conveniente Trade.”
When his children turned 21-years-old, they received further money from his will. Edward also designated money for his sister Mary, brother-in-law Thomas, cousin Francis and friend Joseph. He doesn’t mention his wife in the will, so it is possible that she died before 1666. I am so pleased that I found Edward’s will and have learned more about his life and death in the 17th century. This unicorn trade token is a real portal to the past.
Over the past eight years, I have been very lucky and have found 25 different trade tokens in the River Thames. I simply love these copper tokens because they are so personal. Each token represents a different shop owner or trader who lived in London in the 17th century and reveals incredible information about their lives.
Some of the most interesting people and occupations stamped on the tokens I discovered are:
- Robert Stranke, a butcher on Radcliffe Highway, London
- George Percy, a baker from Wapping New Stairs, London
- Richard Redhill, a candlestick maker from Long Acre, Covent Garden, London (far left)
- John Bishop, a milliner (hatmaker) at the Guildhall in Oxford
- John Corne, a cobbler (shoe maker) in Martines LeGrand, London
- George Hide, a grocer from Grubb Street, London (middle left)
- Sary Heit, owner of the Woolsack tavern in Houndsditch, London
- Robert Redway, owner of the Lion tavern in Fetter Lane, London
- Stephen Porter, owner of the Stag tavern in Bell Yard, London (middle right)
- Thomas Swettingham, owner of the Castle tavern in St. Paul’s Chaine, London (far right)
- Thomas Lole, owner of the Sugarloaf tavern in Wheelers Street, London
Trade tokens are simply incredible. Each one is a tiny time capsule that reveals incredible information about the people, their shops, and livelihoods in the 17th century. Many of the tokens were produced before the Great Fire of London in 1666. Because the raging fire destroyed most of the buildings and official documents within the City of London, trade tokens are now an important record of the original names of 17th century taverns, inns, pubs, shops, businesses, street names, and people who would have been lost forever.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2020 issue.
Read more articles about Thames mudlarking by Jason Sandy.