The thread about “Conder Tokens”, why there was a time when Edinburgh and Leith issued their own local money

This thread was originally written and published in September 2020. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

Today I have found out about Conder Tokens. Did you know about Conder Tokens? Until yesterday I didn’t know what they were and until today I didn’t know what they were called

1796 Leith Conder Token. © Historic Environment Scotland, Trinity House collection
1796 Leith Conder Token. © Historic Environment Scotland, Trinity House collection

Long story short. In 18th century Britain there was a chronic shortage of small denomination coinage due to excessive counterfeiting and low production of non-precious coins by the Royal Mint. Demand was booming due to industrialisation, the need to pay workers and there being more consumer goods around for people to buy.

Counterfeit coinage boomed, perhaps 2/3 of all low value coins were forgeries, A Welsh industrialist – Thomas Williams of Llanidan, “the Copper King” – proposed an anti-counterfeiting edge to the coins to the Royal Mint so long as they used his copper, but they declined.

Thomas Williams by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1792.
Thomas Williams by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1792.

The Royal Mint’s response was to simply stop producing copper coins, and for 48 years from 1773-1821, they struck no copper coins. Clearly a modern industrial country could not function this way, so industry – led by Williams – resorted to simply producing their own. Such coins, or tokens, could be traded freely at the stamped value, and presented to some wealthy sponsoring merchant, industrialist or local worthy for exchange as required.

A halfpenny token issued by the Parys Mine Company of Anglesey in 1788.
A halfpenny token issued by the Parys Mine Company of Anglesey in 1788.

These coins quickly caught on. They were of a much higher quality than official coinage and were issued by prominent businessmen so the provenance could be trusted. The value of the copper content also made them less susceptible to being speculated on than promissory notes or other cheap tokens. One of the biggest manufacturers of such coins was the industrialist Matthew Boulton (James “Condensing Steam Engine” Watt’s business partner).

Matthew Boulton in 1792 by Carl Frederik von Breda
Matthew Boulton in 1792 by Carl Frederik von Breda

Boulton had the machinery, the capital, the interests in copper mines, a personal stock of copper bought in a slump in the market and the contacts and established the Soho Mint in the West Midlands in 1788 and went into volume minting of quality coins. His machines were of his own patented design and were driven by steam engines. Each could mint 70 to 85 coins per minute.

Boulton's "Soho Mint" in the late 18th century
Boulton’s “Soho Mint” in the late 18th century

Such was a demand for small coinage, these tokens quickly spread and were issued on a town-by-town, county-by-county basis, so they are often called “Provincial Tokens”. The name “Conder Token” comes from James Conder, an issuer of such coins who soon became an avid collector and cataloguer of them.

1794 Ipswich Conder Token, issued by Conder himself
1794 Ipswich Conder Token, issued by Conder himself

In 1797, the Government finally came to its senses about the financial crisis and issued Boulton a contract to mint official copper coinage and provincial tokens began to wane. Production ceasing by 1802, with a brief return in 1811-12 before finally being forbidden in 1817.

Many Scottish municipalities joined in issuing local coinage during this time. The table shows the number of different coins known for each area of the country. The financial capital in the Lothians and the industrial capital in Lanarkshire were unsurprisingly the most prolific, alongside the trade centre in Dundee (Angus).

Conder tokens of Scotland by local area

And so this is how we come to there being such a thing as a Leith Ha’penny. This one, of 1797, shows a sailing ship on one side – an obvious Leith connection – and Britannia on the rear.

1797 Leith Ha'penny
1797 Leith ha’penny

And the John White (a merchant of the Kirkgate) Leith ha’penny, wishing “Success to the Port” with another nautical scene, showing a ship entering the Port of Leith, and featuring the stuff of profitable trade on the back; gin and tea.

1796 Leith Ha'penny
1796 Leith Ha’penny

So of course if Leith has Ha’pennies, of course Edinburgh has to have them to! Notice that Britannia is a gain a common theme, as are recognisable civic buildings. “WRIGHT DES” on the front refers to James Wright, an engraver from Dundee who designed many Conder tokens, was a correspondent of Conder, and was both a proponent of them and a collector.

1796 Edinburgh Ha’penny, the newly completed Register House on the front. © RMG
1796 Edinburgh Ha’penny, Britannia and a trading ship on the rear © RMG

And another version, earlier from 1790, featuring the municipal coat of arms and motto, thistles, and St. Andrew himself. Note the anchor on the rear, a symbol of both Edinburgh’s merchant prosperity and also its dominance over its port at Leith. These tokens were produced by Messrs. Hutchinson of Creech’s Land, an important old building at the west end of the Luckenbooths where Alan Ramsay had his book shop and had opened Scotland’s first circulating library in 1725.

1790 Edinburgh Conder Token
1790 Edinburgh Conder Token

The Campbell’s Snuff of Edinburgh Ha’penny, the Turk’s Head being a connection to smoking. if you squint you can make out the name “James” below the head, for the engraver Charles James. Campbell’s shop was apparently the business of Euphame Campbell, which makes this doubly interesting as it must have been very rare to have a token in the name of a woman.

1796 Edinburgh Conder Token
1796 Edinburgh Conder Token

The Archibald, Seedsman of Edinburgh Ha’penny. The coin features an Archibald family coat of arms on the front and an advert for his wares on the back. This Archibald was Joseph Archibald of West Nicolson Street, a burgess of the city, who kept a shop at 88 Chapel Street and a nursery at Lauriston, where a street, Archibald Place, is named for him.

1796 Edinburgh Conder Token
1796 Edinburgh Conder Token
1796 Edinburgh Conder Token
1796 Edinburgh Conder Token

Harrison of St. Leonards, Ha’penny. Henry Harrison was a bucklemaker on St. Leonard’s Hill. Harrison’s cypher is on the reverse, with the anchor of trade on the front.

1796 Edinburgh Conder Token
1796 Edinburgh Conder Token

Anderson, Leslie & Company Ha’penny from 1797, featuring the then new college building of the University on South Bridge. Again James Wright was the engraver. The wording around the edge of the reverse translates as “Nor let even the poor and infertile grounds lie neglected” and features a gardener. Not surprisingly given this design and wording, Anderson, Leslie & Company were also Seedsmen, based opposite the Mercat Cross in the Old Town.

1797 Edinburgh Conder Token
1797 Edinburgh Conder Token

The Scran archive has a wide range of photos of other Scottish Conder tokens (If you have a library card issued by most Scottish councils, you can log in using your library card number to get more meta content and bigger pictures) – click here.

If you have found this useful, informative or amusing and would like to help contribute towards the running costs of this site (including keeping it ad-free) or to the book-buying budget, why not consider supporting me on ko-fi.

These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

One comment

  1. […] So now Brydone faced competition at home, form the lawyers of the Royal Mail who were not content at all for him to undercut their business across the country, and also from a third direction; Forgery. Philately was the new pass-time for the aspiring Victorian gentleman of leisure and the novel and relatively uncommon Circular stamps found themselves in huge demand (a similar thing happened with the short lived regional coinage of “Provincial Tokens”.) […]


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s