In 1722, the ‘hardware’ manufacturer William Wood was granted a patent to produce copper coins to the maximum cash value of up to £108,000 for use in Ireland.
- At 48 farthings or 24 halfpennies to one silver shilling, this was a lot of ‘loose change’
- At 960 farthings or 480 halfpennies to the pound, £108,000 was a huge amount of coins
- If 50% were farthings, this equals 51,840,000 coins
- If 50% were halfpennies, this equals 25,920,000 coins
- There was a shortage of copper in Ireland but these numbers were considered excessive
- The general view seems to have been that Ireland needed about £20,000 of these coins
- The Irish Parliament was not consulted
- The coins were not to be produced by the Royal Mint
This patent was allegedly secured by a bribe of £10,000 (a not inconsiderable sum in those days) to the Duchess of Kendal, a long term mistress of King George I who moved to England to be close to him. Although disliked, she accumulated a series of titles conferred upon her by George after he moved to England and became king.
- Her full name was Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg
- She was born at Emden in the Duchy of Magdeburg.
- Her father was Gustavus Adolphus, Baron von der Schulenburg, Privy Councillor to the Elector of Brandenburg
- She was a Maid of Honour to the Electress Sophia of Hanover and became a royal mistress of the Electoral Prince, George Louis, who succeeded as Elector of Hanover in 1698 and, later, King of Great Britain (as George I) in 1714
- She followed George to England when he became King and, on 18 July 1716, was created for life Duchess of Munster, Marchioness of Dungannon, Countess of Dungannon and Baroness Dundalk, in the Peerage of Ireland
- On 19 March 1719 she was further created Duchess of Kendal, Countess of Feversham and Baroness Glastonbury, in the Peerage of Great Britain
- In 1723, Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, created her Princess of Eberstein – giving creedence to the rumour that she had secretly married George, whereas his real wife (Sophia) had been kept in imprisonment since their divorce in 1694
When Wood produced copper coins, assays showed his coins to be significantly underweight and undersized, as well as being made from inferior materials, i.e. not 100% copper. Despite all of these faults, they were approved by the British Parliament for use in Ireland. In fairness, they were heavier and of better quality than many of the unofficial farthings (halfpenny and penny tokens of the previous century) that still persisted.
Despite the fact that there was a great shortage of copper coins in Ireland at the time, these coins were subject to the following complaints / concerns :-
- This would introduce too many coins of inferior quality into the Irish economy
- These coins would remove valuable silver and gold coins from circulation in the Irish economy
- Since these coins would not be minted under Irish authority, there was no way for the Irish to control the quality of the coins or the amount minted (similar to the modern day concerns about quantitative easing)
- The Irish merchant classes wanted to have their own national bank and authority to mint their own coinage
- Wood’s coinage was a barrier to economic independence
- Wood’s coinage became a symbol of Westminster’s restrictive economic stranglehold on Ireland
- All attempts by the Irish Privy Council and the Church of Ireland to prevent the release of the coinage failed
Drapier’s Letters is the collective name for a series of seven pamphlets written between 1724 and 1725 by the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Jonathan Swift, in the form of ‘open letters’ to arouse public opinion against the new coins.
Swift represented Ireland as constitutionally and financially independent of Britain in the Drapier’s Letters and this amounted to sedition and treason in the eyes of the Westminster Parliament – especially since the Act of Union between England and Scotland (to form Great Britain) gave much more economic and political power to Westminster. Since 1707, any idea that devolved authority back to Scotland was a politically sensitive subject, and Irish attempts to gain more freedom could not be tolerated. Swift, therefore, had to be careful to write under a pseudonym (M. B., Drapier) to protect himself from retaliation. Pretending to be a draper, he published seven pamphlets.
- To the Shop-keepers
- To Mr Harding
- To the Nobility and Gentry
- To the Whole People of Ireland
- To Viscount Molesworth
- To the Lord Chancellor Middleton
- An Humble Address
The letters were publicly condemned by the Irish government, with prompting from their political masters in the British government but there can be little doubt that most people in Ireland, including members of the Irish Privy Council, knew that Swift was the author of the letters. It seems unusual that no one reported him to Walpole’s administration, but in the event of this happening, there seems to be insufficient legal proof to merit litigation.
Popular history and simplified accounts often overlook the huge conflict of interest that underlay the actions of the ruling classes in Ireland, i.e. the ruling ascendancy class was based on nepotism, insider dealing and monopolies. The related subjects of currency and banking was a particularly lucrative money-making scheme – one that persists to this day, i.e. the banks make huge (easy) profits from currency exchange. At that time, there was periodic shortages of silver coins caused by the political decision to ‘under-value’ Irish silver, thus allowing private bankers to accumulate hoards of bullion (silver) and then bringing from Ireland to England and selling it there at a big profit.
- They feared that the introduction of £108,000 of copper coins into the Irish economy would remove up to £200,000 of silver coins (their source of income) – thus the perceived ‘bad money’ would quickly replace the ‘good money’ and destroy their easy profits
- The obvious way to fix this was to re-value Irish silver but, predictably, they resisted this too
- They also feared that the ‘new’ sub-standard money would also replace any ‘good copper’ coins as well
- Small wonder that one of the greatest opponents of Wood’s halfpennies was William (Speaker) Connolly
The Drapier Letters inspired popular sentiment against Wood and his coinage. This quickly developed into a nationwide boycott and forced the patent to be withdrawn before he could finish production.
- In the end, the English government realized that opposition to Wood’s Money had to cease.
- As a compromise, Wood surrendered his patent.
- He also agreed to limit to £40,000 the number of coins that he would import into Ireland
- This equates to a total of 19,200,000 halfpennies
- Recent research outlines how these coins were extensively used in Ireland for the next decade and a half before their general export to the colonies of New England
- Evidence from the records of the period suggest that Wood’s coppers circulated widely in Ireland :-
- Collectors of the Kings Revenue were instructed to accept ‘Wood’s Money’ for tax payments
- The army was forced to receive Woods coppers as partial payment of salaries
- the lower classes, out of need for a medium of exchange, accepted and utilised the coins
The remainder of the production run seems to have been exported to ‘the English colonies’ in America where there was a shortage of coin – thus these coins are collected by both Irish and Americans alike.
- Wood’s money seems to have been ‘exported’ to New England in three ways :-
- as a by-product of trade between the colonies and Ireland
- as a part of the possessions of immigrants leaving Ireland for the Americas
- as a result of a change in monetary policies in Ireland that reduced the value of Wood’s coins
Meanwhile, Swift was later honoured for this service to the people of Ireland, whereas he was really a hero of the ascendancy and private banking classes.
- He is seen as an Irish hero for his defiance of British control but he can hardly be considered a ‘nationalist’
- He is also perceived as the first person to organise a ‘more universal and inclusive Irish community’ although, from his other writings, he could hardly be described as ‘a man of the people’ or even sympathetic to the plight of the poor in his time
Nowadays, the Drapier’s Letters are an important part of Swift’s political writings, along with Gulliver’s Travels (1726), A Tale of a Tub (1704), and A Modest Proposal (1729) but from my perspective, they are an important part of Irish and American Colonial ‘numismatic’ history.
He was a not popular when he first came to Ireland and one wonders if he had failed, would he have been a convenient scapegoat. He could have been reported to Government circles at any time, but this did not happen. He helped the private bankers (and their families) stop Wood’s coinage. He might be considered lucky.
The full text of each letter can be accessed via the following links :-
- Letter I: To the Shop-Keepers, Tradesmen, Farmers, and Common-People of Ireland
- Letter II: To Mr. Harding the Printer
- Letter III: To the Nobility and Gentry of the Kingdom of Ireland
- Letter IV: A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland
- Letter V: A Letter to the Lord Chancellor Middleton
- Letter VI: A Letter to the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Molesworth
- Letter VII: An Humble Address to both Houses of Parliament
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