O’Brien Coin Guide: The Irish-American ‘Voce Populi’ Token Coinage of 1760


By 1760 small copper coins were scarce in Ireland.

  • No royal Irish farthings had been issued since 1744
  • No royal Irish halfpennies had been issued since 1755

Issues of both denominations were scheduled to be minted in 1760 but apparently they did not arrive in Ireland until 1762. It has been speculated this was partly due to the death of George II in October of 1760. Under these circumstances underweight Voce Populi  farthings and halfpence first appeared in Dublin.  After the arrival of the new ‘regal’ coppers, it is thought that Dublin speculators bought the Voce Populi tokens in quantity and shipped them to America, where they circulated widely until the Revolutionary War.

1760 Irish Voce Populi copper farthing. This coin also circulated in the American Colonies, therefore US collectors also consider it an Early Colonial coin.

1760 Irish Voce Populi copper farthing – large lettering on obverse. This coin also circulated in the American Colonies, therefore US collectors also consider it an Early Colonial coin.

Voce Populi farthings with small lettering are extremely rare and they do not appear very often at auctions.  When they do, they tend to attract a lot of attention, i.e. frenetic bidding and high prices.

1760 Irish Voce Populi copper halfpenny. This coin also circulated in the American Colonies, therefore US collectors also consider it an Early Colonial coin.

1760 Irish Voce Populi copper halfpenny. This coin also circulated in the American Colonies, therefore US collectors also consider it an Early Colonial coin.

  • Very little is known about the origins of these coins, all of which carry the date 1760
  • Traditionally they have been attributed to a button maker named Roche, on South King Street, Dublin
    • Roche was, at that time, engaged in the manufacture of buttons for the army
    • He would have had the die-making skills + the raw materials to produce tokens like these
  • It is thought these coppers may have continued to be produced through 1761 using the 1760 dated dies
    • Roche died in October 1760, therefore someone else must have produced them after this time
      • This supports the theory that more than one hand was involved in their production
        • An Edward Barry imprisoned once and publicly ‘whipped’ twice for producing these illegal coppers
        • Perhaps he didn’t learn his lesson and continued into 1761
        • Or, perhaps it was some else !
  • It is generally assumed their production ceased by 1762 when the regal 1760 coppers finally arrived
    • In August, 1760, the Lord Mayor, John Tew, issued a proclamation stating that being informed

“that several copper smiths, tinkers and other persons have been and are now engaged in different parts of the city and the suburbs thereof in forming of base metal into an imitation of the copper half-pence current through this Kingdom”

  • But, it appears both the ‘regal’ and ‘Voce Populi’ copper coins continued to circulate in Ireland (at least for a while)

Over time these issues were supplemented with regal George III Irish halfpence (produced in 1766, 1769, 1774-1776 and 1781-1782) and many lightweight counterfeit and imitation Irish copper coins.

  • The obverse displays a male bust wearing a laurel wreath (personification of the people) with the motto Voce populi (By the voice of the people).
  • The obverse shows the seated figure of Hibernia with a harp and the legend “Hibernia” above, the date in exergue.
  • Several varieties are most easily distinguished by the different punctuation or designs that accompanies the legends
    • Small letters / Large letters
    • Long bust / Short bust / Boy-ish head (obverse)
    • No P on obverse / The letter P in front of the face / The letter P under the Bust
      • The meaning of this has not yet been satisfactorily explained
  • All the coins are composed of copper and are dated 1760
    • Nelson originally listed 6 design types in 1904/05 but this has been extended as most collectors use a Nelson ref. number
    • Zelinka (1976) listed 16 obverse dies and 11 reverse dies that are found in up to 16 combinations
      • He has also listed five different border designs

The now 17 different obverse design varieties suggest that there may have been more than one mint or individual producing these pieces, i.e. John Roche, Edward Barry, and “several copper smiths, tinkers and other persons” mentioned by Dublin’s Lord Mayor (John Tew) in his proclamation during August 1760.

  • At the most basic level, there are just two types to collect
    • the least expensive halfpenny and a farthing
    • these coins are not cheap, therefore it would be unfair to describe this as a “beginner’s” collection
1760 Voce Populi farthing & halfpenny (reverse)

Ireland 1760, Voce Populi farthing & halfpenny (reverse). Even to a beginner, the small differences in the reverse designs are quite noticeable, e,g, the number of strings in the harps

  • An intermediate collector might “hope” for …
    • 2 farthing types (small lettering + large lettering) albeit the small lettering farthing might be beyond budget
    • 5 halfpenny types
      • 2 halfpennies (“boyish” bust + normal “stern” bust
      • 2 additional halfpenny varieties (letter P in front of the face + letter P under the Bust – obverse)
      • 1 halfpenny error (VOOE instead of VOCE – obverse)
Nelson-9 (stern head)

The Voce Populi Nelson-9, or “stern head” is the most common obverse type, therefore this might be considered “normal” even though we are still not sure which of the obverse designs were actually first produced by John Roche, in Dublin

Basic varieties of the Irish 1760 Voce Populi Halfpenny - Nelson-1 (boy-ish head) + Nelson-11, P below Bust + Nelson-12, P in Front of Face

Basic varieties of the Irish 1760 Voce Populi Halfpenny – Nelson-1 (boy-ish head) + Nelson-11, P below Bust + Nelson-12, P in Front of Face

1760 Voce Populi Halfpenny. VOOE error 2

1760 Ireland Voce Populi Halfpenny. (Nelson 3)  VOOE error 2

  • An advanced collector might seek to accumulate 19 Voce Populi coins for their collection
    • 2 farthing types (small letter + large lettering)
    • plus as many of the 17 halfpenny (Nelson) obverse types
  • A specialist collector, with very deep pockets and a lot of patience … some of these types are exceedingly rare !
    • The more advanced, specialist collectors go for the 17 Nelson obverse types + all known ‘reverse die’ combinations
    • Before the recent discovery of the unique Nelson 17 variety, the Nelson-16 was the rarest of the Voce Populi halfpennies
      • only six examples are known to exist !
The recently discovered and unique Voce Populi halfpenny (Nelson-17) variety most closely resembles the Voce Populi variety identified as Nelson 4 and Zelinka 2-A. The established variety shares a reverse die with the new discovery, but the obverse on the new coin is from an entirely new die.

The recently discovered and unique Voce Populi halfpenny (Nelson-17) variety most closely resembles the Voce Populi variety identified as Nelson 4 and Zelinka 2-A. The established variety shares a reverse die with the new discovery, but the obverse on the new coin is from an entirely new die.

John Kraljevich, an expert in Colonial numismatics who is author of the monthly Coin World column “Colonial America” and a numismatic consultant for Stack’s Bowers, cataloged the new variety for the auction.

According to Kraljevich, the Nelson 17 variety most closely resembles the Voce Populi variety identified as Nelson 4 and Zelinka 2-A. The established variety shares a reverse die with the new discovery, but the obverse on the new coin is from an entirely new die, Kraljevich said.

“The head punch is quite tall, like Nelson-4, but shows distinctive details: thinner and more pointed leaves in the laurel, an extra curlicue curl between the two hair ribbons and the back of the neck, a more Roman style nose and higher, more prominent lips,” according to Kraljevich’s auction lot description for the Nelson 17 variety.

“The letter positions on the obverse are also distinctive, particularly notable at OP of POPULI, which is close together on Nelson-4 but shows a space between them on this new die. LI of POPULI are almost touching on Nelson-4 but show considerable space here. The tops of POPULI are also closer to the long denticles on this die than they are on Nelson-4.

“The reverse appears to be in a later state here, with the olive spray in a more abraded state, perhaps through die lapping or just wear. The quatrefoils are less crisp here than on Nelson-4, and the flaw left of the date appears more prominent.”

Although there is no numismatic evidence of them being ‘officially’ exported (in bulk) to the American Colonies, they do seem to have circulated there and many American collectors include them as part of their ‘colonial’ or ‘pre-Declaration’ (of Independence) numismatic heritage, i.e. both Irish and American collectors collect them.  

With avid collectors on both sides of the Atlantic, the consequent excess of demand over supply is what makes these coins so expensive.

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Who was John Roche ?

According to the Dictionary of Irish Artists (1913), John Roche was “a metal-worker who lived at the Golden Heart, Usher Street, Usher’s Quay, and afterwards in King Street, off St Stephen’s Green, Dublin”.  Their entry for John Roche goes on to say the following …

  • In 1738 he did a medal of Dean Swift.
    • This medal, which is cast and roughly executed, bears a medallion bust of the Dean supported by Hibernia with her shield and spear, a Gorgon shield lying near her, and by History who crowns the bust with a laurel wreath. Above is a winged figure with a crescent on her forehead, and near her an infant Genius with a palm branch. Below is a scroll inscribed REV. I. SWIFT. D.S.P.D. (the Reverend Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin).
    • On reverse is Hibernia seated, leaning upon a harp and holding an olive branch; ships, flocks and herds appear in the distance. On exergue, MDCCXXXVIII, and the artist’s initials I. R. FECIT (see “Medallic Illustrations” published by the British Museum, Vol. II, p. 525). The head of Swift is copied from the portrait engraved by P. Simms (q.v.) in Swift’s “Works,” published in 1734.
  • Roche also issued a medal commemorating the taking of Portobello by Admiral Vernon, signed I. R. Dublin.
    • It is an imitation of one of Pinchbeck’s.
      • There are over 250 varieties known for medals of Admiral Vernon
      • Vernon achieved fame when he made good of his boast that he “could take Porto Bello, the key to the Spanish defences in the Western Hemisphere, with six ships only”
  • One of the medals commemorating the Convention of El Pardo in 1739, by which Spain agreed to compensate British merchants and shipowners, signed J. R. is probably his.

Roche in 1741 applied to the Dublin Society for its encouragement and help in the making of “Birmingham ware” which he had introduced into Ireland.

  • Members of the Society were deputed to inspect “the engines and instruments” set up by him in his house in Usher’s Quay, and they reported that they “saw his men go through the whole work of making buckles, buttons, etc., from mixing the metal in the furnace and cutting them and, after stamping, filing the edges, drilling, polishing and finishing the same.”
  • They also reported that he had “furnished himself with all the utensils and conveniences from Birmingham, and brought with him thence several workmen and apprentices.”
  • As a result the Society voted him fifty pounds “for his encouragement.”

In an advertisement issued by him from the Golden Heart in March, 1747, he describes himself as the “only person in this Kingdom who makes all sorts of gilt, silver and plated coat buttons for gentlemen’s wear, metal buttons for livery, gilt and metal sleeve-buttons, iron, steel and metal shoe-buckles and other kinds of hardware” (“Faulkner’s Journal,” 28th February, 3rd March, 1746-7).

In the same year he petitioned the Irish Parliament, praying for encouragement in the manufacture of hardware; and in 1759, in response to a further appeal to the Dublin Society for help in carrying on his manufacture of Birmingham ware, the Society lent him one hundred pounds.

  • In 1760 there was such a scarcity of copper money in Ireland that, to meet the want of small change, a quantity of base coin was manufactured and put into circulation in Dublin.
  • This gave an opportunity to Roche to issue copper half-pence and farthings which, being of good metal, were generally received in preference to the wretched stuff then in circulation.
  • This coinage consisted of a series of half-pence and farthings which, from the inscription upon them, are known as the “Voce Populi” coinage.
    • On the 29th August, 1760, the Lord Mayor, John Tew, issued a proclamation stating that being informed “that several copper smiths, tinkers and other persons have been and are now engaged in different parts of the city and the suburbs thereof in forming of base metal into an imitation of the copper half-pence current through this Kingdom,” a reward would be given for bringing the offenders to justice.
    • One Edward Barry was committed to Newgate, and in November was sentenced to stand twice in the pillory with a paper denoting his crime fixed on his breast and back.
      • This seems to support Zelinka’s theory that ” there may have been more than one mint or individual producing these pieces” and that of other observers that the “short bust” varieties bear the letter P” “may have been contemporary counterfeits”
    • Roche’s apparatus for striking his coins was seized, but further proceedings against him were stayed by his death, which occurred in his house in King Street on 24th September, 1760.
    • In the notice of his death in “Faulkner’s Journal” (30th September – 4th October, 1760), he is described as “maker of the medals which have the words ‘Voce Populi’ thereon, now passing as half-pence in this city.” In his will, dated the day of his death, he describes himself as “of King Street, Stephen’s Green, Dublin, manufacturer of Hardware,” and left his wife Susanna his house and all his “work-tools and utensils in his manufactory and the mill and appurtenances thereunto belonging.”

NOTE: In Grueber’s “Medallic Illustrations of the History of Great Britain and Ireland,” 1885, and in Forrer’s “Biographical Dictionary of Medallists,” John Roche is erroneously named as “John Vernon Roche.”

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Further reading

Jerry Zelinka, “The Enigmatic Voce Populi Halfpenny of 1760,” The Colonial Newsletter 15 (October 1976, serial no. 47), 556-65, discusses the coin as well as describing and illustrating 16 different die combinations

Philip Nelson, The Coinage of Ireland in Copper, Tin and Pewter  (Liverpool, 1904 and 1905, reprinted: London: Spink, 1959)

Dowle and Finn, The Guide Book to the Coinage of Ireland, 1969

Peter Seaby, Coins and Tokens of Ireland, Seaby’s Standard Catalogue, Part 3, London: B.A. Seaby, 1970, pp. 143-144 and 81-83

Philip Mossman, “The Circulation of Irish Coinage in Pre-Federal America,” The Colonial Newsletter, vol. 39, no. 1 (April, 1999, serial no. 110) 1899-1917, on p. 1914 and figure 10 on p. 1915

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6 thoughts on “O’Brien Coin Guide: The Irish-American ‘Voce Populi’ Token Coinage of 1760

  1. Yet another set of tokens I’ve never come across before. Absolutely fascinating stuff !

    If a collector wanted a half reasonable example of one of the commonest examples from this series what would it currently cost them?

    Like

  2. Thank you for such a thorough article about these Irish tokens. Details that you discuss here were not available for us collectors back in the 1970s. Prices for the Voce Populi tokens have escalated at a remarkable rate since then. Alas, I sold my entire Voce Populis decades ago to Richard Picker of New York. Regards, Jerry Zelinka.

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    • Many thanks for your kind comments. Without pioneering students of the Voce Populi series (such as your good self), people like me would not be motivated or enabled to promote the collecting of these fascinating tokens. I found your original observations truly inspirational. Best regards, James

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