The Spanish dollar or ‘piece of eight’ reales counter-struck ‘5 shillings & 5 pence’ for use in trading by the Castle Comer Colliery, in Co Kilkenny, is the only silver crown-sized piece issued in Ireland by a private commercial entity. They were produced on behalf of Anne, Duchess of Ormonde – the wife of the seventeenth Earl of Ormonde, John Butler. Her real name was Susan Frances Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of the Earl Wandesford. She married John Butler in February 1769 and survived her husband, her son, and her daughter-in-law, before she herself died in Dublin in April 1830. She was known as Anne and she was the Dowager Countess described by Mr. J. G. Robertson of Kilkenny to his friend, Dr Aquilla Smith in his article of 1855.
It was said, at the time, that she …
- “not wishing to lose by the depreciated value of Spanish dollars of which she had at that time a large number, caused all she had to be stamped with the legend ‘Castle Comer Colliery, 5 shillings and five pence’. Coals to that amount being given for them at the pits, Kilkenny traders used to take them in exchange for their commodities knowing that they could give them afterwards to colliers in payment for coals.”
These tokens are interesting insofar as most of the previous tokens were issued to make up for the lack of small change, e.g. the 17th C Tradesmens’ Tokens. These tokens belong to an era of a shortage of specie (silver and gold) – a time when the Royal Mint was unable to acquire sufficiently large amounts of bulk silver to mint sufficient coinage for the British economy – an economy that was struggling to implement the recently passed Act of Union. Trade and commerce were being strangled by the inability to transact business.
- One solution was to issue paper and there is a myriad of early Irish banknotes issued by small, private banks with insufficient capital to do so (and, consequently, these were failing at an alarming rate)
- Another solution was for the Bank of Ireland to issue tokens of its own in good silver
- The Bank of England ‘counter-marked’ foreign silver (crown-sized coins)
- Then, private merchants issued their own ‘counter-marked’ foreign coins
- Many Scottish and English companies did so
- Castlecomer Colliery was the only Irish entity to do so
Known Dates of Donor Coins
They are known to exist for the following (donor coin) dates – 1774, 1789, 1791, 1796, 1798, 1799, 1801, 1804 and 1808.
- Dr. Smith had one dated 1798 (authored a paper on the subject in 1855)
- S. A. H . Whetmore had one dated 1789 (authored a paper on the subject in 1963)
- Captain Paget, whose collection was sold in 1944, had four specimens dated respectively 1774, 1791, 1801, and 1808
- Bliss (1916) and Thelluson (1931) each had a coin dated 1801
- Thelluson had a second specimen dated 1804
- Cokayne (1946) had a dollar dated 1799 and Napier (1956) another dated 1796
It is thought Countess Ormonde (or her agents) had exchanged a large number of Spanish dollars. This might suggest that her tokens were ‘counter-marked’ some time after 1808 – but how far after 1808?
- And, if she was issuing these tokens over a number of years, how far before 1808?
When were they issued?
As always with coins of this nature, it is not the number issued that determines rarity, but the number that survive. At that time, and for a long time after, acute shortages of quality ‘specie’ coin of good weight meant that many coins went into the melting pot and were re-used or re-cycled as new coins, bullion bars or other forms of storing wealth. In 1965, W.A. Seaby reckoned there were the following numbers extant: 1779 (1), 1790 (1), 1796 (1), 1797 (1), 1798 (2), 1799 (2), 1801 (3), 1803 (1), 1804 (3 – all being counter-struck on donor coins originally minted at Mexico City or the Lima mint in Peru.
The Bank of Ireland, like the Bank of England, had suspended specie payment from early in 1797, and in March 1804 the Post Office decided no longer to accept counterfeit coin which had been passing as currency in the absence of regal money. Country, as well as Dublin, banks and business houses had therefore been compelled to issue silver notes (permitted by an Irish Act of 1799) which were payable on demand in Bank of Ireland notes. Thus, the business case or economic necessity for such tokens would have existed after 1804.
Michael Dolley, independently, suggested that the tokens probably date from 1804 onwards on the basis that Aquilla Smith’s original manuscript (then in the National Museum of Ireland) stated that “This token was used for paying the miners of the colliery during the late war probably about the year 1804.”
The hesitations and delays of the authorities in dealing with the shortage of metallic currency at the time are well known, but on the 24th of July 1812, the Royal Assent was given to “An Act to prevent the issuing and circulating of Pieces of Gold and Silver or other metal, usually called Tokens, except such as are issued by the Banks of England and Ireland” (52 Geo. Il l c. 127). A further Act prohibiting the manufacture of private tokens occur in 1813, and their circulation finally became illegal on 20 December 1814.
- This would suggest that the Castlecomer tokens were ‘counter-struck’ between 1808 and 1812
- However, using coins Spanish dollars dated before 1812 would have made ‘detection’ of those counter-struck after 12th July 1812 very difficult indeed, so the cut-off date of 1812 is still subject to conjecture.
- Furthermore, since various banks, mills and collieries issued such tokens at different dates between c. 1787 and 1823 an issue date beyond 1814 is still possible.
- From September 1814 to the reinstatement of regal currency in 1816-17, the price of silver began to fall
- Apart from legislation banning their issue and circulation (use as currency), economic conditions were less favourable for the issue of private tokens after that period.
- Due to separate monetary systems in Ireland and Great Britain, the almost universal use in the south of Ireland of paper currency both for gold and silver, and the fluctuations in the exchange rate between Dublin and London, it is likely that if the Castlecomer tokens were issued as late as 1815 they would have been short-lived.
- The value of five shillings and five pence is interesting because an English shilling was then valued at 13 pence, or 1 shilling and 1 penny Irish – therefore, 5 shillings and 5 pence Irish is equal to 5 English shillings, or a crown. The Castlecomer token being crown-sized, and of good silver content, might have been valued at 5 English shillings.
Similar counter-strikes over Spanish coins exist for various towns in England and Scotland around about the same time, including several collieries. Most seem to have been struck for cotton wills or merchants and their value ranged from 4 shillings & 9 pence to 5 shillings and 6 pence – which might reflect the value of an ounce of silver at the time of counter-striking.
- Percy Main Colliery, Northumberland (then owned by the Duke of Northumberland)
- Alloa Colliery, Clackmannanshire
Some even issued fractions of these donor coins and they are also highly collectible, e.g. one third of an 8 reale piece, valued at 1/8 (20 pence = one third of 60 pence = five shillings).
Is there a link between Castlecomer Colliery and those in the North of Britain during this period of specie scarcity, at a time when payment of industrial workers and colliers presented such logistical monetary problems to their employers? During the 1760’s the first Duke of Northumberland had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and he, like all Lords Lieutenants before and after him, entertained the upper echelons of Irish society at the Viceregal Lodge in Dublin. In her early days as a debutante, the eligible young heiress Susan Frances Elizabeth Wandesford would have met both of the Duke’s sons: Algernon, about her own age, and the older Hugh, a soldier, who was later to become second Duke, owner of vast estates in the north of Britain and proprietor of several collieries in the county of Northumberland.
- It may not be coincidental that the tokens for five shillings issued at the Percy Main colliery are very close in style to those of Castlecomer, and it has been suggested that “the same hand way well have been responsible for the two punches”
Whetmore, on the other hand, has suggested that Job Hart Price-Clarke (father of the girl who married the eighteenth Earl of Ormonde and apparently both a trustee and agent of the earl, 1806-10), coming from Sutton-cum-Duckmanton in Derbyshire, must have known Richard Arkwright, who was lord of the manor there, and who issued counter-marked Spanish dollars at the Cromford cotton yarn mill in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If it was Hart Price-Clarke who advised Lady Ormonde on the similar use of her foreign silver – presumably it could have been as early as 1804 when arrangements were being settled for the marriage between his daughter and the earl which took place on 17th March 1805.
Why were they issued?
A contemporary reporter (Tighe), mentions that Bank of Ireland tokens for 6s, over-struck on Spanish dollars were used as a form of payment, and that the import by individuals, mainly from Liverpool of un-stamped dollars, which were also used in transactions according to their weight
- the price of silver which depended on Government buying for the Army going abroad, or the demand when ships of the East India Company were sailing (coincidentally, one Castlecomer token has allegedly been found as far away as Hong Kong)
- During Tighe’s visit, he stated that these dollars passed for anything from 6d. up to 4s & 11 d, so handsome profits could be made.
- It is possible they were counter-marked with 5s & 5d to protect her from a fall in the price of silver
The Bank of Ireland had been doing a similar thing to Spanish coins between 1804-13, so the idea of re-using Spanish dollars was not new.
- In order to comply with the laws banning “the imitation of coins of the realm” they used different denominations, e.g. 5d, 10d and 6/- instead of the more usual British silver 6d, 1/- and 5/- coins in circulation.
- In addition to this, the Bank of Ireland sent their Spanish dollar coins to the Royal Mint to have them over-struck and the ‘under-type’ is occasionally visible.
- The Castlecomer token is a counter-strike and was done privately.
- They probably would have only circulated within a certain radius of Castlecomer / Kilkenny City.
The Countess was known for her altruistic gestures:
- Mason in his Statistical Survey published in 1802 wrote “Castlecomer has 211 houses: many of them good and slated: part of this town was burnt during the late rebellion and has been rebuilt in a handsome manner; the principal part of the town is one very broad street well built. A barrack for infantry has been begun above the town, estimated at about £4,000 and a new market house is about to be erected by Lady Ormonde.”
- A few years before 1814 a new road was constructed from the Castle Comer collieries to Carlow, the cost of which was raised by public subscription to which Lady Ormonde contributed £1,000
- A contemporary writer remarked “I am happy in having this opportunity of expressing my admiration of the liberal manner in which this lady at all times supports every project which may tend to the benefit of the country. To make her neighbours and tenants comfortable and happy and to improve the surrounding country by every means in her power, appear the noble and patriotic boundary of Lady Ormonde’s wishes and exertions.”
It has been suggested that she may have issued these tokens “to right the exploitation of her own miners by the local tradesfolk, than to benefit herself, that the Countess brought her stock of dollars into public service and demanded that they pass for their true value in Irish currency.” By all accounts, these references to Lady Ormonde give the impression of a competent lady genuinely interested in using her position and means to restore and develop the district in which she lived. Her tokens, being of good weight and quality would have been a scarce commodity at that time – small wonder so few seem to have survived.
How many were issued?
There seems to have been at least two ‘die stamps’ used.
- Type 1
- Curved top to the first 5 and the same to the second but turning upwards a little more at the tip, narrow opening to loops below
- Small “d” for pence with long downward pointed tail and the lower part of the letter sloping upwards to right; the margin of the countermark consisting of a series of radiating grooves divided by fine lines to give a cusped edge
- Surface of stamp mark convex.
- Type 2
- Shallower curved tops to both 5s., wide opening to loops below
- Small “d” for pence with shorter tail and the lower part of letter turned slightly to left
- Serrated edge to countermark
- Surface of stamp mark flat.
In his book “Tokens of the Industrial Revolution: foreign silver coins countermarked for use in Great Britain c. 1787-1828” Harrington E. Manville suggest that these are the same die “worn over time” but I am still not entirely convinced of this – see comments from Eric Hodges and myself below.
In his article for the British Numismatic Society in 1965, W.A. Seaby suggested that there were
- 14 donor coins with Type 1 die stamped counter-strikes
- plus 1 19th C counterfeit
- 4 donor coins with Type 2 die stamped counter-strikes
- plus 1 reported specimen but ‘whereabouts’ unknown
Obviously, a few more have been discovered since then but modern forgeries do exist
- so be careful if offered one from an unreliable source, e.g. an eBay seller with little or no history or someone claiming to know little about coins but is asking ‘top dollar’ for their sale.
Boyne, W., Silver Tokens of Great Britain and Ireland, 1866
Davis, W. J., Nineteenth Century Token Coinage, 1904
Manville, Harrington E., Tokens of the Industrial Revolution: foreign silver coins countermarked for use in Great Britain c. 1787-1828 (Spink)
Seaby, W.A., Castlecomer Tokens: An Inquiry, 1965 (Pamphlet. Kilkenny Irish History)
Smith, Aquilla, ‘Catalogue of Silver Tokens issued in Ireland’, Proceedings and Transactions of the Kilkenny and South-eastern Archaeological Society, 4 July 1855
Whetmore, S. A. H., ‘The Castlecomer Colliery Token’, The British Numismatic Journal vol. XXXI, 1963, p. 152-158