O’Brien Rare Coin Review: The Castlecomer Colliery Tokens


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.

Contemporary Issues 

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.

  • England
    • Percy Main Colliery, Northumberland (then owned by the Duke of Northumberland)
  • Scotland
    • 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).

Countermarked coinage. Bute, Rothesay. Rothsay Mills. Silver One Shilling & Eightpence (34x20mm, 8.30 g). Struck early 19th century. · PAYABLE AT ROTHSAY MILLS in annular cartouche around 1/8 in circular cartouche countermarked on a cut one-third of a Mexican 8 Reales dated [179]2 [Mo] FM. For countermark: Manville p. 183, 96; Boyne, William. "The Silver tokens of Great Britain and Ireland, the Dependencies, and Colonies," (London, 1866), pl. 3, 11

Countermarked coinage. Bute, Rothesay. Rothsay Mills. Silver One Shilling & Eightpence (34x20mm, 8.30 g). Struck early 19th century. · PAYABLE AT ROTHSAY MILLS in annular cartouche around 1/8 in circular cartouche countermarked on a cut one-third of a Mexican 8 Reales dated [179]2 [Mo] FM. For countermark: Manville p. 183, 96; Boyne, William. “The Silver tokens of Great Britain and Ireland, the Dependencies, and Colonies,” (London, 1866), pl. 3, 11

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 Castlecomer token - over-struck on a Spanish dollar or ‘piece of eight’ reales, dated 1796. Counter-struck ‘5 shillings & 5 pence’ for use in trading by the Castle Comer Colliery, in Co Kilkenny

A Castlecomer token – over-struck on a Spanish dollar or ‘piece of eight’ reales, dated 1796. Counter-struck ‘5 shillings & 5 pence’ for use in trading by the Castle Comer Colliery, in Co Kilkenny. Type 1 die stamp.

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 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.
    • Castlecomer Token, Type 1 die stamp on a 1796 donor coin (cusped edges)

      Castlecomer Token, Type 1 die stamp on a 1796 donor coin (cusped edges), 22 floral decorations inside the legend.

  • 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.
    • Castlecomer Token, Type 2 die stamp on an 1801 donor coin (serrated edges)

      Castlecomer Token, Type 2 die stamp on an 1801 donor coin (serrated edges), 25 floral decorations inside the legend.

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


9 thoughts on “O’Brien Rare Coin Review: The Castlecomer Colliery Tokens

  1. A wonderful and informative article that takes me back to when I worked in the Irish mining industry helping to set-up the lead and zinc mines at Galmoy and Lisheen. Working in the international mining industry onene of my primary areas of token collecting and interests has always been British mining related checks, tallies and tokens. Needles to say I’ve always wanted one of these tokens for my collection. Unfortunately their rarity and the comparative shallowness of my pockets has always prevented this. Whilst living in Kilkenny for a couple of years I did see a couple of these tokens in private hands in Castlecomer, It was great to see them still in their home town after all the years that have past.


    • I’ve never actually bought or sold one !
      But I’ve been offered several fakes, which I did not buy.

      With coins of this rarity and value, its best to say “I cannot buy this coin at the moment” and recommend they go to a reputable auction house (to whom I delegate the unenviable task of advising them of the “problems” with their suspect coin). In my experience, people do not like to hear “bad news” from a coin dealer and often get quite abusive in their defence of their hitherto “priceless rarity” and this can be off-putting for other customers in the shop.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Mr. O’Brien I read, with great interest, your article ‘Rare Coin Review: The Castlecomer Colliery Tokens’. I found the history you related fascinating. I was, however, amazed that you had not included in your ‘References’ the seminal book on the subject ‘Tokens of the Industrial Revolution’ by Harrington E. Manville published in London by Spink and the British Numismatic Society in 2001. I can send you by email the relevant pages of this book if you so wish. Manville gives a potted history of the Colliery and a list of the tokens known at publication. Manville lists 4 types, type 1 being believed genuine and types 2, 3 & 4 believed false. In your article you give as Type 2 an 1801 example. This example is believed a type 1 with the 1796 you cite as a type 1 as well. Manville believed both these examples were from the same die, maybe worn over time. Currently the numbers believed extant, from photos, are~:-
    Type 1 = 22, Type 2 = 5, Type 3 = 6, Type 4 = 1.
    If I can supply any further details I would be only too happy.
    Eric Hodge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks for your comments (I always welcome constructive criticism).

      I omitted the excellent reference book because it deals mostly with British coins and there were so few Irish counter-strikes at this time. However, with respect to your opinion, I have now included a reference to this guide in both my article and on my Irish Tokens page.

      With regard to Manville’s suggestion that the 1796 and 1801 examples shown are from the same die (maybe worn over time), I disagree with his conclusion.

      1. The floral ornamentation inside the legend of the counter-stamp differs (1796-22 and 1801-25). Assuming the 1796 example was counter-struck first, it seems unusual that an additional 3 floral decorations would appear later. If the die was worn over time, the floral devices would fade and disappear. This is, of course, assuming that the 1801 coin is a later counter-strike. With only 5 years in the difference, both coins could have been still circulating in, for example, 1810.

      2. The number of horizontal lines also differ in number, i.e. the 1796 example has 33, whereas the 1801 example has 35. Once again, I would expect lines to fade and disappear over the lifetime of a die – not increase in number. Once again, I am assuming the 1796 example was counter-struck first.

      Of course, a die could have been modified, repaired or otherwise altered over its lifetime. We have no confirmed mintage figures – only those that survived the 19th C melting pots. How long would one of these dies survived? That would depend upon the volume of coins being counter-struck and the number of coins in each batch (assuming there were multiple batches ordered).

      What are your thoughts on these die variances?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Eric,

      I have larger sized images on my Pinterest gallery for each of the two coins
      1796 coin https://www.pinterest.com/pin/335096028500063143/
      1796 counter-strike https://www.pinterest.com/pin/335096028500965791/
      1801 coin https://www.pinterest.com/pin/335096028500063158/
      1801 counter-strike https://www.pinterest.com/pin/335096028500965802/

      The 1801 donor coin is, in my opinion, showing slightly more wear from circulation than the 1796 example. This would suggest that the 1796 coin was not as long in circulation. However, the counter-strike is deemed to have been “worn flat” and this would suggest that it was counter-struck “before” the 1801 example and would have circulated longer with the counter-strike.

      This makes Mr Manville’s conclusions possible, but the wear may be due to the post-striking shape of the donor coin due to warping, i.e. Seaby describes the counter-mark as convex, therefore the excessive wear may have happened within a shorter period due to the shape of the coin. My biggest concern is how the “serrated” edges of the counter-stamp could have worn down to “cusped” with a line in between.

      I am not entirely convinced that these are from the same die but since I am unlikely to ever get an opportunity to examine them side by side, I’d be very interested in reading Mr Manville’s account of “why” he believes they are from the same die.

      Best regards


      Liked by 2 people

      • Dear James. Thank you for your emails and excellent photos. You have set me quite a task. I have looked at all the photos I have of the 22 known examples. 20 of them have 25 floral ornamentations. On the other 2 the strike is weak leaving some flowers not struck up. What flowers that can be counted adhere in all respects to the normal 25 in position compared to the outer lettering. I believe that your 1796 is such an example that has not been a good strike so three flowers are not struck up. All the remaining flowers are in the ‘normal’ position. On the subject of lines (accepting that my eyesight may be suspect with age!) I find that each coin has 36 lines, though I admit some photos are not the best. However I am sure that your 1796 and 1801 have 36 lines. Sadly Mr. Manville died earlier this year, so we shall not be able to discuss the matter with him. I believe, however, that in general he considered a worn die or a poor strike before deciding an example was a new die.
        Best wishes. Eric.


      • Hello Eric,

        Many thanks for studying your extensive photo archive. Firstly, having re-examined enlarged images of the 1796 and 1801 donor coins, I agree with you that each coin has 36 lines and I also agree with you that each of the florets correspond to one another on the two coins – excepting the three that are missing. Based on these two observations, the two coins may have counter-struck with the same die.

        Your email encouraged me to re-examine both of my images – this time ‘side by side’ and with enlarged (200%) views. The 1801 example is the clearer of the two. I have a few questions based on my observations …

        a) There seems to be a difference in the “R” of COMER – the “R” in the 1801 example is serifed, whereas the “R” in the 1796 example is not. Coincidentally, this “R” is adjacent to the missing florets, so this could be due to a worn die as you assert (supported by Mr Mandeville’s conclusions. See attachment 1.

        b) There also seems to be a difference in the “CO” in COLLIERY – again, this is in the vicinity of the lowest of the missing florets, so this too could be down to die wear on the 1796 example. See attachment 2.

        c) Based on the two observations above, am I correct is assuming that the 1796 donor coin has the counter-strike with the ‘worn die’?

        d) My biggest concern is the lack of an “oval rim” around the outside of the legend on the 1796 example, plus the surrounding indentations outside this rim, i.e. the rim is missing on the (apparently) ‘earlier’ 1796 example and the neat oval of indentations is also missing.

        – my understanding of a worn die is that detail erodes and disappears with time (usage)
        – these two features seem to appear, not disappear.
        – do you think that this IS wear ? Or, could these design elements have been ADDED to the worn die so as to improve its appearance ?
        – if a die was modified to this extent, is it considered the same die or is it altered sufficiently to be considered a variety ?

        Best regards
        and many thanks for taking such a keen interest in helping me



  3. Dear James. Thanks for the detailed response. As you advised I have studied both coins and countermarks at 200% magnification and agree with all your points of difference.
    If you look at the two c/m’s side by side, it can be seen that both have similar left hand lettering (‘Payable at Castle’) that is similar size and spread of the letters. The right side is not similar (Comer Colliery). There the 1801 coin has similar letters to its left side but the 1796 coin has thinner less spread out lettering.
    This, combined with your comments, leads me to believe that there was less pressure applied to the right side of the die on the 1796 coin so that it was not fully struck up, so that the right side lettering was not so spread. This could be due to the 1796 coin being slightly bent or misshapen so that the die did not strike all parts the same way. It could also be because the part of the die in question (the three missing flowers) is directly over the gap between the neck and shoulder and in front of the throat of Carolus IIII, thereby needing more pressure at that point to meet the host coin. The only point I can make about the rim is that on the 1801 host the strike is not perfect at 5 o’clock and 9 o’clock where the rim is once again over the edge of the king’s bust outline.
    So I believe the differences are due to pressure and angle of strike not to a worn die. If I had to say which example was most worn (so a later strike) I would say the 1801 host countermark, but it is very difficult to be certain.
    Thanks again for the opportunity to study these most interesting countermarks. Eric.


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