Imagine this: prices are skyrocketing, in part because of import/export laws. People are finding it hard to afford bread. The country is deep in debt. What do you as a member of government do?
Have everyone bring in their coins and give them new ones.
Really, that’s what happened in 1816 and 1817 in England. The so-called Corn Laws were keeping the cost of grain artificially high and preventing other countries from bringing in grain at lesser prices. Things were looking wobbly economically. Parliament in its wisdom decided the best way to stabilize the economy was to standardize the coinage, and to do that they needed new coins.
The Coin Act of 1816 ordered the Royal Mint to put forth new silver coins to replace the old ones. Master of the Mint, William Wellesley-Pole, older brother of the Duke of Wellington, came up with a daring plan. (He added the Pole part of his name as a requirement to receive his inheritance from a distant relative). He had to create new coins, get everyone in the entire country to trade out their old ones, and bring the old ones back for destruction.
Not easy by any imagining. Right away, he ran into trouble. To begin with, the Royal Mint had no record of the coins it had previously cast, so he had no examples on which to build. Joseph Banks, head of the Royal Society, gave him some old coins, and Wellesley-Pole started the Royal Mint Museum, which is still in operation today.
For another, the old coinage had been cast in such a way that the designs and denominations were rubbed off over time, until no one was sure what was worth what (one of the reasons Parliament wanted to have new money minted). Wellesley-Pole used the latest engraving and printing processes.
Then there was the fact that Parliament wanted him to keep this whole endeavor strictly secret until it was time to redistribute the coins. (You can imagine how robbers eyes would gleam if it were known new coins were being transported around the country.)
Finally, there was the matter of the Prince Regent. He had to approve the design of each type of coin. To ensure success, Wellesley-Pole contracted with the great Italian engraver, Benedetto Pistrucci to design the faces of the coins. And they were literally faces—then as now, English coins carried a bust of the reigning monarch. Normally, Pistrucci would have had his subject sit for him to create the bust, but King George wasn’t in any shape to comply. (He was quite mad at this point.) So, Pistrucci set up the coin based on other portraits. Shall we say, they were not his finest work? His initial design has been dubbed the “bull head George” (the coin at the top of the post). I’m sure you can see why. It was roundly criticized, and another design prevailed. This St. George and the Dragon was used then and in 1915, as shown on the coin.
Wellesley-Pole also prevailed. He managed to have cast new silver coins and a new gold coin, the sovereign, which was worth 20 shillings as opposed to the new defunct guinea, which was worth 21 shillings. He also had cast crowns and half crowns. All coins were cast to specific standards, bagged and crated, and distributed by 1,000 agents through banks all over Britain.
The effort at last met with high success. Approximately 57 million coins were exchanged, with no robberies and no riots, over the course of two weeks. And the coins remained in circulation until 1971.
Well done, Wellesley-Pole, well done. I’m happy to recount your triumph.