The execution of King Charles I in 1649, the end of the English Civil War in 1651, the horrors of the Great Plague in 1665-66 and the Great Fire of London in 1666 affected people’s daily lives in many ways beyond the political and revolutionary turmoil, the huge numbers of dead and the utter destruction.

Several years previously, the Mint had ceased to produce farthings (quarter-penny) and half-pennies had become incredibly small and easily lost, which severely affected shopkeepers’ trading activities, particularly bakers, grocers, butchers and coffee houses. In addition, the King had declared that coins should only be produced from silver, as anything less was ‘beyond his dignity’. As a result, there was an acute shortage of small change.

Shopkeepers accepted credit from the gentry, but not from the man or woman in the street. So, they took matters into their own hands and, technically illegally, employed travelling minters to produce farthing and half-penny copper or brass alloy tokens of their own design for local, low-value transactions; a system based on bartering and trust. In an age when many were illiterate, tokens featured recognisable symbols of a shopkeeper’s trade, as well as initials and surnames, face values and, if relevant, coats of arms. If the shopkeeper had a wife, her first initial often appeared. After customers accumulated a sufficient number of tokens, they exchanged them with shopkeepers for a silver coin, e.g. one shilling (5p). The tokens offer fascinating insights into a long-lost age.

William Buckoke's half-penny trade token, 1667, courtesy of Rare Coins and TokensWilliam Buckoke's half-penny trade token, 1667, courtesy of Rare Coins and Tokens

Some of Watford’s shopkeepers’ trades can easily be identified from their tokens by a symbol that generally appears within a beaded circle. For example, Edward Ewer’s 1666 half-penny token bears a glove. He was a glover. William Buckoke’s half-penny token of 1667 bears a hat. He was a hatter. The Mercers’ arms appear on William Whittaker’s tokens; an indication of his membership of The Mercers’ Company. He likely traded in fine imported cloth. Amongst the less obvious are a Turk’s head, representing a coffee house; a loaf of sugar for a greengrocer; a clove for a grocer; and a bible for a bookshop.

John Neale’s 1664 Watford half-penny token bears a row of ‘sticks’, which are candles. He was a tallow chandler. A dove with an olive branch also represents a tallow chandler and features on The Tallow Chandlers’ Company’s coat of arms.

George Brockett's half-penny trade token, 1668, courtesy of Rare Coins and TokensGeorge Brockett's half-penny trade token, 1668, courtesy of Rare Coins and Tokens

George Brockett’s 1668 half-penny Watford token features a swan. He was innkeeper of the Swan in Lower High Street.

John Morse was a puritan preacher in Watford whose half-penny alloy trade token from 1666, the year of the Great Plague, reveals his ingenuity. A skeleton with an arrow in its right hand and an hourglass in its left hints that death awaits, whilst Mors is the Latin noun for death; a pun on his surname. ‘IM’ represents Iohannes Morse in Latin.

John Morse's half-penny trade token, 1666, courtesy of Rare Coins and TokensJohn Morse's half-penny trade token, 1666, courtesy of Rare Coins and Tokens

Kenneth Jones, a local historian I well remember, who was writing into his 90s, noted in his publication More About Watford that the Rev. Burget issued a token for a half-penny. Mr Jones wondered: ‘Did many turn up in the church collections?’

Ralph Feild (sic) was a Bushey ‘tobaccerman’, whose half-penny token of 1669 bears three long clay pipes. A 1669 half-penny token of Will Litchfield, also of Bushey, has a lion rampant with an arrow in its front right paw and a spanner in its rear right paw, whilst John Pile and a malt shovel appear on the obverse. Graham Bailey and Grant Longman’s Bushey Then and Now booklet No. 6 indicates that the pair may have been joint landlords of an earlier Red Lion inn on the site of the present public house.

Will Litchfield and John Pile's half-penny trade token, 1669, courtesy of Rare Coins and TokensWill Litchfield and John Pile's half-penny trade token, 1669, courtesy of Rare Coins and Tokens

The closest I came to finding something parallel was many years ago in my parents’ Oxhey garden. A very small worn thick lead seal with identical coats of arms on either side, a shield and barrel, supported by two squirrels with indecipherable legends above and below.

After an internet search, I discovered they were the Kilmarnock Coat of Arms from Ayrshire, connected to the Earl of Kilmarnock and the Boyd family, bearing the crest ‘Confido’ (I trust).

In more recent times I decided to investigate further, after all my husband Bob hails from Ayrshire!

The Museum Development Officer of the East Ayrshire Leisure Trust advised me that such seals date from the 16th century – the time of the creation of Kilmarnock as a Burgh of Barony. As my seal has fairly smooth edges, she believed it was machine cast in the 19th century and used to tie a goods bag before being dispatched on its 400-mile journey south. I wonder who the recipient of the goods bag was and who lost or discarded the seal in the then-dog rose-covered fields in Oxhey, near Watford Heath, long before they were developed in the mid-1930s.

So, next time you’re gardening, look out for what might be lying beneath your feet!

With thanks to Lyndsay C. Jess, Museum Development Officer, East Ayrshire Leisure Trust; and Glen Ward, Rare Coins and Tokens,

  • Lesley Dunlop is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.