A few months ago I stumbled across something on the internet that really intrigued me. It was an article about tokens, money minted by private organisations to address a lack of low value coins in general circulation. Sounds riveting I know, but the reason it grabbed my attention is because I saw the mention of Walthamstow Tokens. As I dug deeper I found out more about the story of the Walthamstow penny and the company that made them. There are three times since 1600 that tokens have been issued, and in the 1800’s Walthamstow got in on the act. Low value coins such as pennies and halfpennies were vital to local economies, a fact that did not escape the British Copper Company, a business that had rolling mills and a workforce in Walthamstow. Tokens were not legal tender but were widely accepted in Walthamstow and the surrounding area. The British Copper Company issued pennies and half pennies between 1810 and 1814, and the coins started life right here in E17 at the mill that still stands on the edge of the marsh.
The copper was smelted in Landore in Wales before being sent to Walthamstow to be milled, it then travelled to a mint in Birmingham to be turned in to coins. Most of the tokens came back to the Lea Valley to be used locally, according to a folk tale many of them were redeemed in the Cock Tavern on the High Street, or Marsh Street as it was then. The tale goes that mill workers used so many of the tokens in the tavern, the British Copper Company had to send a cart to the pub every Monday Morning to collect the pennies and return them to the mill. I’m sure this isn’t true but it’s a nice bit of local colour. The mill closed in 1857 and was sold to the East london Waterworks company, it is still used as a storage facility by Thames water. It’s great that the mill that gives name to Coppermill Lane is still standing, and there are still Walthamstow pennies around too. I ended up finding one on Ebay, I won the bidding and a few days later my own Walthamstow token was delivered. I have no way of knowing what my token has been used for since it rolled of the presses in 1812, but I like to think that it was used to buy ale in the Chequers or Cock tavern. Perhaps it was used as payment at one of the dentists that extracted teeth on the market, or maybe used to buy a ticket for a night out at the long gone Palace Theatre.
As well as bolstering local economies the coins were also great advertising for the companies that issued them. Walthamstow tokens were shipped all over the place, some even went as far as Canada and were accepted as currency there. Tokens were finally made illegal in 1817 and by January of the following year they had all been removed from circulation. This wasn’t the end of our local currency, in 2012 designer Jonathan Thomas, AKA WalthamstowDad, created the Stowner and the bank of Walthamstow. The new currency was created as part of the E17 Art Trail and during the trail several businesses accepted the Stowner as currency, reviving the tradition started by the British Copper Company back in 1810.