Garys March Coin of the Month (Volume 3 Number 7) features a copper NGC AU-58 1790s 1/2 penny Conder Token (D and H-36D).
During the late 18th Century, the widespread use of merchant tokens in the United Kingdom filled a void left by the government's failure to mint enough coins for commerce. These tokens provided an effective means for merchants to advertise their wares or in the case of this token, propagate a political cause.
Now lets say that you owed a debt you could not pay. The worst thing that could happen to you is that you will lose your home. Furthermore, you may even have to file for bankruptcy. However, if you lived in the late 18th Century you could be looking at a prison sentence until your debt was paid in full.
Consequently, since incarceration in debtors prison directly affected your ability to earn money, you may well be serving a long sentence. Because 18th Century prisons were privately run, you also had to pay a prison fee. So with the prison fees added to your original debt, your debt only compounded. Because of the capriciousness and injustice of this system, English philanthropist John Howard advocated for prison reform.
Another of those 18th Century philanthropists was a print shop owner by the name of William Gye from the City of Bath in southwest England. In 1794, William Gye issued a token bringing attention to the poor conditions of the imprisoned debtors he visited weekly at Ilchester Gaol (gaol is British for prison). From his print shop in Bath, William Gye took donations to aid the debtors in prison and distributed his tokens as change.
As the movement for prison reform began to catch fire, other merchants issued tokens using similar reverse devices to those of William Gyes original token. In all, there are some thirteen varieties of this Conder Token. My token without a date or identified merchant has as its edge inscription, Payable at London or Dublin. Given the distance between London and Dublin my token shows the extent and popularity of the prison reform movement in the United Kingdom.
The reverse of my token based on Gyes original design has as its central device a seated woman representing benevolence. Surrounding Benevolence is a number of jars representing plenty. Benevolence with her right arm stretched out towards the prison is directing a young boy with a key to open the prison door. In her left hand, she is holding an olive branch representing peace or specifically in this case, a paid debt. Underneath the prison window is a basket for express purpose of receiving donations from passer-bys. Overhead in rays of glory as if from God is the command to Go Forth. The legend inside a beaded circle and delimited by a small ornament reads, Remember the Debtors in Goal. As an aside, it interesting to note that the word gaol is misspelled goal on the token.
On the obverse of this token is a bust of prison reformer, John Howard F.R.S (Fellow of the Royal Society). The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge is a learned society for science of which John Howard was elected in 1756. Each member of the Royal Society has the right to use the initials F.R.S. after their name.
Born in 1726 John Howard grew up in a family of considerable wealth. Later he apprenticed as a wholesale grocer only to find himself deeply dissatisfied. As a young man devout in his faith and probably in search of his calling, John went on a grand tour of the European continent in 1748.
Then after the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, John Howard departed on a ship destined for Portugal only to be imprisoned when French privateers captured his ship. Subsequently, John returned to the United Kingdom in a prisoner exchange with France. Thus, it is likely that John Howard's experience as a prisoner had a profound impact on his life's work as a prison reformer.
Appointed as the High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773, John Howard found himself in a unique position to examine the conditions of the prisons under his charge and effect changes. Over time, John Howard visited hundreds of prisons across the United Kingdom and Europe, publishing his findings in a 1777 report entitled, The State of Prisons. On a number of occasions, the House of Commons called on John Howard to testify before a select committee. John continued his work as a reformer visiting prisons around the world and publishing his findings. He died in the Ukraine in 1790.
Upon news of his death, a large number of merchants chose to commemorate John Howard by featuring his bust on their tokens. These tokens heightened the publics awareness of the conditions in their prisons and in particular debtors prisons. Subsequently, the passage of the Debtors Act of 1869 and the Bankruptcy Act of 1883 ended the practice of imprisoning debtors altogether in the United Kingdom.
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