By Ron Drzewucki – Modern Coin Wholesale …..
If you’ve been keeping score at home, I’ve been going further and further back in time to find the oldest company around today that still manufactures or sells coins and bullion. I was doing it mostly because it’s fun, but it may offer precious metals investors some peace of mind to know that the company whose products they’re buying has been around a while.
Well, you can’t get much older than the British Royal Mint.
In 1986, the Royal Mint issued a bronze medal celebrating its 1,100th birthday. While no one can pinpoint a specific date or event when the Royal Mint was established or began production, 886 AD is when the English King Alfred the Great took control of the City of London and the documentation of mint history began.
(Minting had been going on in London for a lot longer than that–even before the Romans. We have the coins, we just don’t have the records.)
By sometime in the 13th century, the Royal Mint worked for the king (I’m not sure if it was before then, but I’d assume so). And by 1280, royal documents indicate that the Royal Mint had been moved to the Tower of London and new coining equipment was purchased. Because of this, it was known as the Tower Mint to contemporaries.
Also by this time, the first Master Moneyer of all England, William de Turnemire, had been appointed. He was, of course, ensconced at the Royal Mint.
By the early 16th century, the Royal Mint was the only game in town. As part of his battle against the Roman Catholic Church, Henry VIII closed down the last church-associated mints in 1540.
About 20 years later, Queen Elizabeth I hired the French moneyer Eloye Mestrelle to work for the Royal Mint. This is important because, being from France, Monsieur Mestrelle brought the knowledge of milled coinage to England. The Queen gave him the go-ahead to build England’s first-ever coin press. Mestrelle’s screw press worked conjointly with the traditional method of hammering coins for a handful of years under incrementally difficult circumstances (including the execution by hanging of a relative for counterfeiting!) until the Royal Mint came under new management that was more interested in fiscal responsibility than innovation.
In 1578, Mestrelle himself was hanged for counterfeiting.
Pressed or “milled” coinage wouldn’t be tried again at the Royal Mint until the 1630s under Charles I. But if you know your British history, then you might guess that a little thing called the English Civil War ended this second great experiment… which was also overseen by a frenchman, Nicholas Briot.
Yet a third French engineer, Peter Blondeau, worked for the Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell. And when Charles II was restored to the English throne during the creatively-named Restoration, it was Blondeau again who finally established milled coinage in Britain. The presses were assembled at the Royal Mint in 1662. The hammering method of coin production ceased in 1663.
Part of what drove the British to innovate (not that they were first, mind you; did you not see all those French names earlier?) was the arms race between counterfeiters and the authorities. Then, as now, most changes in money happen because forgers and counterfeiters have gotten too good at their job. This same drive lead the Royal Mint to hire the one-and-only Sir Isaac Newton as Warden and then Master of the Mint a few decades later.
Newton would serve the Royal Mint from 1696 through 1727. He stepped smack dab into the middle of a kingdom-wide recoinage, and not only accomplished the task but managed to do so in only three-years’ time. After this, Newton was, shall we say, obsessed with beating the counterfeiters, to the point of personally going undercover to the seedy publican houses of the day to flush them out.
If ever a movie screamed out for Johnny Depp to star in and Tim Burton to direct, it’s Isaac Newton: Mint Police! Imagine what he’d do with the alchemy…
Fast forward over 100 years, and in the 1810s the Royal Mint has moved from inside the Tower of London to a nearby property on Tower Hill. The move allowed for the construction of a new building that incorporated steam-driven equipment and a floor schematic based on a rational workflow. The Industrial Age had arrived.
The next couple decades saw the bureaucracy and administration of the Royal Mint cleaned up and reformed along similar lines.
In 1855, the Sydney Branch of the Royal Mint was established. Before then, the Tower Mint handled all the coinage for Britain’s colonies and dependents. The branch in Sydney, Australia was the first of the various and far-flung mints of the British Empire and subsequent Commonwealth that developed into such important market participants as the Perth Mint (1899) and the Royal Canadian Mint (Ottawa, 1908).
As the Victorian Age progressed, the Royal Mint became more and more central to the production of the UK’s coins, medals, seals and bullion. By the 1920s, the Royal Mint was even filling orders for foreign countries not associated with the Commonwealth.
After surviving World War II, the next big event in the Royal Mint’s history came in the late 1960s and early ‘70s with the decimalization of British currency. The incipient workload made it clear that new facilities would be needed in order to keep up with current and future orders both domestic and foreign. The new Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales was built in 1967, with the first coins produced at the current mint in 1968.
Production at Tower Hill stopped in 1975.
The Royal Mint was reorganized as a “government-owned company” in 2009. This means that today it’s run more or less the same way as the United States Mint.
And there you have it, a brief history of the Royal Mint. Tune in next time for a brief (I hope!) history of the coins of the Royal Mint!