The Mint with a Pole – Part 4
When Wellesley-Pole made money quicker than his son spent it
Bread Riots outside the House of Commons, 1815
In 1816 the euphoria of victory at the Battle of Waterloo wore off and Britain entered a period of unrest. Corn prices were set at an artificially high level by the Importation Act (1815) – or Corn Laws as they became known – benefitting wealthy landowners at the expense of the poor. A bad harvest, the return of thousands of soldiers from Europe, and demonstrations against working conditions combined to increase tension, leading to repressive counter-measures from the Government. Against this backdrop, the Coinage Bill was passed on 22 June 1816, and Wellesley-Pole was ordered to draw up a plan to replace the silver coinage.
Wellesley-Pole seen hard at work for ‘John Bull’ whilst the poor suffer on
Wellesley-Pole’s schedule detailed how he proposed to design, manufacture, and distribute the new coinage. It also outlined a system for recovering the old money for the Bank of England. He started entirely from scratch after realising there was ‘no collection of British coins in His Majesty’s Mint…not a single Proof.’ To ensure this would never happen again, he founded a Museum to house ‘every coin and medal which, from this time forth, shall be struck’. In July 1816 Banks supplied Wellesley-Pole with old coins as a basis from which the new currency could be created.This collection now forms the backbone of the Royal Mint Museum.
Joseph Banks donated coins to enable Wellesley-Pole to set up Mint Museum
The key problem was how to undertake an operation of this magnitude without alerting the nation as to what was afoot – and once the coinage was manufactured – how to distribute it to the four corners of Britain so that it might appear simultaneously on ‘Great Re-coinage Day’. Wellesley-Pole had to do this at a time of immense social unrest, using the most rudimentary of transport and communication systems. Some boxes of coin were shipped to northern ports but the vast majority went by carriage up and down Britain’s roadways – with accompanying detailed instructions to be acted upon at each and every destination. Getting the new coinage to these outlets was one thing, but Wellesley-Pole was also tasked with rounding up all the old silver currency in exchange for new crowns, shillings and sixpences. This redundant money had to return to the Mint by the same arduous process after the two-week exchange period expired.
The Bank of England – Pivotal to Wellesley-Pole’s plans
The National Archive reveals that Wellesley-Pole submitted his plan on 16th September. He confirmed an agreement with Governor of the Bank of England that banks throughout Britain would assist in the transfer ‘without looking for any remuneration… Considerable expense must be saved from the many applications that have been made in favour of persons wishing to be employed in the issue and exchange of the new money’. He further curtailed costs by creating accounts with every participating bank for the money distributed to and collected from them. Sir Joseph Banks described his plan as
excellently arranged…I have seen a multitude of public men, but no one whose conduct has been as energetic and so perfectly successful’.
A week later Wellesley-Pole received approval from the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, subject to proceeding in complete secrecy until the money was ready to be circulated.
Pistrucci was unable to draw mad King George III from life – This ‘bull head’ image was heavily criticised
Each coin was approved by the Prince Regent prior to manufacture. Wellesley-Pole enthused the coins were ‘absolutely divine’. Every last detail was meticulously planned. Coins were labelled and bagged in sums of £100. Bags were then packed into a sturdy box containing £600 comprised of one bag of half crowns, four bags of shillings and one of sixpences. The destination of each box was labelled and arrangements were made for them to be re-used for the return of old coinage after the exchange was completed. 57 million coins were ready for distribution by January 17th 1817. A few days later Wellesley-Pole called a meeting of the bankers of London proposing:
That all 72 London banks be ‘furnished with money to exchange the silver coin…by opening all their shops to the public at large. Inspectors from the Mint to be established in each shop for selecting…the old coin to be recovered…by which means Bankers would be exonerated from any responsibility.
Every Banker in England, Scotland and Wales to employed in likewise manner but ‘the Country Bankers’ to recommend such persons for inspectors as they conceive to be trustworthy.
Wellesley-Pole earmarked the operation for 3rd February, but the London Bankers, worried about civil unrest, feared that by opening to the general public ‘their property would be endangered’. So the Master of the Mint was compelled to hastily arrange alternative locations for public distribution. He ensured that a comprehensive network of outlets were created in every principle town in England and Wales, which received almost £1.8M by February 3rd.
Cat out of bag 18th Jan 1817 – Wellesley-Pole announces Great Re-Coinage
The exchange for Scotland was undertaken by the Bank of Scotland who acted under a letter of instruction from the Master of the Mint, so the entire operation hinged on Wellesley-Pole’s meticulous planning.
The Cabinet eventually deferred the exchange until February 13th. But it was completed in 14 days as planned and the old currency ceased to be legal tender on March 1st. These remarkable statistics bear testimony to the success of this operation
Of £2,6000,000 delivered not one bag or box of new coin was mislaid and there does not remain a single complaint of deficiency of money for exchange in every part of Great Britain. In carrying the measure through, the Mint dealt with over 14000 letters and employed 1000 inspectors. 469 accounts with individual banks were reconciled ‘to the penny’ when the old currency was returned.
By any standard this operation was an astounding success. Because it went without a hitch it was soon forgotten, perhaps the biggest single reason why Wellesley-Pole is mired in obscurity. It was only when the House of Commons debated currency in 1842, that the enormity of his achievements were highlighted against shortcomings in current procedures.
As we have seen in Pole and Pistrucci the Great Re-Coinage failed to ignite public excitement, and the press preferred to continue their campaign of back-biting and ridicule against both men.
The only reply either man can give in answer to their critics is to emphasise that the silver coinage remained in circulation until 1971 – Yes that’s 154 years!
In my final part I will look at Wellesley- Pole’s departure from the Mint and round up his legacy…..
So you have seen how, at least for a few years, Wellesley-Pole made money faster than his feckless son Wicked William of Wanstead House was able to spend it. Follow Wicked William to the Epping Hunt, or off to War with Wellington or find out what happened when Wellesley-Pole’s rage got the better of him.
Finally, I have written the remarkable history of Wellesley-Pole’s house
I hope you enjoy this post and would be most grateful to hear any feedback.
- Royal Mint Website
- The National Archives (Kew) Mint 1/56
- Bagot J., George Canning and Friends (London: Murray, 1909)
- Senate House Library, Mint Book MS499
- Greg Roberts unpublished dissertation The Forgotten Brother (2009)
- Image of Sir Joseph Banks by William Wyon courtesy of the Royal Mint Museum