It is generally accepted that minting of coins began in Britain in the first century BC. Native minting ceased with the Roman occupation as coins from the Empire began to circulate. Coins were also being struck in London under the Romans from the third century AD. After the Roman withdrawal minting again ceased until the seventh century. During the 9th century London became the dominant centre for minting which was maintained following the Norman Conquest of 1066.
It has been suggested that minting at the Tower began in 1248. Certainly by 1279 it enjoyed an established presence in the Tower. During this same period the organisation became more structured. In 1279 William de Turnemire was confirmed as master moneyer throughout England and a formal system of indented agreements established the role and responsibilities of this and subordinate positions. He became known as the Master of the Mint. Procedural safeguards were also established with a Warden appointed as the direct representative of the king. Furthermore the coinage was tested in what subsequently became known as the Trial of the Pyx where sample coins were selected and tested by a jury. If these were found to be deficient the Master of the Mint could be fined or even suffer a term of imprisonment. During the 15th century a Mint Board emerged to direct activities, and which consisted of three posts, the Warden, Master and Comptroller. Their rights and privileges were now protected by royal charter. The majority of senior appointments made to the Mint were from the community of London Goldsmiths.
By the mid 14th century minting activities were largely concentrated at the Tower although other provincial mints were still in operation periodically. Most of the remaining mints, operated by the ecclesiastical authorities, ceased during the reign of Henry VIII (1809-47). The minting process itself was conducted in buildings located between the inner and outer curtain walls on the eastern side of the Tower, possibly extending up to where Legge’s Mount currently stands. Considerable alterations were subsequently made following Cardinal Wolsey’s reform of the currency in 1526, and other work was undertaken during the reign of Elizabeth in 1566 and 1585-86. By the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign the Mint buildings extended, in fact, all the way around to the Salt Tower.
During the 17th century mechanisation was introduced into the coining process. Based on the sheer quantities of coins being struck there is some reason to suppose that mechanical assistance was even being used in the second half of the 16th century. During the Protectorate more experimentation was undertaken with striking coins by a press. A new system of casting, rolling, and punching blanks through a combination of rolling mill and screw press was adopted under Charles II (1660-1685). When Samuel Pepys visited the Tower he commented that the new Mint was able to strike up to £24,000 a week. The milled coins were of a much superior quality that formerly, although more expensive to produce. Nevertheless, the new process was adopted in 1662. Towards the end of the century new buildings were designed and erected by Sir Christopher Wren which included the installation of further rolling mills, blank-cutting machines and coining presses.
Between 1696 and 1698 £5,000,000 in silver coin was produced as part of a national recoinage. This was, in fact, overseen by Sir Isaac Newton. He had been appointed Warden in 1696 and was assiduous in his pursuit of counterfeiters. In 1699 he became Master of the Mint, a more financially rewarding position, a position he held until his death in 1727.
During the early 18th century the Mint Buildings, still occupying what is now known as Mint Street, were rebuilt and re-equipped. Additional mill rooms and a new press room were installed between 1728 and 1731. The operations of the Mint appeared to go into a general decline during the remainder of the century, a reflection of both the lack of administrative oversight and the economic, social and political difficulties of the period. It is perhaps little wonder then that at the close of the century the contract to produce the new cartwheel two pence pieces and one pence pieces was awarded to Matthew Boulton’s private but technically more advanced mint in Birmingham.
In 1798 a committee of the Privy Council ordered an enquiry into the future of the Mint. Boulton himself gave evidence. It was not until 1804, however, that the committee presented its recommendations. It was agreed that the Mint ought to be fitted with the best machinery like Boulton’s, and that new accommodation should be found to accommodate it. The Tower was no longer able to provide the space needed for such a mechanised process. Although concerns over safety were aired, a new site at Little Tower Hill was eventually decided upon. Work began on the new building in 1805. It was not until 1812, though, that the keys to the old Mint at the Tower were finally surrendered.
Dr. Malcolm Mercer
Curator of Tower History
C.E.Challis, A New History of the Royal Mint (Cambridge, 1992)
J.Craig, The Mint: A History of the London Mint from AD287 to 1948 (Cambridge, 1953)
G.P.Dyer, The Royal Mint: An Illustrated History (Royal Mint, 1986)
During the reign of King Henry VIII, if not earlier, guns were capable of firing cannonballs faster than the speed of sound – the first supersonic weapons!