by David Powell


1.1. My object in this article, which deliberately focuses more on the later and cruder pieces rather than the fine ones of the mediaeval period, is two-fold:

  1. to provide an overview of the series as a whole, made up of several sub-series as it is, and to explore the boundaries between these various constituents.
  2. to attempt a high-level classification which will enable the ordinary collector to get a handle on this vague and rather complicated series, without descending into a level of categorisation which becomes unwieldy.

Classification will be in terms of individual sides rather than whole pieces. Unlike most series it is not always possible to say which is the obverse and which the reverse, although for convention we will say that issuers' initials stake the first claim for a side to be considered an obverse, and that a definite design has higher claim than an indefinite one In many cases the matter is decided very easily by the fact that the piece is uniface, or as near as makes no difference. Not that such concepts matter much in this series, nor do I feel that it is possible at present to say anything useful about which obverse/reverse combinations occur.

1.2. One of the beauties of lead tokens is that they are not so much a single series as a set of series, one knows not quite how many, which vaguely interact. There is very little written on them, the best known being Michael Mitchiner's two lengthy and well-illustrated articles in BNJ 53,54 {1983,1984}. Mitchiner's multi-volume work on "Jetons, Medalets and Tokens" continues along the same lines, and there are a couple of useful articles amongst the older volumes of BNJ and the Numismatic Chronicle {see references at end}, but beyond that there are for the most part only short snippets in the likes of Seaby's and Spink's bulletins. All of which adds up to only a very limited corpus of knowledge, lacking in contiguity, and relatively impervious to the research techniques which have led us to better knowledge of the better-known and more modern British paranumismatic series.

1.3. Perhaps therefore we have to accept a large measure of continuing ignorance as likely, but let that not detract us from the pleasure of wrestling with this unfashionable series in an attempt to ameliorate it!


2.1. This paper is mainly targetted at what are generally considered to be crude agricultural tokens, although it may be too simplistic to consider them solely as such; a number of them could easily be tavern pieces, or from other sources. There are several earlier series in lead or pewter, which contains lead, and I need to mention them in passing if only to demonstrate (i) that they exist and (ii) that they fit in some measure into the classification system proposed below. Apart from the crude pieces, which seem to centre on the surprisingly late date range of 1690-1810, the following may be identified as having some sort of interface:

  1. The oldest lead tokens in Britain, known as tesserae, date from Roman times and are not very common. Little is known about them.
  2. Several mediaeval series in pewter, as described by Mitchiner, are generally thought of as being deriving from London and other large cities. They include various pieces debatably thought to be tavern tokens, counters or for ecclesiastical use, although the latter types are not necessarily to be identified with communion tokens. The supposed ecclesiastical pieces are often extremely small, with a diameter of about 11mm.. The earliest of these series date from about 1200 and are thought to have been a token coinage used by pilgrims.
  3. The main 17th century token series is almost entirely in copper and brass, but seems to have some kinship in design with a few of the better-designed lead pieces; in particular, in the way that they use issuers' initials.
  4. The mainly Scottish communion token series is contemporary and struck at similar date almost solely in lead; it will have little in common in terms of usage, but could be confused in the early years where there was extreme simplicity of design.
  5. The hop token series as defined by Alan Henderson, starting c.1770 and continuing until the late 19th century, seems to emerge naturally from agricultural lead and is probably that with which it has most affinity. The range of numeric values {1,3,6,12,30,60,120}, usually indicating volume in bushels, is mirrored on a number of crude leaden pieces.

2.2. To the above must be added one other series. One criticism often levelled at displays of lead tokens is, "that's not a token, that's a seal!". I make no apology for considering seals here as a series in their own right, because (i) most of them are lead, (ii) some seals are of a shape which rendering them likely to be mistaken for tokens and (iii) they have features which connect strongly with 17th century tokens, which are another of the adjacent series. Fuzzy boundaries, between both series and types, are a feature. Lead pieces are usually made by pouring metal into a cast, sometimes in the form of a tree linking a family of cast holes via channels; protrusions, according to how the pieces are broken off, frequently result. Distinguishing between tokens and seals is often a matter of interpreting protrusions, and sometimes holes in the material, correctly.


3.1. The colour of lead and associated tokens needs to be described, but I find that the following scale of 1-5 is adequate:

  1. Very light, almost white. Pieces in this category, adversely effected by chemistry and extreme cold, rarely look attractive; they sometimes look encrusted but they may, however, still retain their features.
  2. Light.
  3. Medium.
  4. Dark.
  5. Very dark. Significant presence of other constituents likely.

3.2. In a typical hoard, the norm will be to find common types in poor to fair condition. However, whilst this series is not for those who like fine artwork in good EF, crisp and unusual pieces do turn up, and it is possible by being carefully selective to produce an attractive and interesting collection. The metal detecting fraternity are a main source of supply and are responsible for unearthing quantities of material which previously escaped detection. The series is unfashionable, because (i) of its perceived lack of art and quality and (ii) the minimal information which it provides to help researchers; however, that (i) renders it fairly cheap and (ii) provides virgin territory for those that care to explore it.

3.3. Almost all crude lead is round although, like the 17th century series, exceptions exist; I have one square and one heart-shaped, in the 300 pieces of my sample.


4.1. Dated pieces are scarce but not excessively so; I would estimate that about 7-8% of the pieces in the main series carry them. A high proportion of these are retrograde and/or so crude as not always to be instantly recognisable, but what is surprising is the date itself. Whilst one would expect, from the crudity, these pieces to be very early, perhaps late mediaeval or Elizabethan, almost all are from the 18th century. Early, and even mid, 19th century pieces are not unknown.

4.2. So, what of their use? The mode of employment of hop tokens has been discussed elsewhere; the tallying of bushels, or perhaps the scoring of where a picker left at the one session so he, and his supervisor, knew where he started at the beginning of the next. Perhaps such devices were used elsewhere in agriculture. Does the frequency of anchor depictions indicate a maritime use, such as ferry tokens? Were the simplest just gaming counters, or even part of the game itself?. Perhaps all of these conjectures are right; we may never know. However, beyond these, the perennial problem which cursed much of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries: the need, not adequately met by many governments of the period, for small units of coin.

4.3. Let us say that an average labourer earned at one stage around 1s per day, a figure not untypical of the early 1800s. The lowest coin of the realm was a farthing, i.e. approx. 0.35% of the weekly salary, or 0.007% of annual salary. Translate this to the present day and suppose that you are earning £25k, as many are. 0.007% of that is a little less than £2. Would you fancy trying to conduct your day-to-day business with nothing other than our two pound coins or larger? No wonder the populace felt a need to set to and make their own small change. It would appear also, from the number of worn Dutch duits and half-duits being dug up in East Anglia, that they also imported it from the Continent.


5.1. So little is written either on or about lead tokens that one of the first prerequisites must be to ask the provenance of any that come one's way. Often there is no information to be had, but where there is, preserve it.

5.2. The largest supplies of lead tokens seem to be in the extreme south-east, and Romney Marsh in particular. It is known that smugglers had secret ways through the Marsh unknown to the excisemen, and thereby enjoyed greater success than they would otherwise; however, whether that has any relation to lead tokens I do not know. There are also a fair number in southern East Anglia, and in the Bucks/Oxon area. I did wonder whether their use was a predominantly south-eastern practice, but then discovered that detectorists in Nottinghamshire and Co.Durham were digging them up in reasonable quantity. It would seem that not many come from too far west, but I remain to be corrected. One of the problems, I guess, is that the series has never been taken seriously and the find statistics not gathered; also, that it is only due to the advent of the metal detector that so many more of these often miniscule and seemingly insignificant pieces are now being found than formerly.

5.3. I have one piece only as yet from Wales. Scotland one might perhaps not expect to find represented, in view of its almost total omission from the main 17th century token series, but I have been shown a photo of a piece from Dunipace, Sterlingshire, with a date 1662 above initials DM, all straddling a central line. It could be a communion token conceivably, although Burzinski does not appear to know of it. It is only just within the period at which communion tokens start to be dated.

5.4. The next question to ask is: which pieces relate to which area? to which, rather surprisingly, the answer appears to be that most of the designs seem to be more or less universal. For example, one of my two worded pieces of type 29 {below} came from Whitburn, near Sunderland, and the other from Romney Marsh. Does that mean that they travelled that far? Both sites have also turned up anchors, i.e. type 5, whilst the commoner designs like petals, wheel spokes etc. are found all over the place. Markedly strong outer rims show a slight tendency towards being East Anglian, and slender circles about a quarter diameter in from the edge seem possibly to be a peculiarly North-Eastern feature, but even these observations are tenuous, based on very small samples.

5.5. Finally: were lead tokens used in other countries, or are they purely a British thing? the former, I understand. I am told that they are numerous in some places but, if our own are little known, what hope is there that we hear or see much of others? I have but one, possibly Hungarian, dated 1643.


6.1. I start at the outset here by saying that nothing is conclusive, and that I just put the various theories and invite readers to consider for themselves. A small number of pieces clearly relate to given people, albeit unknown, or trades; however, the majority are singularly nondescript. What do we make of these?

6.2. Many of the designs are so simplistic that they could merely be classed as doodles; i.e. that the designer did not really care what he placed on his pieces; the irregular geometrics, type 9 below, argue in this direction. Or perhaps he did care, but did not have any great artistic skill. A few designs, such as petals, grids and the like abound; perhaps this is so because they were easy to draw.

6.3. Certain designs which appear to be nondescript may in fact relate to particular trades; e.g. the various grids, quartered designs and wide crosses of types 7,12,22 below could be a pictorial representation of the miller's stone or wheel. The petals and cartwheels are not incapable of translation as millwheels either. Does an anchor indicate a maritime connection, or a pub of that name, or neither?

6.4. Another possibility is that there was some system of understood denominational value now lost to us. Does it matter whether there were 3,4,5, or 6 petals on a flower? or four rather than any other number of pellets under a pair of initials? Perhaps other common designs such as the anchor or fleur-de-lis represent larger denominations? I incline against this theory, but it is not unreasonable.

6.5. More likely is that some of the commoner designs are drawn from the Church, which played a larger role than we can now imagine in the lives of our rustic villagers. Faced with the carvings on church furniture every Sunday morning, might they not have drawn their artistic inspiration from it? A quote or two from the Internet:

a. "During the 15th century the poppy-head form of ornament now reached perfection and was constantly used for seats other than those of the choir, on the carved finial which is so often used to complete the top of the bench end and is peculiarly English in character. In the eastern counties thousands of examples remain. The quite simple fleur-de-lys form of poppy-head, suitable for the village, is seen in perfection at Trunch, Norfolk, and the very elaborate form when the poppy-head springs from a crocketed circle filled in with sculpture, at St Nicholas, Kings Lynn." {Note: The fleur-de-lis, type 4 below, appears in a variety of different renderings on tokens, too}

b. Wall decorations consist of various Christian emblems "...of the Church-ship or ark of salvation, anchor (emblem of Christian Hope) and several emblems of Christian Saints, e.g., wheel for St. Catherine, grid-iron for St. Laurence, etc"


7.1. The best attempt to date to classify lead tokens to date seems to be a series of articles by Bob Alvey in the "Treasure Hunter" magazine in the late 1980s, in which he attempts to break down a collection of specimens {all with reference numbers and carefully illustrated with line drawings} into 45 different types. Whilst some of the earlier of these types correctly represent major categories, I do not feel that they represent a full classification: 

a. within each type number, examples are listed and referenced more or less randomly without any regard as to whether they are of the same subtype.

b. as the type list progresses, there is an increasing tendency to allocate a type number randomly to individual specimens simply because they do not seem to fit anywhere else.

In addition to this, a formal classification system also needs to be able to accommodate additions, especially in a field as obscure as this one. In short, it needs to be a bit more generic.

7.2. In an attempt to improve on this, but without detracting from Bob's existing work more than need be, I have attempted to build up a new classification which preserves as many of his type numbers as possible. I have, however, wanted to keep them in approximately descending order of frequency, which has necessitated a few reallocations. In summary:

  1. Types 1-7, 10-12, 15-17 have been approximately preserved.
  2. The original type 8 has been renumbered 18, to render the three wildlife types contiguous.
  3. The original types 9,13,14,18-45 are though to be too specific and have been worked into new types 19-32.

7.3. Development of these types into subtypes could be a separate, but future, phase of the same exercise. However, it is optional; do we want it? I venture to suggest that a simple single-number classification of the type proposed may be adequate enough for both collector and researcher, and that use of a more sophisticated system such as the Neubecker one employed by Robert Thompson for the main 17th century tokens may be (i) too cumbersome and (ii) inappropriate for this less formal series.


8.1. Bob's list of types, to number 17 {not that he necessarily named them all as such}, and mine, are as follows:

Bob Alvey, 1980s Proposed list, 2004 

  1. Petalled flower Petalled flower
  2. Initials Initials
  3. Segments Segments
  4. Lis Lis
  5. Anchors Anchors
  6. Ship Ship
  7. Hatching Hatching/Grid
  8. Birds Numeral 
  9. Keys Irregular or compound geometric
  10. Heads Heads and busts
  11. Bottles Tavern Utensils
  12. Squared Geometric Squared Geometric
  13. Head of Wheat Framework
  14. Kite Crosses
  15. Religious Religious
  16. Arms Arms, shields or heraldic designs
  17. Trees and Plants Trees and Plants, and their produce
  18. Birds
  19. Animals, including fish and insects
  20. Merchant Marks & other monograms
  21. Trades, other than milling
  22. Mill-related
  23. Buildings
  24. Obscure characters
  25. Misc objects {royal and imperial}
  26. Misc objects {celestial}
  27. Misc objects {other}
  28. Outer rim series {several}
  29. Words or significant abbreviations
  30. Pellets or other simple designs
  31. Circular or elliptical geometric
  32. People, other than heads


9.1. Petalled flower {type 1}: Apart possibly from initials, the commonest type. The number of petals varies between three and six, five or six being the most frequent. Occasional pieces, usually larger, have the petals superimposed on a second design.

9.2. Initials {type 2}: Includes sides where the initials are dominant or equivalent in prominence with any ornamentation. Sides where small initials flank the main design will be classified according to that design. Items with both initials and numbers will be dealt with either here or under type 8, depending on which is predominant, although it is recognised that they are hybrids. Where there is no predominance, type 2 will take precedence because initials offer a clue to identity.

9.3. Segments {type 3}: Includes any side consisting of three or more segments emanating from the centre, except that quartered designs:

  1. classify under type 12 if they have any regular design other than crosses and pellets.
  2. classify under type 14 if they are simple crosses or crosses with pellets in the centre of the quarters, i.e. pseudo-mediaeval pennies.
  3. remain here if they are cartwheel type pieces with the pellets near the perimeter, i.e. are not intended to imitate the mediaeval penny.

This differs from Bob Alvey, whose types 3 and 12 map on to my 3,9, and 12 without exact one-to-one correspondence.

9.4. Lis {type 4}: A wide family of lis designs, which include also those sides where the outer components of the lis curve out so far as to be occasionally mistaken for the initials CC, the second C retrograde.

9.5. Anchor {type 5}: Fairly non-controversial.

9.6. Ship {type 6}: Likewise.

9.7. Hatching {type 7}: Includes those sides where the entire surface is hatched in an identical manner; where the hatching is quartered, it becomes type 12.

9.8. Numeral {type 8}: Some of these are probably hop tokens, and a pseudo-weight has been seen. In addition to sides with low numbers indicating a specific value, those with dates and nothing else also come under this category. 

9.9. Irregular or compound geometrical {type 9}: This type accommodates a large number of abstract designs which do not fit into either type 3 or type 12, other than those which have an obvious circular or elliptical theme, which are type 31. It also accommodates designs which are a compound of different simple geometric types.

9.10. Heads or busts {type 10}: Most of these are pseudo-coin designs which mimic the obverses of major series, e.g. Edward I pennies, although that is not invariably so. Pieces which mimic Cantian Celtic, Roman or other ancients are also occasionally seen. Whole bodies, rather than heads, are type 32, whilst other isolated body parts, e.g. hands or legs, go in type 27.

9.11 Tavern utensils {type 11}: Bottles, jugs etc. Bob Alvey allocated this number to bottles specifically, but I have extended the application. Could have been absorbed into type 27, but I chose to keep tavern tokens as a separate category. One feels that they should be adjacent to the 17th century series, but a Richard Gladdle catalogue of March 2000 shows one dated to the 1790s.

9.12. Squared Geometric {type 12}: Any quartered design where the number of segments is necessarily four, except:

  1. Simple cartwheels - type 3 as previously discussed.
  2. Potential mill sails - type 22.

Pieces with four quarters containing alternate horizontal and vertical lines will remain here for the moment, notwithstanding that they may depict millstones and should correctly reside in type 22. Where the number of segments is necessarily two, i.e. halved geometric, these should go in type 12 if the halves contain mirror-imaged quarters, and otherwise in type 9.

9.13. Frameworks {type 13}: This accommodates a number of designs which border between the abstract and the real, and which may actually represent objects, the nature of which cannot be determined. The design does not cover the whole side, or at least not without significant variation; if it did, it would belong to type 9.

9.14 Crosses {type 14}: Not necessarily religious, although it may be. The cross should not obviously be the single letter X; if it does, the piece belongs in type 2; otherwise, any design, abstract or real, which:

a. depicts two crossed lines or objects only as the major device, or

b. indicates by the central positioning of any pellets within the quarters of a cross that it is meant to simulate the mediaeval penny.

One piece of this type, stark simplicity but with very well-drilled incuse pellets, came from Montgomeryshire; well off the beaten track for lead tokens, which tend to lessen in number as you go further west. Wide crosses, in which the arms are bands capable of displaying other design, go in type 12 {squared geometric} unless they are strong candidates for being mill piece, in which case they go to type 22. Quite frequent is a small dumpy piece, conical and hence much thicker than anything else in the series; one wonders, albeit without any proof, whether it might have been used as part of a game.

9.15. Religious {type 15}: Anything which depicts religious symbolism, e.g. a crozier, apart from simple crosses covered by type 14 above. Pieces which are known to have religious use but which depict non-type 15 designs should be categorized as if they were secular; the categorization refers to design, not use.

9.16. Arms {type 16}: Anything where the major type is a shield or other form of compound heraldic device; takes preference over the types pertaining to the particular subject matter, except that single royal symbols remain in type 25.

9.17. Trees and Plants and their produce {type 17}: Anything botanical except national symbols, e.g. the rose covered by type 25. 

9.18. Birds {type 18}: Any birds except national symbols, e.g. the eagle covered by type 25. Moved out of its position in the Alvey sequence so that the three wildlife categories could be contiguous.

9.19. Animals, including fish {type 19}: Self explanatory. Same proviso as per the last two types. 

9.20. Merchant Marks & other monograms {type 20}: These were frequently used by the more prominent tradesmen until at least the late 17th century.

9.21. Trade symbols and equipment {type 21}: Accommodates sides containing the type of trade-related material which one might expect to find on the main series of 17th century tokens, with the one exception that anything related to milling goes in type 22.

9.22. Mills {type 22}: Depictions of mills and designs likely to represent mill sails. Squared geometric designs which could be mill stones should probably go in here, but are being left in type 12 because of the uncertainty. One interesting possibility: could some of the petals of type 1, and/or the spoked wheels of type 3, represent crude attempts to render mill wheels or sails?

9.23. Buildings {type 23}: Any buildings other than mills, which go in type 22. Possible division into rustic, urban and military might be possible, but I have resisted the temptation to subclassify.

9.24. Obscure characters {type 24}: Any characters which are not obviously letters {type 2} or numbers {type 8}, although they may be crude attempts at one or the other.

9.25. Miscellaneous Objects, Royal {type 25}: Symbols such as crowns, roses, eagles and the like. The late Elizabethan pieces with double-headed eagle on one side and crowned rose on the other, c.1570-1600, are a notable example, although they are not part of the run of crude agricultural pieces.

9.26. Miscellaneous Objects, Celestial {type 26}: This contains such items as the sun, moon, and stars; also globes, although these could be a reference to a tavern or playhouse of such a name, rather than to the heavens. There were two total eclipses of the sun visible from England in 1715 and 1724, and it is conjectured that these may have been the inspiration for the occasionally found crescent and stars type. That of 1715 was particularly spectacular, covering most of England in an approximately diagonal North-Eastern sweep; the northern boundary of totality passed through Lancashire and Yorkshire, and the southern through mid-Kent. That of 1724 described an East-South-Eastern path across the West and South of England, the northern boundary running somewhere along the line of Aberystwyth-Gloucester-Eastbourne; a larger number of the lead token areas, which are predominantly eastern, are likely to have escaped totality, although they would still nearly all have experienced a very great dimming of light. The two pieces in my possession were found a few miles west of Oxford.

9.27. Miscellaneous Objects, Secular {type 27}: A catch-all for items which are clearly objects, whether identifiable or not, and which do not come into other categories such as 11 {tavern implements} or 16 {coats of arms}. Isolated body parts such as hand and feet also go here, rather than in 10 or 32.

9.28. Outer rim series {type 28}: Certain series exist which have an outer rim with various types of filler, e.g. shading. These could reasonably be subclassified 28.nn, where nn indicates the classification of the subject matter of the inner part of the token according to the above schema, which would take in certain series, such as some of the very small ecclesiastical tokens of the mediaeval period, which the main classification does not so easily cover.

9.29. Words or significant abbreviations {type 29}: Complete words or names are rare on British lead tokens, but not unknown. I have two pieces, clearly by the same issuer, one of which bears the comparatively late date of 1845.

9.30. Pellets {type 30}: Accommodates pieces which contain one or more of a single type of pellet or other simple geometric design, the latter not being identifiable as specific objects capable of going in type 27; as opposed to obscure blobs, which are unclassified until identified. Most have just a few pellets, but one piece has been seen which is reminiscent of a Durotrigan stater.

9.31. Circular or elliptical geometric {type 31}: Either a set of concentric circles/ellipses, with or without a central hub, or a design consisting primarily of circles/ellipses and their fragments.

9.32. People {type 32}: Anyone standing, sitting, riding, walking, running or lying down; in other words, anything which shows the whole person, rather than a mere head or bust. The latter go in type 10, whilst other isolated body parts, e.g. hands or legs, go in type 27.


10.1. Books and articles:

10.1.1 The primary reference on British lead tokens is the two part work by M.Mitchiner and A.Skinner in the British Numismatic Journal:

  1. English Tokens, c.1200-1425 {BNJ Vol 53, 1983}
  2. English Tokens, c.1425-1672 {BNJ Vol 54, 1984}

Mitchiner has also published more material, in similar vein, in Vols 1 and 3 of his work "Jetons, Medalets and Tokens" {1988,1998 respectively} 

10.1.2 Other interesting articles on lead tokens are:

  1. "Leaden Tokens" by J.B.Caldecott and G.C.Yates {BNJ Vol.4, 1907}
  2. "Lead Tokens from the River Thames at Windsor and Wallingford, by M.Dean {Num.Chron, 1977}

The latter has a limited attempt at identifying types. There are also several useful snippets in Spink's Numismatic Circular {e.g. Nov.1967, Apr.1969, Dec.1971, Jun.1972, Apr.1992}, and a good batch of illustrations in Richard Gladdle's sale catalogue of March 2000.

10.1.3 Targeted at a more populist audience, R.C.Alvey's articles in the Treasure Hunting magazine are scattered throughout the 1980s and consist almost entirely of line drawings. Edward Fletcher is producing more articles, again with a strong visual emphasis but this time using photography, for the same magazine at present. His recent "Tallies and Tokens through the Ages" {2003} illustrates the 80-odd pieces accumulated by one Nottinghamshire detectorist.

10.1.4 Seals are an even more obscure subject. The best introduction to them that I know is "Lead Cloth Seals and Related Items in the British Museum", by Geoff Egan {BM Occasional Paper no.93, 1995}

10.2. The astronomical connection:

10.2.1 I am grateful to Hugh Williams for the suggestion that astronomic events such as eclipses inspire coin types. He first suggested it in connection with the Hadrian denarius depicting a crescent and seven stars, which is generally reckoned to date from around 128, and fed the latitude and longitude of Rome into an astronomy program which confirmed that the Pleiades {Seven Sisters} would have been visible there during a daytime eclipse in January 129. A similar reverse, with varying numbers of stars, also occurs on Roman provincial coins during the Severan period.

10.2.2 It is also interesting to conjecture whether the various astronomical events occurring during the later part of the reign of the Parthian king Phraates IV, and which inevitably get mentioned in any book concerned with exploring the date and circumstances of Christ's birth, have anything to do with the profusion of astronomical references which increasingly appear on his later coins. Parthia, let it be remembered, is favourite for being the most likely origin of the three wise men....