A milled coin is any coin that has been struck by machinery, as opposed to being made by a moneyer making the coins by hand. This was achieved by his striking the upper of two dies with a hammer between which a metal blank had been placed. The force of the blow transferred the designs of the dies to the surface of the blank creating the coin. Coins made in this way are known as hammered.
The origin of the term milled is somewhat obscure. However, it is likely to be derived from the horse-mills or water mills that supplied the power for the rolling mills which were used to turn ingots into the sheets of metal from which the blanks were punched for making coins. Of course ‘milled’ is also used to describe the serrations found on the edges coins. However, not all milled (ie machine-made coins) have a serrated edge. Some are plain, while others bear an inscription.
It will be appreciated that making coins by hand was a time-consuming process and the resulting coins were not necessarily perfect. Some hammered coins were struck off centre and their design can be weak because of poor striking. Also, some may not be perfectly round. Leonardo da Vinci gave the matter some thought and wrote in his notebook: No coins can be considered good which do not have the rim perfect; and in order to ensure the rim being perfect, it is necessary first that coins be absolutely round. Then he went on to design a machine for making blanks on which to strike coins. Sadly, it was never made.
However, machines for coin making were perfected in Augsburg in the 1540s. They were demonstrated at the European courts. Henri II of France was impressed and by 1551 had established an experimental mechanised mint in Paris. As well as a rolling mill powered by the Seine for turning the ingots into sheet metal to make the blanks, there was a screw-press for making the coins. Comprising an upper and lower die, which was fixed, the two were brought together by manually turning a bar that operated a screw to lower the upper die. This ‘squeezing’ process resulted in both dies simultaneously leaving their respective impressions on the blank, consequently creating the coin.
Although the screw-press required a considerable amount of manual labour, the traditional moneyers nevertheless feared the loss of employment and rebelled. The French experiment in mechanised coin production was abandoned in 1562. However, in about 1560, Eloye Mestrelle, either an unhappy or discharged employee of the Paris Mint arrived in London. He persuaded the Master of the Mint at the Tower of London – known as the Tower Mint - to allow him to show the superiority of machine-made over hammered coins.
Although he adequately demonstrated this with his machinery, the authorities, being pressurised by the traditional moneyers, managed to find every possible reason as to why the Mint should not be mechanised. Mestrelle was dismissed in 1572 and fell on to hard times. He became a counterfeiter, was found out, convicted and sentenced to death. He was hanged on 14 April 1578.
In 1625, Nicholas Briot, who like Mestrelle had been employed at the Paris Mint, settled in England. He was employed at the Tower Mint, becoming Engraver General in 1632. He had left the Paris Mint because he had failed to interest the authorities in his improved method of mechanised coin production. Although he was initially employed as an engraver of punches used to make hammered coin dies, he was allowed to experiment with his machinery, which was basically an improved version of the screw-press.
During the period 1631-1632 and 1638-1639, Briot struck both gold and silver denominations with his apparatus. Not only do the pieces demonstrate Briot’s superb skills as an engraver, but they also show his practical abilities as a mechanic. The pieces are perfectly round and evenly struck, which is more than can be said to the general standard of the hammered coins of the period. However, despite the superiority of Briot’s milled coinage, it did not replace the hammered coins. In addition to the traditional moneyers’ objections, there were two other reasons – it was slower than the hammering process and secondly, Civil War was looming.
Nevertheless, coins were produced by mechanical means at some of Charles’s provincial mints during the hostilities. For example, when the Civil War broke out in 1642, Charles fled to York. In 1643 and 1644 silver denominations from the halfcrown to the threepence were struck here, mostly from Briot’s using a rotary press. This took the form of two steel rollers mounted like an old fashioned mangle, upon which the dies for the coins were engraved. Strips of silver were fed through the revolving rollers (which took two strong persons to turn), the coins being stamped out from metal sheets afterwards.
In 1643, one of the greatest rarities of the English series was struck at Oxford. Thomas Rawlins, a playwright and die engraver, whom it is believed was a pupil of Briot, worked at the Oxford mint and produced a number of dies for the coinage. His masterpiece is known as the ‘Oxford Crown’. This name is derived from the view of Oxford from the meadows beyond the Cherwell seen between the horse’s legs. It has been dubbed ‘the only city thaler’ in the English series, for it is the only English design that follows the continental custom of featuring the views of cities on crown-sized coins. Specimens are excessively rare. The coin was struck on a ‘rocker press’, which comprised two curved dies mounted on two parallel axles. Blanks were fed between the dies by rocking the axles. A characteristic of coins produced in this way was weaknesses at the sides.
Charles I was beheaded on 30 January 1649 and England was declared a republic known as the Commonwealth of England. Although the Commonwealth coinage is uninspiring, there was a considerable amount happening at the mint that would have an impact later. As the government of the Commonwealth took an interest in mechanising the mint, Pierre Blondeau, an engineer at the Paris Mint, was invited to England.
He arrived in 1649 with his machinery and received the usual opposition from the traditional moneyers. A Committee for the Mint was formed and Blondeau advised its members that he had perfected a technique allowing him to produce perfect coins. Additionally, even when the pieces were of normal thickness,
he could engrave their edges with lettering. Now this was very important, for it was relatively common for the hammered coinage to be ‘clipped’, which was the removal of part of the coin’s edge. It must be remembered that in the olden days, a coin was literally worth its weight in the metal from which it was made. As hammered coins had uneven edges, unscrupulous individuals would take ‘shavings’ or ‘clippings’ from the coins’ edges and pass them on while retaining the illegally obtained metal for their own gain.
The authorities knew that what Blondeau was proposing would effectively stop clipping. While it was technically possible at the time to engrave the edge of coins of above average thickness, this was not the case with those of normal thickness. Blondeau lay down the gauntlet: if anyone could produce coins as good of his at the same cost, the authorities could execute him.
David Ramage, the leader of the moneyers claimed that they could and a competition was held between the two factors. Ramage had worked with Briot so he had a rudimentary knowledge of coining by machinery. He no doubt adapted some of the old machinery at the mint that had been lying idle since Briot’s time. Needless to say, the sample coins produced by Blondeau – a total of 300 – were far superior to Ramage’s dozen samples.
As Blondeau was a mechanic as opposed to an engraver, the dies he used were prepared by Thomas Simon, the son of a London merchant of French extraction. Although Charles I had given him employment, he was an avowed Puritan and was loyal to the Parliamentarians during the Civil War. The Commonwealth appointed him Chief Engraver in 1649. Not only did he engrave the dies for Blondeau, but allowed his house to be used as working premises. The design of the experimental coins followed to Commonwealth issues, save that the halfcrowns had inscribed edges reading either:
IN THE THIRD YEARE OF FREEDOME BY GODS BLESSING RESTORED 1651 or TRVTH AND PEACE 1651 PETRVS BLONDAEVS INVENTOR FECIT
whereas the shillings and sixpences had grained (or ‘milled’) edges.
In 1653, Oliver Cromwell was appointed Protector of England. There was no change to the coinage, but in the summer of 1656, the government decided that there should be an experimental coinage bearing Cromwell’s portrait. The Lord Protector expressed the wish that the coins should be produced using Blondeau’s machinery. The dies were prepared by Simon and were approved by Cromwell. Indeed, the resulting portrait is regarded as a supreme example of English monetary design. Cromwell is portrayed as a Roman emperor, complete with a wreath of laurel leaves upon his head. Gold 50-shilling pieces and broads of 20-shillings were struck, together with a quantity of silver halfcrowns bearing the date 1656. Examples are extremely rare. Cromwell died in 1658 and crowns and halfcrowns were struck in reasonable quantity, possibly as keepsakes. Some found their way into circulation.
The Commonwealth collapsed in 1660 and Charles II returned from exile and was crowned in Westminster Abbey. This reign can be viewed as the foundation of the nation’s modern coinage, for it was during Charles II’s rule that making coins by the hand hammering was finally abandoned. Charles’s first milled coins appeared in 1662 which is the year that the last hammered coin was issued. However, a fundamentally different approach was not achieved instantly. The plan was for the new milled coins to circulate alongside the ‘old’ hammered coinage, until the latter were no longer fit for circulation.
England’s mint was now ‘mechanised’, with horsepower for the rolling mills and manpower for the screw-press. Everyone was happy, apart from Thomas Simon. John Roettier, whose father had helped the King financially during his exile on the continent, engraved the dies for Charles II’s milled coins. The King’s effigy on the coins was based modelled on a drawing by Samuel Cooper, the miniaturist who is regarded as the finest English portrait painters of the 17th century. We know from an entry in John Evelyn’s diary that the sketch was drawn on the evening of 10 January 1662 by candlelight, so Cooper could take advantages of the shadow created by the flame. Evelyn wrote, ‘I had the honour of holding the candle.’
Both Simon and Roettier were instructed to work on Charles II’s milled coinage. Whether as a result of basic incompatibility or artistic temperament, the two could not agree on a design. They were therefore ordered to prepare their own designs for the King to choose. Simon did nothing and therefore John Roettiers’ design was chosen by default. It was then that Simon was spurred into action. He put all his effort into designing a crown. The result is what is arguably the most spectacular coin in the entire milled coinage – the so-called Petition Crown dated 1663. The artistic merit of the piece speaks for itself. However, the most remarkable demonstration of Simon’s skill is found on the edge of the piece. In small letters there are the words;
Thomas Simon most humbly prays your Majesty to compare this is tryal piece with the Dutch and if more truly drawn and emboss’d, more gracefully ordered and more accurately engraven, to relieve him
The words appeared in the upper case without punctuation. Needless to say, this ‘petition’ did not result in the King changing his mind. Thomas Simon died of the plague in 1665.
Our story of how England mechanised its coin production is nearly over. Towards the end of the 17th century, it was decided to replace the hammered coins that were still in circulation with milled ones. The hammered coins had been extensively clipped and were now very worn. In 1696 branch mints were set up at Bristol, Chester, Exeter, Norwich and York to assist with what has been called the Great Recoinage. The operation was financed by the Window Tax, which is why you see the windows of some old houses bricked-up and an outline of a window painted on the subsequent plastered surface so as to avoid the tax.
In 1816 the Mint was moved from the Tower of London to purpose-built premises on Tower Hill. The machinery was now powered by steam. In 1967 it was announced that the Royal Mint would leave London for Llantrisant in South Wales. The Queen struck the first coin at the new mint on 17 December 1968. Operations at Tower Hill ceased in October 1975.