Leather Money from Hartland

Trans. Devon. Assoc. 1891, Vol XXIII, pp. 408-409.


H. W. Strong

Prepared by Michael Steer

This paper was presented at the Association’s Tiverton meeting, July 1891. Traders' tokens formed an illegal "money of necessity," and were issued in England, Wales, and Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were the small change of the period, and were extremely useful to the people who issued and used them. They would never have been issued but for the indifference of a Government to a public need, and their issue forms a remarkable instance of a people supplying their own needs by an illegal issue of coinage. Tokens were a preferred method of payment in local stores or businesses that issued them for several reasons. First, they could only be redeemed at the place of issuance. Second, they acted as a secure substitute for gold and silver coin for stores operating in remote areas with little, if any, law enforcement. Chope, T.H. Notes of the Past No. 5: Hartland Tradesmen's Tokens. Hartland Chronicle (June 1989), provides greater insight into these particularly unusual tokens. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

Although it may well have been that, when in 1871 the Association held its annual meeting at Bideford, attention was casually directed to the circulation of leather sixpences and shillings at Hartland in the early part of the present century, the Transactions do not contain any record of the interesting fact. Specimens are believed to have been exhibited on that occasion, but privately, and to individual members only. They were shown by someone who had borrowed them from their possessor at Clovelly. Reference has again been made, in the public prints, to the existence of this unique local coinage, and, while the subject is uppermost, it will not be out of place to bring together the statements which suffice to describe the nature and narrate the history of the leather money from Hartland.

In an appendix to a laborious work entitled Consideration of the State of the Currency, published by Lord Lauderdale in 1808, the statement was made, on the authority of a firm at Barnstaple, that "leather sixpences and shillings were in circulation in this neighbourhood." On his attention being directed to this reference Mr. Townshend M. Hall, F.G.S., of Barnstaple, made the interesting communication that, when in charge of a geological party, either on the occasion of the British Association excursion from Exeter, in 1869, or that of the meeting of the Devonshire Association in 1871, he had been shown, at Bideford, specimens of the coins. He perfectly remembered the pieces of leather, which were about the size and shape of an ordinary visiting card. Further enquiries elicited a letter from Mr. T. Oatway, of Bideford, who remarked that these primitive bank-notes had been correctly described. Hartland was their birthplace, the tokens being issued by Mr. Prust, of the Hartland Tannery. Any shopkeeper would take them as "payment for value received," in the shape of provisions, goods, or what not. They were, indeed, regarded by the good people of the district with a confidence quite as great as that enjoyed by coins emanating from the Mint.

The Prust family still have representatives in the parish, but the tanneries long ago ceased working. To-day the Prusts are farmers and small tradesmen. There are, however, it is believed, several old people now living at Hartland who have seen these "coins" in circulation, and a few of the leather sixpences and shillings are preserved as curiosities.

It is by no means a difficult matter to supply a feasible reason for the circulation of these leather coins. The scarcity of money which at various times led to the issue, by private individuals, of tokens, "for the convenience of change," may, at a prosperous period in the history of Hartland, have been experienced by this isolated community; and it is quite within the bounds of belief that, when Mr. Prust, as the largest employer of labour, sought to cope with the difficulty, he was, as a tanner, an easy convert to the opinion that there was "nothing like leather" as a material for the new local coinage.

Hartland lost its thirteenth-century market some seventy years ago. The decay of its tanneries was almost contemporaneous with this indication of dwindling inland commerce, and so, just within the memory of the oldest residents of to-day, the leather coinage