A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Streets Of London – Part Fifty Eight


Tokenhouse Yard, EC2

If you walk down Lothbury towards London Wall you will come across on the left hand side a grand entrance to Tokenhouse Yard, its name bearing testimony to an interesting piece of England’s economic history. The issuance of coinage was a royal prerogative but during the first half of the 17th century, the Stuarts showed little interest in the fiddly bits of small change, like pennies, halfpennies and farthings, and outsourced their production to favoured courtiers. The civil war and the collapse of the monarchy meant that there was a severe shortage of the small change that is meat and drink to a thriving economy.

In response towns and merchants started to issue tokens, often in lead, brass, copper or tin, which took the place of the smaller coinage. It is estimated that there were some 20,000 distributors of tokens throughout the land and at least 3,000 in London. The tokens had no official status and often could only be exchanged in the place of issuance, a bit like a gift voucher – a handy way of a tradesman ensuring customer loyalty. It was not until 1672 that the crown regained control of the issuance of small coinage, Charles II introduced copper halfpennies and farthings and stamped out the trade in tokens. Those found counterfeiting the new currency were to be “chastised with exemplary severity” and most of the tokens in circulation were melted down, disappearing as quickly as they appeared.

That being the case, it is not surprising that Tokenhouse Yard takes its name from an office on the site which issued these tokens. The yard itself occupies the erstwhile site of the house and gardens of the Earl of Arundel who decamped to the Strand and dates from the time of Charles I. It was built by the polymath, Sir William Petty (1620 – 1687), who as well as being an economist was an early member of the Royal Society. Together with John Graunt, Petty developed human population statistical methodologies which led to the former publishing his Bills of Mortality, the first attempt to develop human mortality tables.

Tokenhouse Yard has a name check in Daniel Defoe’s fictional account of the Great Plague of London, a Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722. “In my walks I had many dismal scenes before my eyes, as particularly of persons falling dead in the streets, terrible shrieks and screeching of women, who oin their agonies would throw open their chamber windows, a cry out in a dismal surprising manner. Passing through Tokenhouse Yard, in Lothbury, of a sudden a casement violently opened just over my head, and a woman gave three frightful screeches, and then cried “Oh! Death, death, death” in a most inimitable tone, which struck me with horror, and chillness in my very blood. There was nobody to be seen in the whole street, neither did any other window open, for people had no curiosity now in any case, nor could anybody help one another”.

Walking down Lothbury today, navigating my way past the smombies glued to their screens and looking at their latest emails, it is hard to imagine this area was the scene of such terrible human tragedy. But, then, London has many surprising twists and turns in its long and chequered history.


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