A penny for your thoughts…

Money, as Liza Minnelli has told us, makes the world go around. It is such an intricate and constant part of the societies we live in, a factor upon which so many of our actions – collectively and individually – are based. It is also, as so many television shows and books have taught me, an excellent source of information about people and their motivations.

We don’t often find money in archaeological sites, for the simple and entirely obvious reason that people tend not to throw their coins away (except in the figurative sense of the phrase, clearly). Those examples of currency that we do find, however, are curious reminders of past values and costs of living, as well as the physical differences of living with a currency that is so different from the way our financial exchanges work now.

A Victorian penny minted in 1863. The top image shows the penny found in Christchurch, while the bottom image shows a cleaner example of an identical coin. Image: J. Garland.

A Victorian penny minted in 1863. The top image shows the penny found in Christchurch, while the bottom image shows a cleaner example of an identical coin. Image: J. Garland.

Most of the currency used in New Zealand in the 19th century was British, naturally, by virtue of this country being a British colony. We’ve found several British pennies and at least one halfpenny in sites in Christchurch and Lyttelton. Pennies, such as the one shown to the right were embossed with the likeness of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria on the obverse and variations of the image of the figure Britannia, seated in her chariot, on the reverse. The particular likeness used on the penny in the image to the right is known as the ‘bun head’ likeness, in reference to her hairstyle. The bun head design was preceded by what is known as the ‘young head ’, used from 1838-1859/60, and followed by the ‘old head’ (also known as the ‘veiled head’, used from 1895 until Victoria’s death in 1901). Not the most flattering of names for Her Majesty’s head that I’ve heard…

During the 19th century (and for much of the 20th), it took 12 pence to equal a shilling, and 20 shillings to equal a pound, meaning that a single penny was 1/240th of a pound. To put that in perspective, in 1863 (when our bun head penny was made), a person could buy, at wholesale prices, a dozen quart bottles of pickles for one pound,  a pound tin of ground coffee for one and half shillings, or a pound of sultanas for eight pence (Lyttelton Times 13/6/1863: 3). It can be problematic to relate the value of money in the past to the value we give it now, thanks to inflation and the constantly shifting values of different currencies and market values, but it’s interesting to consider the relative cost of these items today. For example, a 400g bag of Sultanas costs c. $3 at Countdown now, while the equivalent amount of ground coffee is around the $10 mark.

An advertisement from 1863, showing wholesale prices for goods in Lyttelton. Image: Lyttelton Times

An advertisement from 1863, showing wholesale prices for goods in Lyttelton. Image: Lyttelton Times 13/6/1863: 3.

Pennies, and other 19th century coins such as these, provide an interesting link, not only to the monetary system and values of the 19th century, but to the physical production of royal currency.  In 1860, for example, the Royal Mint ceased  to manufacture pennies from copper (which they had done since the first minting of the cartwheel penny in 1797) and began to make them of bronze instead. The size of the coin also changed, from 34 mm in diameter to 31 mm. The process of minting coins, particularly the penny, is one that ties into other technological developments of the time (including the switch to a steam-powered mint in the late 18th century) and the achievements of famous figures (such as Matthew Boulton; Selgin 2003). It’s also a process that is integral to the economic growth of the British empire and her colonies, like New Zealand (Royal Mint Museum 2014).

The bronze penny (left) and half-penny (right) recovered from Grubb cottage.

A bronze penny (left) and half-penny (right) recovered from Grubb cottage. These coins were particularly interesting due to their association with Masonic ritual. Image: R. Geary-Nichol.

However, as well as British coins, we’ve also found alternative forms of currency in Christchurch’s archaeological sites.  A Belgian ’10 centimes’ coin was found in Lyttelton following the earthquakes, manufactured in 1863 (again!). Of course, the presence of coins in archaeological sites is not always related to their primary use as currency, as we’ve mentioned before on the blog in reference to Masonic rituals . A Belgian coin found in Christchurch doesn’t necessarily hold any meaning as money in this context, but may instead provide other avenues of information – such as a connection between Belgium and Christchurch, be it familial, commercial or otherwise.

The 1863 Belgian '10 centimes' coin found in Lyttelton. Image: L. Davies.

The 1863 Belgian ’10 centimes’ coin found in Lyttelton. Image: L. Davies.

One alternative to British currency that does relate directly to the monetary system of Christchurch, though, is the humble Christchurch token. We’ve found a couple of these on sites in the city now: flat circular pieces of metal that bear every resemblance to coins, except for the insignia of local merchants embossed into the surface.

For much of the early decades of Christchurch’s settlement, it seems, small currency was difficult to come by. Local businesses and settlers combated this shortage of actual money by creating their own, known as ‘trade tokens’. Tokens became recognised as legal tender in Christchurch and were used as currency in the city from 1857 until 1897, when they were demonetised by the government. Interestingly, many (if not most) of these tokens only had value in Christchurch and were considered worthless in other cities in the country (Thomas & Dale 1950: 11).

An example of a Henry J. Hall halfpenny token, identical to the one found in Christchurch. Image: Victoria Museum.

An example of a Henry J. Hall halfpenny token, identical to the one found in Christchurch. Image: Museum Victoria.

Although they were struck in Australia, and then shipped to Christchurch, tokens were stamped with the names and insignia of local traders and businesses. One such example found on an archaeological site in the city bears the mark of Henry Joseph Hall, reading “HALF PENNY / HENRY J. HALL / CHRISTCHURCH COFFEE MILLS” on one side and “H.J.HALL / FAMILY GROCER / WINE & SPIRIT MERCHANT” on the other.

Henry Joseph Hall was an agriculturalist and pastoralist turned grocer who arrived in Christchurch in 1857. He opened a grocery business in Cashel Street west in 1864, subsequently converting the Wesleyan Chapel on High Street into a large store in 1865. During his time as a grocer, he issued a total of 19 varieties of penny tokens and three varieties of halfpenny tokens in Christchurch, struck by the Melbourne medallists W. J. Taylor and Thomas Stokes, as well as W. J. Taylor of London. These tokens were circulated throughout the city as money in relatively large numbers and could be used, not only with  the issuing firm, but with all other traders in the city (Thomas & Dale 1950 56-61; Museum Victoria).

We’ve talked about the entrepreneurial spirit of 19th century Christchurch a few times here on the blog, in reference to so many of the individuals and businesses that contributed to the economic and social growth of Christchurch as a city. It strikes me now, that in people like Henry Hall and other manufacturers of trade tokens – people who made their own money – that entrepreneurial spirit is even more pronounced.

Money is a curious thing, so vital to our everyday existence in this world and yet so completely a construction that we, as a society, have created to be necessary in our lives. It can be very easy, I think, especially in this age of electronic transactions, to forget where our money came from in the first place. Artefacts like these – be they royally issued coins or locally struck tokens – are a somewhat disconcerting reminder that we made it ourselves.

Jessie Garland


Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Museum Victoria. [online] Available at www.museumvictoria.com.au

Royal Mint Museum. [online] Available at www.royalmintmuseum.org.uk

Selgin, G., 2003. Steam, hot air, and small change: Matthew Boulton and the reform of Britain’s coinage. The Economic History Review, 56, 478-509.

Thomas, E. R. & Dale, L. J. (eds.), 1950. They made their own money: the story of early Canterbury traders & their tokens. Canterbury Branch of the Royal Numismatic Society of New Zealand.