Armorial Bearings granted to Robert Lord alias Laward of London in 1510; College of Arms MS L10 folio 105b; copyright of the College of Arms, London. Used by permission.

Cartwheels

The 1797 cartwheel twopence. The 1797 cartwheel twopence.


A particular favorite of mine, the King George III "Cartwheel" two-pence of 1797.


If you enjoy history and artifacts that are linked to a lot of historical themes simultaneously, and particularly if you like old coins, as I do, then this one is easy to get attached to.

These big heavy coppers are nearly unique in the world of coinage. They were minted only in 1797, and were without precedent, for earlier pence were of silver, and earlier coppers were small and thin for the most part.

By 1797 in Britain counterfeiting was rampant, real coins were getting worn out, and the supply of good small denomination coinage was running low. So these giant copper coins - the two-pence (above) and a smaller penny in the same design - were created. And they were the first coins minted on a steam-driven machine - a bit of history in itself.

But what is dramatic about these coins is their size! The two-pence is an inch and three-quarters in diameter and a quarter inch thick. It weighs a full two ounces, and the penny weighs one ounce, which made them useful as counter weights. That is one reason so many may have survived in relatively good condition.

King George III.

The design is simple but at the same time elegant - the infamous King George III who we fought against in the Revolution on the obverse, and on the reverse the classic Britannia. It was the unusual raised flat rim that runs around perimeter of the coin that gave it its nickname - "Cartwheel".

For me there is another connection to history. The date - 1797 - is right in the middle of the period of inland navigation and canals I am researching. So when I hold one of these heavy coins in my hand, I know that as it was being spent in England, here in New York the finishing touches were being put on one or the other of the works that helped connect the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, long before the Erie Canal was built.

And of course in a coin like this, where the face of the reigning monarch is imprinted on every strike, one can enjoy comparisons of the coined portrait with the real man, even if sometimes drawn in exaggeration (below)


King George III may have gone down in history as the mad king, or the British monarch who lost the American Colonies, but at least in one area he was unsurpassed - the size and weight of his coinage in 1797!

The Age of Steam...

This coin was the first in England to be minted on a steam powered press. The press was designed by James Watt (below, right) and Mathew Boulton (below, left), both pioneers in British steam technology.

They began to apply steam power to everything, including at Boulton’s Soho Factory. Here they had been making buttons, and the button department also produced some copper merchant tokens, which are much like coins (below).

The power of the steam coining press was most impressively demonstrated in 1797 when Boulton and Watt used their press to strike Britain’s first copper pennies. Each was a solid copper disc of one ounce – sharply and evenly struck beyond any coinage produced anywhere. They followed this up with a two ounce two penny piece that immediately became known as a “cartwheel”.

Scale..

The "cartwheel" two-pence coin may be the largest and thickest coin in the world. To hold this massive piece of 18th century copper is to give new meaning to "putting in my two-cents". And compared to our own modern equivalent, the copper one cent coin (below), it is a giant.

The one penny coin (below, left), companion piece to the 2-penny "cartwheel", is just about as thick and almost as big (below). It is hard to imagine having to carry a pocket-full of these to go shopping.

In the late 18th century for just one of these pennies (above, left) you could buy enough candles to last a week, and for three of the 2-pence "cartwheels" (above, right) you could buy enough soap for the week.

So a penny then was far more valuable than a penny today. And, ironically, a penny FROM then.....one of the 1797 copper pence.... in decent condition, can cost the collector up to $50.00. Would they have believed that over 200 years ago??


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