Review: The Hibernia Coinage of William Wood

Sydney Martin. The Hibernia Coinage of William Wood (1722—1724). Ann Arbor, Mich.: C4 Publications, 2007. Hb. 492 pp., index, b/w illus. throughout. ISBN 13: 978-0-615- 15396. $85.00. Distributed by Charles Davis.

In the summer of 1722, the English iron and copper magnate William Wood obtained a patent from King George I to produce a copper coinage for cash-starved Ireland. Despite the very attractive design of the new Hibernia farthings and halfpence, their imposition on Ireland without the involvement of Irish Parliament led to an immediate and increasingly violent outcry against the coins. Thanks especially to the fiery rhetoric of the anonymous Drapier (a.k.a. Jonathan Swift), Wood’s coinage found little acceptance in Ireland, and by the summer of 1725 he had negotiated the return of the patent to the King.

Although the economic and historical interest of the series should be immediately evident from the preceding synopsis, and the artistic merit of the coins is undisputable, there has been very little detailed publication of the series. One might get the impression that even now, after so many decades, the poisoned pen of the Drapier still contributes to the marginalization of Wood’s Hibernia coinage. We are very fortunate that Sydney Martin has dared to stand up to Swift’s ghost and correct the centuries of relative neglect by producing an exhaustive die catalogue for the Hibernia coinage with historical and numismatic commentary.

The first chapter serves as an introduction to the life of William Wood and the history of his ill-starred attempt to strike a coinage for Ireland, while the second provides an overview of the production methods used for the Hibernia series. Here Martin shows that the unprecedented outcry against the coinage was fueled largely by politics and nascent Irish nationalism rather than by the specific defects of the coinage touted by Swift and others. He points out that the complaint that the coins were underweight and of bad metal was refuted by the trial of the pyx, but it is worth considering that the fiduciary nature of virtually all eighteenth-century British and European copper money (excepting Swedish plåtmynt) should have made these issues irrelevant in the first place. The value of the Hibernia coppers was dictated by the willingness of the royal government to accept them at face value. Such willingness was made clear by the payment of Irish troops in Hibernia coins and the order that they be accepted for taxes. With the backing of the government, Wood’s coinage was actually much more likely to retain its value than the many merchant tokens that normally passed for money in Ireland.

The author believes that there was some merit to the objection that Wood’s coinage would flood the notoriously cash-starved Irish economy with more money than it could use and thus drive out what little gold and silver there was. This might have been a reasonable fear if Wood had filled the entire order for £40,000 worth of Hibernia coppers, but he does not appear to have done so. Martin later offers a rough estimate of the total production of the Hibernia series at 1,595,000 farthings and 6,710,000 halfpence, based on the known dies. These numbers are fully supported if we apply the more statistically sound Carter/Esty method of estimating the total number of original dies (see W. Esty, “How to Estimate the Original Number of Dies and the Coverage of a Sample,” NC 166 [2006]: 359–364). Using this method, there were probably 28.4 to 33.5 original farthing obverse dies and 125.8 to 137.8 halfpence dies. Taking the highest die estimates and assuming (as does Martin) a maximum of 50,000 coins per die (probably much too high), Wood would have struck something in the neighborhood of 1,700,000 farthings and 6,900,000 halfpence. All of this would have been worth a little more than a third of the £40,000 that Wood was authorized to produce. Clearly there was no flooding of the Irish economy actually going on.

Finally, the author uses cost analysis to show the baseless nature of the accusation that Wood was unfairly profiting at the expense of the Irish people. Indeed, it is convincingly argued that if anything, Wood’s production of coinage for Ireland operated at a loss. Somewhat less convincing, however, is the theory that once Wood realized that he had embarked upon a losing venture he consciously tried to incite the Irish protesters in the hope that the king would take back the patent (p. 14, n. 46). While this is not entirely impossible, it seems rather unlikely, especially in the absence of any supporting documentary evidence. Such recourse would have been unnecessary, for as Martin points out himself, the chain of bribery that led to Wood’s acquisition of the patent probably gave him enough blackmail material to force its return in the end.

Each of the two Hibernia denominations receives its own catalogue, which treats obverse and reverse dies separately. Martin’s catalogue entries are remarkable for their level of detail and can easily be held up as a model for how dies of early modern coinages ought to be described. Each entry provides all the necessary diagnostic information for identifying known dies and documents changes to their appearance over their period of use. The descriptions of observed die states are extremely important, as the dies were somewhat poorly manufactured and heavily used. Die breaks often mar the designs, even in relatively early die states, while the letters of the legends are commonly distorted by bifurcation, especially in later states. Pitting from rust and sinking portions of dies also pose problems for identification.

Our only real criticisms of the farthing and halfpenny catalogues are related to minor inconsistencies in the descriptions. For example, many of the coin images that accompany the catalogue entries show clear bifurcation of the letters (i.e., farthings 3.5 and 3.18, and halfpence 4.82, 7.1, 9.1, etc.), but this feature is mentioned only occasionally (i.e., farthing 2.1). Likewise, there is some inconsistency in the use of terminology to describe die states between the catalogue and the labels given to the illustrations. The labels use IDS, MDS, and LDS (Initial, Early, and Late Die State), but the catalogue never refers to the middle die state, instead referring to two phases of a later die state. Still, any confusion caused by these mixed designations is easily remedied by the detailed descriptions of the die states in the entries.

Several dies and varieties presented in the catalogues are worthy of some brief special mention. Some dies have unexpected pellets between and within letters (i.e., farthing reverse Bb.4, halfpenny obverse 4.49). The purpose of these features is never fully explained by Martin, but one wonders whether they might represent marks initially put into the dies as a means of laying out the design before the device and letter punches were applied. These pellets are all roughly the same size as the prominent centering marks visible on many of the obverse and reverse dies, which marks the author discusses. Likewise, the “eyebrow” mark above the initial stop of halfpenny reverse Bc.1 gives a greater impression of a layout mark rather than of an erasure of a blundered stop, while a similar mark at the elbow of Hibernia on Gb.5 and below H in the legend of Gc.18 also look like possible positioning aids.

The halfpenny obverse 4.36 is an interesting example of a die that has received a weak portrait type from its hub, thereby giving King George an uncharacteristic flowing hairstyle. If not for the other coins clearly showing that the ends of the king’s curls were included in the hub, one might conclude from this piece that they were intended to be completed by hand and that die 4.36 was unfinished. Halfpenny obverse 4.49 involves apparently re-engraved hair at the nape of the king’s neck, which may possibly correct a similar case of poor hubbing.

Three farthing patterns and one halfpenny pattern are also included in the catalogues. These have not always been accepted by all authors as proper issues of the Hibernia coinage. However, two of the farthing patterns are certainly related to the main Hibernia series (5.1-G.1 and 5.1-H.1), as they share the 1724 Hibernia farthing reverse die G.1. Interestingly, the exceptionally animated treatment of the hair on the farthing obverse dies 4.1 and 5.1 and halfpenny obverse 9.2 also connects these patterns to Wood’s 1724 Rosa Americana patterns (see Breen, Encyclopedia, nos. 99–103). The situation is less clear where the farthing 4.1-F.1 is concerned, because there is actually no clear link to the Hibernia series either through the obverse portrait or the reverse type. Martin describes the latter as a depiction of Hibernia with a shield, staff (scepter), and orb, rather than her usual harp, but this seems rather unlikely. It is far more probable that this anepigraphic reverse type represents Britannia, not least because the shield upon which she rests is blazoned with a rose and thistle entwined—obvious emblems of England and Scotland, respectively. If this farthing pattern does indeed depict Britannia and is a true Wood production, then we must wonder whether he might have schemed at obtaining a patent to strike coins for England as well as for Ireland and the American colonies. The pattern farthing reverse H.1, which is sometimes muled with the Hibernia pattern reverse G.1, also tends to imply a planned English farthing coinage. Its type features a crossed trident and scepter with the legend UNUS UTROQUE REGIT (“One [king] reigns everywhere”), clearly alluding to the British overseas empire. The type also appears on the halfpenny pattern 9.2-P.1 and is derived from a 1628 shilling pattern of Charles I. The 1724 date of this pattern is intriguing, as this was the same year that English regal copper ceased production. Regal farthings and halfpence were not issued again until 1730. Perhaps G.1 (and F.1, which seems to embody the same idea of British imperial power) was produced in a failed attempt to win a patent that would have filled the void between 1724 and 1730.

The catalogues (and the rest of the text) are supported by superb black-and-white coin illustrations that reveal the full beauty of the types as well as the smallest defects that appeared on the dies during the course of striking. Neil Rothschild, a coin photographer whose skillful use of lighting and quality of imaging borders on the legendary within the American colonial numismatic community, produced most of the illustrations. Because the coins are generally depicted at 2.5 times actual size and more than one die state is often shown, students of the Hibernia series should have little difficulty locating the diagnostic features of individual dies described in the catalogue entries.

A final chapter discusses the Hibernia coinage in its secondary area of circulation in the American colonies. This is only appropriate, since the book represents the fourth volume produced by the Colonial Coin Collectors Club. Martin does an excellent job of presenting the find evidence for the coppers in Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, Vermont, and Nova Scotia. However, his data (170 coins) should be supplemented by one halfpenny (1723) from East Moriches, Long Island (NY), and a “large hoard” from Boston (“Old Coins Unearthed,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 25, 1898, 4; J. Colburn, “English Coins Struck for the American Colonies, Coins Issued by the Several States and by the Federal Government Previous to the Establishment of the Mint in 1792,” Historical Magazine 1, no. 10 [October 1875]: 300; information courtesy of John Kleeberg). The suggestion that the Hibernia coppers may have come to North America in part through the machinations of speculators after virtual demonetization in Ireland seems very plausible, especially in light of the example provided by Mark Newby and the St. Patrick halfpence in the later seventeenth century.

As an interesting addendum to the extensive find evidence for American circulation, the author also charts the history of the Hibernia coinage as a series recognized by collectors as “colonial.” Based on a review of early American and English sale catalogues, it is shown that the coppers were probably elevated to “colonial” status shortly after 1861, when W. C. Prime published them in Coins, Medals, Seals, Ancient and Modern as issues sent to America.

In addition to the main text and catalogue, Martin also includes five appendices. The first and probably most unusual of these deals with curiosities related to the Hibernia series. Highlights include an oversize “rock” halfpenny with the added edge legend LOOK UNTO THE ROCK WHENCE YE ARE HEWN, a tube for storing farthings passed down through Wood’s descendants, Peter Rosa’s equipment for manufacturing Hibernia replicas, and a halfpenny converted into a nail (?). Equally interesting but somewhat less odd are the countermarks that sometimes appear on the halfpence of 1723.

In appendix B, the author presents a new grading methodology, with detailed enlargements to depict every wear grade from AG 3 to UNC, while appendix C gives rarity estimates for the Hibernia series. These estimates are based on the frequency with which individual varieties appeared in the eight major private collections surveyed by Robert Vlack in 1975, plus the material in the American Numismatic Society and British Museum cabinets, as well as the collections of John J. Ford and the author. A concordance between Martin’s varieties and the taxonomies found in the earlier works of Vlack, Philip Nelson, Don Taxay, and Walter Breen is given in appendix D. Because of its clarity and relative simplicity, there is little doubt that the new Martin identification schema will ultimately supersede all of these.

The final appendix reproduces contemporary documents related to the introduction of and public outcry against the Hibernia coinage. Most of these items are drawn from contemporary newspapers, but also included are the lyrics to Charles Shadwell’s song in praise of the Drapier and the music for Turlough O’Carolan’s “Squire Wood’s Lamentation on the Refusal of His Halfpence.” Now specialists in Wood’s coinage have access to something they have long needed: an appropriate tune to hum while looking at coins and poring over die charts. Hopefully some enterprising numismatist/musician will do the great favor of recording the O’Carolan piece for those of us who are musically illiterate.

The Hibernia Coinage of William Wood represents a major step forward in our understanding of Wood’s failed Irish coinage and provides a model to which all privately published numismatic works should aspire. No doubt it will inspire a much greater interest in the Hibernia coinage than the series has previously tended to enjoy in North America and will serve as a stable foundation for future study. If he were alive today, we can imagine that Swift would be singularly incensed by this worthy attempt to rehabilitate the Hibernia coppers for modern numismatists. Perhaps the book might have elicited an eighth letter from the Drapier. Nevertheless, we look forward to Martin’s next foray into the world of William Wood, in a planned book on the Rosa Americana coinage, which was greeted with almost as much enthusiasm in the American colonies as the Hibernia series was in Ireland.

—Oliver D. Hoover