Tokenhouse Yard, the Royal Society, and the Great Plague

Tokenhouse Yard copyYesterday’s post made reference to Tokenhouse Yard and, as promised, here is some more on that City of London street. The derivation of the name is fairly straightforward: there once stood in the yard a house where tokens were issued.

Simple. But, yes, there is more to the story.

The tokens were issued by tradesmen in London and other cities to provide a means of offering currency in smaller amounts. For centuries there was no copper coinage in England: Elizabeth I was, apparently, particularly biased against copper coins. Although copper coins were issued at various times, it was not until 1672, in the reign of Charles II, that copper coins (halfpence and farthings) were declared legal tender and tokens were no longer permitted.

According to Charles II’s proclamation at the time copper coins were finally made legal, anyone who sought to counterfeit any of the new halfpence or farthings were to be considered “utterly inexcusable”. Their contempt of his law and government should cause them to be “chastised with exemplary severity”.

The yard was built by Sir William Petty, an English economist, scientist and philosopher who served under Oliver Cromwell and was able to survive through the reigns of Charles II and James II. He was a charter member of the Royal Society.

Defoe_Journal_of_the_Plague_YearTokenhouse Yard features in Daniel Defoe’s fictionalised account of the Great Plague of London, A Journal of the Plague Year. He writes: “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 a chilliness in my very blood.”

Although Defoe was only three when the plague broke out, but it is assumed that he based much of the work on the journals of his uncle, Henry Foe. Defoe strove so hard to provide a believable account of the plague that his novel is argued to be more non-fiction than fiction and to be more detailed than Samuel Pepys’s contemporary, first-person account.

5 thoughts on “Tokenhouse Yard, the Royal Society, and the Great Plague

  1. beetleypete January 14, 2015 / 1:28 pm

    An interesting tale of currency in the seventeenth century. How small London must have been, that so few places could issue these tokens.

    It brings to mind the tokens issued to dock workers in my youth, to allow them into the docks to work for one day’s pay, sometimes called ‘tallies.’ The men would congregate in a shelter (one still remains) and wait to be picked by a ‘ganger.’ Many men made their living this way, with no guarantee of work.

    ‘Those, therefore, who were interested in this problem of the docks during the later part of the last century sought to secure the setting up of what has been called a “fence” round the general dock workers and granting to them some token or tally, which doubtless many of your Lordships have seen, by which they could be recognized at the call places and thus be enabled to obtain preference of engagement.’

    Best wishes, Pete.

    • thestreetnames January 15, 2015 / 8:40 am

      Thanks, Pete, you always have something interesting to add.

      • beetleypete January 15, 2015 / 11:14 am

        I try my best, where appropriate…

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