For some reason that life’s too short to find out, the Royal Mint and its museum are based in Wales. So a new exhibition at the Tower of London adds a welcome and much-needed minty flavour to the capital. And rightly so, because the Royal Mint was based at the royal fortress from the late thirteenth century right through to 1812. The new show – Coins and Kings: The Royal Mint at the Tower – is based in rooms which were once part of the old money factory in what was, and is, known as Mint Street.
There is a strong focus on technology. At the beginning of our period it was very basic; coins were literally stamped with a hammer and dye, and then cut into shape. As a technique it was thousands of years old. During the Restoration a new way of making milled coins using machinery was introduced from the Continent. Apart from automation, that’s essentially still the method used today.
I love the story of James Turnbull, a soldier who was seconded to do hot, sweaty work in the mint. With the help of an accomplice, after breakfast one morning in December 1798 he locked his colleagues in a cupboard and made off with much bullion. He was caught trying to escape to Europe several weeks later. Next stop, Newgate gallows by way of the Old Bailey. Exactly a century previously William Chaloner, a notorious counterfeiter and fraudster had been running rings around the authorities. Unfortunately for him, the new Warden of the Mint was possibly the cleverest man in the world: Isaac Newton. Newton meticulously built a water-tight case against the felon and prosecuted him, the inevitable result being a one way ticket to Tyburn. In a final letter to Newton, the now contrite Chaloner begged for his life:
O dear Sr nobody can save me but you O God my God I shall be murdered unless you save me O I hope God will move your heart with mercy pitty to do this thing for me I am Your near murdered humble Servant…
These are just a few of the stories you’ll learn. Key objects from the Tower itself have been united with items from the Royal Mint Museum in Wales, the British Museum and other institutions to give a compelling narrative of coin production down the centuries. The great and the good – kings, scientists, forgers and brigands – all are featured.
This exhibition hasn’t been confirmed as “permanent”, but it is on “until further notice”, which means for a long time. Entry is free with the Tower of London ticket, so do make sure you make account for it whenever you next visit, easily worth 45 minutes to an hour of your time.