Matthew Boulton’s Cartwheel Coin

Oh no, not again I hear you cry. Some of what appeared in a blog post of 2011, but will be new for many. And anyway, I want Boulton and his contribution to coinage to have a place in my collection of new blog posts … and in my own style. I’m not out to re-invent the wheel. Mr Google provides comprehensive information for those who wish to check. Let me Google that for you. Just click HERE .

The Father of Birmingham – 1723-1809

Matthew Boulton. The entrepreneur dubbed the Richard Branson of his day.
Picture Courtesy of [Spartacus Educational]

Anyone who has ever experienced the shrill tones of a copper cartwheel coin in their headphones may have heard the name of Matthew Boulton. Today, we take for granted that coins will fit into machines and be recognised, but before Boulton it couldn’t be done.

In the years leading to up to 1797 there was a shortage of copper and counterfeiting was rife. The Royal Mint was producing little low-value copper coinage and there was a boom in private tokens issued by companies across Britain. Many detectorists will be aware of the ‘token explosion’ at this time because they are a common find. Some of them are quite sophisticated in their imagery.

Grandfather of Modern Coinage

All this came to an abrupt end when Boulton was commissioned, by the government in 1797, to start producing copper coins. One of the amazing things about the issue of these George III coins was that they rendered tokens almost obsolete overnight. The coins were designed by a German engraver, Conrad Heinrich Kuchler, and it’s the first time that the figure of Britannia was shown holing a trident rather than a spear. Britain was blockading the Continent at the time and Rule Britannia was very popular!

The coins are known as ‘cartwheels’ because of their large size and raised rims. The reason they were so large was because the weight of the coin was equal to the value of the copper content; the penny weighed one ounce and the two pence, two ounces. The penny is 3.7 centimetres in diameter and the two pence 4.06.

© Westminster Coins

The coins were struck using coin presses powered by steam, yet another ‘first’. Between the years 1797-99 about 45 million pennies and two penny pieces were produced at the Soho Mint in Birmingham, which Boulton had established in 1788. ALL the coins bear the date 1797, even though they were still being minted a couple of years later. Soho House is now a museum and parts of the old foundry still survive.

During his lifetime Matthew Boulton was a world-famous figure, but since the 20th century his name has been largely overshadowed by that of his business partner, James Watt. The contribution to the creation of reliable British coinage was arguably his most significant legacy. After his death in 1809, James Watt wrote:

“Had Mr Boulton done nothing more in the world than what he has done in improving the coinage, his fame would have deserved to be immortalised.”

Jams Watt

Recognition

I am pleased to report that in 2014 Matthew Boulton, one of the most important figures of the early Industrial Revolution, was honoured with a memorial in Westminster Abbey. He was a man of wide-ranging talents: silversmith, button and buckle manufacturer, steam engineer, coin minter, entrepreneur, Fellow of the Royal Society and one of the founder members of the famous Lunar Society of Birmingham. Read more in this BBC report.

A Forged Cartwheel Coin

You may find it strange that copper coins were forged. Because this blog is all about Boulton, I’ve chosen one of my forged cartwheel pennies to show you. They were difficult to counterfeit … and my example proves that.

Not very convincing, eh? Not even copper, but a lead composite, but perhaps you’d get away offering it in a busy bar on a Saturday night. Boulton’s Soho Mint struck coins for the East India Company, Sierra Leone and Russia, while producing high-quality planchets, or blank coins, to be struck by national mints elsewhere. For example, the firm sent over 20 million blanks to Philadelphia, to be struck into cents and half-cents by the United States Mint. So, there you have an American connection.

Boulton & Watt – Take Note!

The Boulton and Watt note, which was brought into circulation in November 2011, was the first introduced by the Bank to feature a green “motion thread”, which has five windows featuring the pound symbol and the number 50, which move up and down when the note is tilted from side to side.

The Royal Mint issued a paper £50 in 2011, featuring entrepreneur Matthew Boulton and the engineer James Watt. The current polymer £50 was issued in 2021 and features Alan Turing
SOHO HOUSE MUSEUM was once the elegant home of Matthew Boulton [ 1728 – 1809 ]

” . . . every coin in circulation can be regarded as the “great-grandson” of those created in a Birmingham factory.


2 thoughts on “Matthew Boulton’s Cartwheel Coin

  1. I have some friends who have been to old Blighty John… and they have found cartwheels.. I did not know that there was that much history to them though… You would think that with the amount of effort involved in counterfeiting, that getting a job would be more lucrative.. LOL

    Anyway.. another interesting tidbit of history that I always learn from with your blogs

    Many thanks

    Micheal

    Liked by 1 person

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