Skip to content

Bishopsgate Tavern Tokens

March 26, 2022
by the gentle author

The Ship Tavern, Bishopsgate

There are some artefacts that, in their detail and evidence of wear, can evoke an entire world. Although no larger than a thumbnail, these modest seventeenth century tavern tokens in the collection at the Bishopsgate Institute bring alive that calamitous era after the English Revolution when London was struck by the Great Plague in 1665 and then the Great Fire in 1666.

Bishopsgate was one of the few parts of the City spared by the Fire. It was lined with ancient taverns, used as points of departure and arrival for those travelling up and down the old Roman road north from the City of London. The part inside the City wall was known as Bishopsgate Within and the part outside the wall was Bishopsgate Without, and beyond, where the muddy road widened, was known as Bishopsgate St. The taverns served as hotels, drinking and dining houses, breweries and stables, couriers and coach offices, places of business and of entertainment, and were such significant centres of commerce that they issued their own currency for use as change.

There is a vibrant graphic quality in these miniature token designs, delighting in combining hand-lettering and familiar imagery with an appealing utilitarian irregularity. Long before universal literacy or the numbering of London streets, buildings were adorned with symbols and easily-recogniseable images like those graven upon the front of these tokens. The reverse carries the date and initials of the owner that issued the token, who may latterly be identified from the vintners’ records.

As well as those from Bishopsgate, there is one here from Spittlegate, now known as Widegate St, and another from Bedlam, now known as Liverpool St, which was formerly the location of the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem – of all the tokens here, The White Hart is the lone tavern that has weathered the centuries to survive into the present era.

After the Fire, rubble was spread upon the marshy land of Spitalfields, preparing it for the construction of the streets we know today, and, occasionally, charcoal is still uncovered when foundations are excavated in Spitalfields, recalling this distant event. In 1632, Charles I gave a licence for flesh, fowl and roots to be sold in Spitalfields and the market was re-established in 1682 by Charles II, defining the territory with a culture of small-scale trading that persists to this day.

Once, tavern tokens were unremarkable items of small monetary value, passed hand to hand without a second thought, but now these rare specimens are precious evidence of another life in another time, long ago in this place.

King’s Head, Spittlegate, Charles I

King’s Head, Spittlegate, issued by Vintner Thomas Avis in 1658

The Beehive, Bishopsgate Without, issued by Thomas Goss, 1652

The Mitre Tavern, Bishopsgate, issued by Robert Richardson 1644

The Flower Pot, Bishopsgate Within, issued by Ascanius Hicks, 1641

The Helmet, Bishopsgate Without, issued by Robert Studd

At the White Hart, Bedlam

The White Hart at Bedlam, issued by EE, 1637


Red Lion Court, Bishopsgate Without, issued by John Lambe

The Black Raven, Bishopsgate Without

The Black Raven, Halfpenny issued by Sam Salway

The Sunne, Bishopsgate Within


Lion Above a Stick of Candles, Bishopsgate Without

Lion Above a Stick of Candles, issued by Ralph Butcher, 1666

At the Sign Of The Boore, Bishopsgate Without

At The Sign Of The Boore, Bishopsgate Without

The Half Moone Brewhouse, Bishopsgate Without

Edward Nourse Next The Bull In Bishopsgate Street, 1666

The Mouth Tavern, Bishopsgate Without, issued by Robert Sanderson, 1638

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to look at

The Inns of Forgotten London

The Gentle Author’s Spitalfields Pub Crawl

William West’s Tavern Anecdotes

The Pubs of Old London

The Language of Beer

The Signs of Old London

4 Responses leave one →
  1. C Scofield permalink
    March 26, 2022


  2. paul loften permalink
    March 26, 2022

    A few weeks ago I was called for Jury service and I had to go during the tube strike and walk through Bishopsgate to my destination . Although I dont live that far away I have not had occasion to go there for a long time . The last time I walked through the streets of Bishopsgate may have been when I worked in the City in the 70’s. The old tokens are a reminder of the layers of time which cover this important area of London that can be lifted to reveal a completly different reality for each era . My walk to the Monument took me into a new world from the one I knew in the 70’s

  3. March 26, 2022

    Canny, weren’t they…? Kept you coming back, because you could only use those coins at the establishment that issued them.

    These tokens are survivors of a time when many things, and many folks, didn’t. It makes them even more remarkable in my eyes.

  4. Steve Hanscomb permalink
    March 28, 2022

    Very interesting. I’ve always had an interest in trade tokens, more so than official coinage. There are some superb examples from the age of the industrial revolution with outstanding designs. I have a couple from factories in Lancashire that are fabulous and a couple from a copper mine on Anglesey that have a druid’s head surrounded by oak and mistletoe sprigs.
    I have one token similar to these, produced in 1657 for my local pub in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, the King’s Head. The pub is a fantastic survivor, complete with it’s cobbled yard surrounded on three sides by stables. Aylesbury was a parliamentary garrison during the Civil War and the pub is one of many reputed to have been used by Cromwell. A civil war era sword and pistol were found hidden in one of the chimneys during restoration word in the 1920’s.
    The coin, as stated was produced to fill a shortfall in coinage from the war.
    The pub is now owned by the National Trust and is run by the Chiltern Brewery, serving excellent beers and food. Well worth a visit.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS