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Bishopsgate Tavern Tokens

August 10, 2023
by the gentle author

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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

One Response leave one →
  1. Gillian Tindall permalink
    August 11, 2023

    What the Gentle Author doesn’t say about the 17th century tavern tokens – though he probably knows – is that taverns and some other commercial businesses brought them in during the 1660s, after the Restoration of Charles II, because there seems to have been an acute shortage of copper and silver coins. This was apparently a result of the civil wars during the previous twenty-five years: possibly a good deal of currency had been hoarded by anxious citizens for the next emergency, or simply got carried abroad. It had, after all, its own material value.
    During the last decades of the century the monetary system, among many things, was reformed and the tokens gradually fell out of use.

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