The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 22, Number 40, October 6, 2019, Article 19


The September 2019 Money & Medals newsletter "The Newsletter for Numismatics in Britain" included a nice article by Richard Kelleher of the Fitzwilliam Museum describing a new acquisition of a collection of over 500 countermarked and defaced coins. With permission we're republishing it here. Thank you! -Editor

Richard Kelleher

The Fitzwilliam Museum was recently able to acquire a large collection of over 500 countermarked and defaced coins formed over several decades by Gavin Scott. This acquisition was made possible thanks to the generous support of an Art Fund New Collecting Award grant for my project ‘Currencies of Conflict and Dissent'. The breadth of the collection itself is a testament to the remarkable dedication of an individual collector. The bulk of the collection comprises British, Irish and French coins from the late 18th century to the present day, but also includes examples from Europe, South Africa, and South America. The Irish material in the collection is of particular significance. The coins display a range of sentiments, both republican and nationalist, personal and paramilitary from the period often referred to as the ‘Troubles' in Northern Ireland. This group is the only significant collection in the British Isles outside of Belfast's Linen Hall Library and Ulster Museum.

CM.5571-2018_22209_1218_mjb294_mas The earliest sentiments expressed in the collection are anti-Catholic with ‘NO BLOODTHIRSTY POPERY' shown here struck on the reverse of a George III cartwheel penny. The movement against British rule first appears on a penny of George V with the slogan ‘NO ENGLISH RULE' stamped on a 90 degree angle across the king's bust. These early examples remind us of the long ‘prehistory' of the Troubles era. The major part of the collection consists of coins struck and defaced from the 1960s to the 1980s. A number of these reflect nationalist attitudes towards the Republic with ‘BAN EIRE GOODS' (Figure 3) and ‘SEND PADDY HOME' stamped on Irish coins. A large number of coins bear slogans or acronyms relating to the principal paramilitary groups of the period. The most prevalent are simple, crudely punched initials for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) (Figure 4), Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), or Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The likelihood is that these pieces were produced on an ad-hoc basis, perhaps by workers in their lunchbreaks. They passed into circulation as anonymous acts of subversion, attachment to a cause, or designed to intimidate. In this sense they were a form of graffiti that could be circulated.

CM.5575-2018_22216_1218_mjb294_mas CM.5577-2018_22222_1218_mjb294_mas
Figures 2 and 3

Figure 5 combines the UVF with the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). In most cases, the nationalist or republican countermarks appear on United Kingdom coins, while the unionist or loyalist messages are stamped onto coins of the Republic of Ireland. Thus the attacks are directed towards the coinage and national symbols of the ‘other' side, the bust of Queen Elizabeth II in the case of the republican countermarks, and the symbols of the Irish Republic in the nationalist countermarks, usually the salmon on the two shillings and ten pence pieces.

CM.5604-2018_22278_1218_mjb294_mas CM.5630-2018_22346_1218_mjb294_mas
Figures 4 and 5

Other examples reference more specific themes. The one illustrated in Figure 6 is a 1971 UK two-pence which has been stamped with ‘SMASH H BLOCK 8' on the obverse bust. The H-blocks at the Maze/Long Kesh prison housed prisoners convicted of scheduled offences after 1 March 1976, with H-block 8 reserved for IRA prisoners. The hunger strikes of 1981 came in protest at the removal of Special Category Status from prisoners and led to the deaths of ten IRA hunger strikers. The strikes were a Pyrrhic victory for Margaret Thatcher and her government's hard-line approach to this miserable episode as it led to an increase in IRA recruitment and an upsurge in violence. The final coin illustrated as Figure 7 is an Irish 50 pence with the words ‘ULSTER IS BRITISH' stamped on the upper part of the reverse above the woodcock. This claim was a favourite trope of Ian Paisley during his fiery public addresses.

CM.5593-2018_22253_1218_mjb294_mas CM.5596-2018_22260_1218_mjb294_mas
Figures 6 and 7

Material such as this is a poignant rejoinder to the claim that numismatics comprises generic and non-local material. The objects discussed above reveal how mundane, everyday objects were reworked into political touch-pieces. Rather than being generic and non-local these coins are a material reminder of a violent and contested past specific to Northern Ireland. If readers have seen any recent examples of defaced coins of this sort I'd be keen to hear about them at

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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