Sterling Silver Jewelry – The History Of Hallmarking In The British Isles Part I

The term hallmark comes from ‘Mark of the Hall of Goldsmiths’ in London, who were the first official assay hallmarking office, decreed by Parliament to control the standard of precious metals circulating in the British Isles. To this day they still operate one of four authorized assay offices in Britain.

Forms of marking precious metal objects were around from the Byzantine period in the early part of the first millennium A.D. However, it was under the rule of king Edward I of England, known as ‘Edward Longshanks’ due to his size, that hallmarking was first established. ‘Longshanks’, also called ‘The Hammer’ as a result of his merciless subjugation of Wales and Scotland, was both feared and revered by friend and foe alike.

If you have seen Braveheart then you are already familiar with the films depiction of Edward ‘Longshanks’ as a crazed tyrant: however, in reality he was more diplomatic. ‘Longshanks’ founded the British Parliament based on the premise of ‘Parlez’, from the French verb meaning ‘To talk’, where subjects could approach the King to resolve problems. He also reestablished the Magna Carta, and introduced constitutional government passing laws such as ‘No taxation without representation’: meaning that no tax could be levied without consent of Parliament.

Besides waging wars, fighting crusades, having 16 children and other sovereignly pursuits, Longshanks also bought into effect the first consumer laws. He enacted a statute that regulated all silver articles be tested and approved only when meeting the sterling silver standard of .925 parts pure silver to the 1000. He decreed that sterling silver objects were to be assayed by ‘Guardians of the Craft’, who would then mark the approved item with a leopard’s head: signifying the hallmark of the London assay office still in use today. By the later stages of the 14th Century hallmarking had been refined to encompass not just the assay office’s stamp of approval, but also the marks of the individual maker and the date system allowing the accurate dating of any hallmarked piece.

Three hundred years later, at the turn of the 17th Century when King George I of the Hanoverian dynasty succeeded the English throne, a higher standard of silver known as ‘Britannia Silver’ was made compulsory in the British Isles. Britannia Silver, .958 parts silver to the 1000, was bought in to protect the new coinage, made from .925 sterling silver, which was being melted down by silversmiths to make jewelry and objects of ornamentation. If the objects in question, tested by the assay office, were found to contain only .925 parts to the 1000 then the silversmith responsible faced a heavy price.

When an article of silver didn’t comply with the required standard, the assay offices were ordered to destroy the silver object and fine the silversmith. If the silversmith offended for a second time, he faced public humiliation in the ‘Pillory’ stocks and was pelted with rotten fruit. If he did it again a limb would be hacked off, and the persistent offender would eventually be put to death. The reason behind these Draconian enforcements, the ultimate in quality control, was that the manufacturing of silver was united with the minting of currency. Therefore, by debasing these metals a silversmith was undermining the coinage of the realm, a treasonable offence. However, by 1720 the sterling silver standard was restored by Parliament.

With the expansion of the English Empire and its accumulated trade wealth other cities outside of London such as Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, Chester and Birmingham prospered. Referred to as the city of a thousand and one trades, Birmingham, and most of the midlands of England, boomed as it embraced the Industrial Revolution. In 1760, John Betts & Sons opened the first precious metal refinery in Birmingham’s northern Hockley suburb.

The foundries attracted many different trades people: gunsmiths, button manufacturers, toy makers, silversmiths and jewelers who all established different areas as the center for their workshops. However, the silversmiths still had to make a long journey to Chester or London by horse and carriage to have their products assayed. The Industrial period brought about incredible wealth, but it brought poverty to most forcing people to commit desperate deeds in order to survive. A criminal trend in the spirit of Robin Hood, which became quite fashionable during the period, was the impoverished gentleman’s act of relieving the nouveaux riche industrialists of their wealth along England’s highways.

This extract is taken from ‘The London Evening Post’s’ November 1749 article on Plunket and Maclaine’s robbery of Horace Walpole. Walpole was a writer and also the son of Sir Robert Walpole, lord of the treasury and English prime minister. “The man with the blunderbuss swore he would shoot him, if he spoke, bid him give him his watch, and then riding up to the chariot, they took Mr. Walpole’s sword, and some silver from the footman, and rode off to Kensington Gate.”

Dick Turpin, Tom King, Captain Gallagher, ‘Swift Nick’, Plunket and Maclaine all became English folk heroes to the cries of ‘Stand and Deliver’. However, for the likes of Industrialists such as Mathew Boulton and Birmingham’s silversmiths these felons spelt financial ruin. In 1773, after intense lobbying in London’s Parliament by Matthew Boulton, owner of Birmingham’s Soho factory, permission was granted for both Birmingham and Sheffield to have their own assay offices in order to thwart highway robbery.

Read Sterling Silver Jewelry – The History Of Hallmarking In The British Isles Part II.

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