An eighteenth-century token from Wanstead Park

At the Friends’ packed Annual General Meeting on 24 February, Pam Williams of the Ilford Historical Society gave a short talk on a mysterious object purchased by her husband, Bob, a few months before - a copper or bronze medal or token. In excellent condition, it bore on one side a crisply struck coat of arms, in high relief. On the other side was mechanically engraved the words “BASON CANALS &c”.

Photograph © Pam and Bob Williams.
Photograph © Pam and Bob Williams.

What could it be?

Pam takes up the story –

“Bob purchased the token earlier this year.

As is usual he passed it over to me to research on the computer. After a few days of searching under Bason Canals, Heraldry and searching for the motto (IMITARI QUAM INVIDERE), which is on one side, I gave up.

We discussed and after some time decided to write to the Token Correspondence Society Bulletin for help. I put in the above photo and all the information we had which wasn't much as we had no idea where it was from or what the coat of arms was for.

About a month later I got an email from somebody in the society together with an article. Imagine our surprise to be told it was a copper token or pass for workers at Wanstead House, which is very local to us. I have attended many talks and also Bob and I did a lot of our courting in Wanstead Park.

This token is pre 1784 because the old Earl whose coat of arms it was died then and no more were made. It was handed out to workers on the estate for identification where they were working.

The article sent with the email was very interesting. The token is very rare with only one other being known and that is in America.

Bob has since turned up one the same with Lake instead of Bason Canal on the reverse on a very old auction list. He bid for it then but it went up to £95 out of our price range.

I showed the token to somebody from the Friends of Wanstead Parklands and they were quite excited. So much so that they have invited us to their AGM to talk about the token”.

Let’s see what we can add to Pam’s account.

The article she was sent by the Token Correspondence Society was published in the American Numismatic Society’s Numismatic Circular Vol. 75, no. 6 (June, 1967), p. 166. It listed five known examples of the token, with a number of variations to the reverse side.

1.       In an American collection was one with the same inscription as that owned by Pam and Bob Williams, as Pam mentions.

2.       In the British Museum collection was another with “A PROOF” punched in the reverse field.

3.       In the Montague Guest collection (since 1907 also at the British Museum) are three further examples: one blank, one with “No 50 SHRUBBIDGE” (whether punched or engraved is not stated) and one engraved “John Earl Tylney Obit 17th Sepr 1784 Aet. 72 Years”.

The example commemorating the 2nd Earl’s death is reproduced below.

© Trustees of the British Museum
Photograph © Trustees of the British Museum

It will be noted that the arms are identical to those on the Williams’ token.

The Numismatic Circular concludes –

“To run a house and estate such as this would require a very large staff of servants and workers. […] The gate keepers and wardens would have a problem identifying this ever-changing force, so there existed a need for identification passes. A metal token or pass with the Earl's coat of arms on it would serve the purpose admirably. Temporary or short-time help would be given a pass with a blank reverse as needed. Old timers, key people, and trusted retainers would be given a pass with their names engraved on the reverse. Probably Shrubbidge was one of these. Some jobs on the estate would possibly require certain restrictions on where the people should be working and again the passes would be engraved accordingly. An example of one of these would be the pass that started the whole search and proved to be the key to the usage of them all, the BASON CANALS &c token.

The second and fast Earl of Tylney was John (1712-1784). Upon his death apparently a number of blank passes were appropriately engraved as a memorial for friends and possibly faithful servants. This would account for the last of the tokens listed. While the obituary piece is a commemorative the others would fall into the category of passes. It will be interesting to see if any others show up now that the story of their usage is known, and how they will be marked on the reverse”.

There can be no doubt this is broadly correct, and the further example discovered by Pam and Bob Williams marked “LAKE” offers further support to the Numismatic Circular interpretation. One suspects, however, that “Shrubbidge” denotes some gardening task rather than being the name of an individual.

The remaining question is whether we can use the tokens to tease out any further clues about what was going on in Wanstead Park during the 2nd Earl’s time. Unfortunately, we probably can’t. The “obituary” example demonstrates that the tokens were still being used up to the time of Lord Tylney’s death, giving us what archaeologists would call a secure terminus ante quem of 1784. However, Lord Tylney’s ownership of Wanstead Park extended over 34 years, during which he made many changes to the landscape. It will probably never be possible to know whether the introduction of a token system for workers was connected to any particular phase of activity, or was simply part of the regime for routine maintenance.

As is well-known, Tylney found it expedient to remove himself to the Continent in 1763. He probably never returned, though plans from 1779 suggest that he remained actively interested in the park, perhaps continuing to make improvements up to the end of his life. Who knows? Perhaps, during his luxurious exile in Florence and Naples (“keeping an excellent house, obliging everybody, playing at cards incessantly, and devoured by his servants”), he sometimes toyed with a notion of returning to Wanstead which, in the event, was never to be realised.

In the earlier part of his tenure, Tylney was undoubtedly very active in re-modelling the park in line with prevailing fashions. He altered the setting of Wanstead House, softened and “naturalised” the landscape, made important modifications to the lakes, and bequeathed us The Temple and Grotto. Indeed, it is arguably to John, 2nd Earl Tylney, rather than any other single individual, that we owe Wanstead Park’s mature appearance. The few surviving tokens, handed out to his workmen more than two centuries ago, are a small reminder of the gift he bequeathed to posterity. Our thanks to Pam and Bob Williams for bringing them to our attention.