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Newsletter 111, Winter 2015  © Hampshire Mills Group

Medieval Lead Tokens with possible Mill Connections




Nigel Harris




Lead tokens

Coin-like objects of lead, and sometimes pewter and tin, were widely produced from the late 13th century to the early to mid 19th century. These coin-like objects are known as tokens.

It is known that during this period that there was a shortage of small coinage and a practice of chopping coinage into halves and quarters existed. Even the smallest coin, the farthing, (which was a quarter of a penny), was a significant portion of a man’s weekly wage. This shortage of coinage drove communities to produce lead tokens, which served various functions, not just as local unofficial currency in small scale dealings, but perhaps some would have had their value defined in terms of commodities or services.

They may have been given to farm workers as payment which could be redeemed for food or goods either by the farm or by arrangement with a local business. In the same way perhaps as hop pickers were given tokens to indicate the number of bushels picked, with the intention of tallying up at the end and exchanging for money all in one go.

No official record survives of who made them or where they were made; what they were valued at or under what local agreement they circulated. Earliest pieces up to about 1500 tended to be made of pewter and later pieces are usually pure lead.

 They were probably made by local blacksmiths, perhaps for a local businessman or land owner. Lead is a soft metal but was relatively cheap and easy to melt and cast.



Two lead tokens appearing to represent millstones with three-quarter dress.  Both are approximately 17mm in diameter



Possible mill connections

Certain designs on tokens do possibly relate to watermills and more rarely to windmills. Some appear to show the geometric design of millstones (with its dress) others show waterwheels (with floats). This latter type is not to be confused with similar designs of cartwheels which have a solid outer rim and no floats. It has been reported that a token with a representation of a windmill has been found near a known windmill location (ref 1) .

Fletcher (ref 2) reported that he had found a reference to mill tokens in a French book by Jacques Labrot entitled “Une  Histoire Economique E Populaire Du Moyen Age: Les Jetons Et Les Mereaux”. Labrot cites ecclesiastical records when describing the use of “mereaux de mouture”, which Fletcher translated as milling tokens. Certainly, they are not common. In my collection of around 2000 lead tokens less than 2½% have what appears to be waterwheel like images on them, and only four have millstone dress patterns. Additionally, only one has what appears to depict windmill sails.


A miller could possibly have given his clients a token per sack taken in for milling, pending later monetary settlement. The problem is that no-one knows whether that actually happened. Maybe in the future, further evidence will become available that will confirm or not their connection with mills

References:  1 Moon N. (1995), Lead Token from Downfield Windmill? SPAB Wind & Watermill Section Newsletter. No. 63. p19

2 Fletcher, E. (2005). Leaden Tokens Telegraph. Issue 2 (November), p1. www.mernick. org.uk

Acknowledgements: *Alistair Mackay, www.coinmac.com


*Prehistory & Europe Dept. The  British Museum



Pewter tokens found in a refuse pit at a 13th C settlement in Winetavern Street,  Dublin in 1971. These are believed to represent a waterwheel and a millstone, with it’s dress





The British Museum believes this large token possibly dates to the 13th to 15th century.  It’s design looks like a water wheel


A pewter token appearing to represent a millstone.  Diameter 15mm.



The only token in the authors’ collection that may represent a windmill.  (set of sails divorced from a building) diameter 15mm




The above collection of lead tokens were found in the Thames Valley area and have apparent waterwheel designs


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