Thomas Spence (Biographical details)

Thomas Spence (academic/intellectual; revolutionary/activist; merchant/tradesman; British; Male; 1750 - 1814)

Also known as

Spence, Thomas




Issued subversive political tokens between 1795 and early 1797, when sold stock of coins and dies to Peter Skidmore. Radical bookseller and coin dealer.

He was born in Newcastle on 21 June 1750, the son of a poor hardware dealer. He worked first as a clerk and then as a schoolteacher, before opening his own school in Peacock Entry. The Spence family were leading members of the Glassite congregation at the Forster Street Meeting House, who believed in common property.

On 8 November 1775 Spence read a paper before the Philosophical Society of Newcastle entitled 'The Real Rights of Man' or 'The True Relations of the People to the land' which he then published as a pamphlet. In this he proposed the suppression of landlords, arguing that all land should be owned by parishes and rented from the parish by its inhabitants. To publicise his views Spence used a series of punches cut by his friend Thomas Bewick to stamp slogans on to current coins.

In 1792 Spence left Newcastle for London, where he set up as a book and saloop (hot drink) seller. The following year he started the penny periodical ‘Pig's Meat or Lessons for the Swinish Multitude’, so called after Burke's phrase in ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’,” . . . learning will be cast into the mire and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude”. After his arrest and detention for seven months in 1794 he took a shop at 8 Little Turnstile, High Holborn, which he called 'The Hive of Liberty'. There he cashed in on the new craze for collecting the privately issued tokens, which had come into being as a result of the chronic shortage of small change, by setting up as a coin dealer. In 1795 he published ‘The Coin Collector's Companion being a description of modern Political and other copper coins’ which he supplemented by an appendix listing many of his own productions. These seem to have been made in quite large numbers, according to a correspondent of the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ who wrote in April 1792: “It is not long since I called at Spence's shop, and saw many thousands of different tokens lying in heaps, and selling at what struck me to be very great prices. These, therefore, could not be considered as struck for limited sale. I confess, considering the number I saw struck, and what the subjects of them were, I thought myself justified in supposing that it was the intention to circulate them very widely.”
It may be that the expense of large-scale production overstretched him for at about this time Spence became bankrupt and sold his dies to another coin dealer and publisher of tokens, Peter Skidmore. Skidmore continued Spence's practice of combining dies at random, to produce more varieties for collectors, and he also combined them with his own dies (mainly engraved by Jacobs - Spence's had been engraved by Charles James), thus sometimes making a nonsense of the tokens' political message.


R.C.Bell, 'Political and commemorative pieces simulating trademen's tokens 1770-1802', 1986, pp.209-76 (catalogue of 48 tokens)

Arthur W. Waters, ‘Trial of Thomas Spence’, Leamington Spa, 1917. Some information comes from Waters's own, interleaved, copy, now in the British Museum.