The Mint made the majority of the country’s coins for over 500 years
Update 14 December: In line with government guidance, the Tower of London will be closed from 16 December.
Edward I (1272-1307) installed the Mint within the safety of the Tower’s walls in c1279 and until 1810, most of the coins of the realm were made there in a dedicated area that became known as Mint Street. Making coins was hot, noisy and dangerous. Tampering with coins was treason, and the threat of horrific punishment deterred most, if not all, thieves and forgers.
The making of coins was rather a different business from the usual activities at the Tower. Mint staff were kept separate from the rest of the community within the fortress, and their comings and goings were strictly monitored. The Mint operated from a series of closely guarded temporary workshops, and more permanent factory buildings in the Outer Ward, which became known as Mint Street.
Image: Conditions in the Mint as imagined by an illustrator of 1270, showing Mint administration, coin shearing and weighing, coin striking, and annealing in the fire.
The Mint was hot and noisy, with huge fiery furnaces used to melt down the precious metals. The air was full of deadly chemicals and poisonous gases. Until mechanisation in the 1600s, coins were all made by hand. One man would place a handmade piece of metal between two engraved stamps called dies, and then another struck it with a hammer. Split second timing and staying alert could mean the difference between making a coin and losing a finger!
It was dirty and dangerous work. Few Mint workers escaped uninjured and the loss of fingers and eyes was common.
Life for Mint workers became relatively safe after the introduction of screw-operated press were introduced, like the one shown in this engraving of 1750.
In the medieval period, even for a first offence a convicted counterfeiter had his right hand removed; any further offence was punishable by castration.
In later years forgers suffered a traitor’s death of hanging, drawing and quartering, while women were burned at the stake, or transported on one of the infamous convict ships, right up until the 1700s.
Engraving by John Bluck (Active 1791-1831) after artwork by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) & Auguste Charles Pugin (1762-1832) from a publication titled "The Microcosm of London", R. Ackermann (London 1808-11) (Plate 53), R. Ackermann's Respository of Arts, 101, Strand, London, 1 February 1809.
Mint workers' health and safety was not a priority. The mixture of toxic chemicals that were needed to create coins posed a real hazard. In the 1540s, a potter at the Mint fell asleep over his pots, and no one could wake him. It’s said even Henry VIII himself came to the Tower to poke the unfortunate sleeping beauty. It’s not clear what caused William Foxley’s coma, but he woke up after 14 days perfectly well. He lived another 40 years.
Less fortunate were a group of German workers. In 1560 several of them fell badly ill, possibly poisoned by clouds of noxious gas. Old hands at the Mint advised them to drink milk – from a human skull! Despite taking the ‘cure’, several men died.
The Mint expanded over the centuries as the country’s economy grew. By the 1500s the Mint had spread along all the west, north and east walls of the fortress.
In 1810 the Mint moved out of the Tower to a new building on Tower Hill, then to its present home in Wales in the 1960s.