Matthew Boulton and the Cartwheel Coin

26th July 2015 — 15 Comments

WAGON-WHEEL-WOODENOh no, not again I hear you cry. Some of what appeared in a blog post of 2011, but will be new for many. And anyway, I want Boulton and his contribution to coinage to have a place in my collection of blog posts … and in my own style. I’m not out to re-invent the wheel. Mr Google provides comprehensive information for those who wish to check. Let me Google that for you. Just click HERE and HERE.

The Father of Birmingham – 1723-1809

Wikipedia CC

Matthew Boulton – detail of an engraving by William Sharp after a portrait by William Beachey, 18th century – Wikipedia Commons

Anyone who has ever experienced the shrill tones of a copper cartwheel coin in their headphones may have heard the name of Matthew Boulton. Today, we take for granted that coins will fit into machines and be recognised, but before Boulton it couldn’t be done.

In the years leading to up to 1797 there was a shortage of copper and counterfeiting was rife. The Royal Mint was producing little low-value copper coinage and there was a boom in private tokens issued by companies across Britain. Many detectorists will be aware of the ‘token explosion’ at this time because they are a common find. Some of them are quite sophisticated in their imagery.

All this came to an abrupt end when Boulton was commissioned, by the government in 1797, to start producing copper coins. One of the amazing things about the issue of these George III coins was that they rendered tokens almost obsolete overnight. The coins were designed by a German engraver, Conrad Heinrich Kuchler, and it’s the first time that the figure of Britannia was shown holding a trident rather than a spear. Britain was blockading the Continent at the time and Rule Britannia was very popular!

The coins are known as ‘cartwheels’ because of their large size and raised rims. The reason they were so large was because the weight of the coin was equal to the value of the copper content; the penny weighed one ounce and the two pence, two ounces. The penny is 3.7 centimetres in diameter and the two pence 4.06.


The coins were struck using coin presses powered by steam, yet another ‘first’. Between the years 1797-99 about 45 million pennies and two penny pieces were produced at the Soho Mint in Birmingham, which Boulton had established in 1788. ALL the coins bear the date 1797, even though they were still being minted a couple of years later. Soho House is now a museum and parts of the old foundry still survive.

During his lifetime Matthew Boulton was a world-famous figure, but since the 20th century his name has been largely overshadowed by that of his business partner, James Watt. The contribution to the creation of reliable British coinage was arguably his most significant legacy. After his death in 1809, James Watt wrote:

Had Mr Boulton done nothing more in the world than what he has done in improving the coinage, his fame would have deserved to be immortalised


I am pleased to report that in 2014 Matthew Boulton, one of the most important figures of the early Industrial Revolution, was honoured with a memorial in Westminster Abbey. He was a man of wide-ranging talents: silversmith, button and buckle manufacturer, steam engineer, coin minter, entrepreneur, Fellow of the Royal Society and one of the founder members of the famous Lunar Society of Birmingham. Read more in this BBC report.

A Forged Cartwheel Coin

You may find it strange that copper coins were forged. Because this blog is all about Boulton, I’ve chosen one of my forged cartwheel pennies to show you. They were well-designed and difficult to counterfeit … and this attempt proves that!


© John Winter

Not very convincing, eh? Not even copper, but a lead composite, but you’d get away offering it in a busy bar on a Saturday night. Boulton’s Soho Mint struck coins for the East India Company, Sierra Leone and Russia, while producing high-quality planchets, or blank coins, to be struck by national mints elsewhere. For example, the firm sent over 20 million blanks to Philadelphia, to be struck into cents and half-cents by the United States Mint. So, there you have an American connection.




How wrong can you be? I never thought that my last post, when I asked you to write the first paragraph of a ‘detecting story’, would be so popular. I’d like to thank ALL of you who took part. I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the writing.

I intimated at the time that I might award a little prize and after some deliberation have decided that the effort by Scotty was the one who deserved the accolade. Here’s a reminder of his submission:

Sex after today’s detecting session was better than finding the lost Roman Legion’s final resting place. She turned to me, hair drenched, puckered lips a voluptuous rosy red and lovingly whispered, ‘more, more.’ I kissed her passionately, but had to come clean and confess. ‘I can’t my darling; I forgot to charge the batteries …’

In his ‘acceptance speech’ Scott said, “My writing career is now up and running!” This is what he won – a Richard Evan’s type tether …

Tether copy

Picture © John Winter


Cheers John. I got my pinpointer lanyard today AND a bonus finds box – Scotty


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15 responses to Matthew Boulton and the Cartwheel Coin

  1. Well done Scotty!
    Thanks for the fun, John!

  2. We have newer forum members that may not know anything about the old Cartwheels. Hopefully they have learnt something from your post.

  3. Well done Scotty I think my rendition was written in invisible ink lol, great fun John excellent blog entry

  4. Another great post and I am sure it will be especially appreciated by the new detectorists who hadn’t seen a Cartwheel Penny yet.
    Some wonderful Avatars have suddenly appeared, I think Keiths has toothache.
    Mine looks like The Penguin – Batman’s nemesis aristocrat.

    • Thank you, Guys.

      The new avatars are for those who don’t have a Gravatar.
      They identify you and the same one will appear whenever you post. I think yours looks very good … and apt, Randy! The aristocrat amongst detectorists. Now, put your tongue away!

  5. Think I remember reading that the cartwheel penny wasn’t very popular with the public, as it was too heavy if you had a few in your pocket ! Am I right in thinking that the copper content after a few years was worth more than the face value of the coins any many were melted down, or did I dream that ?

  6. Very informative, good read. Thanks

  7. Thanks to Ian Murray and Ray Swinnerton for pointing out my silly mistakes. I appoint you honorary sub-editors!

    I also HATE predictive test … will try and switch it off!

  8. I now know a little more about these that have come up so many times over the years.

    A few have even been counter stamped.

    I seem to remember Time Team going to the mint area and digging up a few folks gardens.

    Selly Oak area of Brum. Jerry.

  9. I was typing my reply and trying to think of a paragraph the other day, when the library pc froze up and derailed my train of thought and it jumped the tracks..

  10. One of the best recounts of early minting practices – thanks John.

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