Cufflinks, Superstitions and the Death of the Tanner

23rd April 2017 — 16 Comments

Sixpence by JW

What seem the best ideas for a blog post usually invade my consciousness at about ‘clock in the morning when I am restless and trying to get some sleep. In the cool light of day any thoughts can sometimes turn out to be rubbish. This was a case in point, even though the idea sounded good at the time.

What I am about to relate may sound convoluted; I hope it makes sense. At least it shows how my mind works. Dave Smith, ‘Searcher’ on the NRH forum posted some of his finds for identification and amongst these was (maybe) a silver cufflink:

© Dave Smith

Many years ago I had unearthed something rather similar and joked that we now had a ‘full set’. I was also able to tell him that mine was a Georgian link, circa late 18th to 19th century, and made of white metal. I haven’t included the reverse here, but the ‘ghosting’ of the rose indicates that this part of the design was impressed, very probably by punching. Here’s the cufflink I found:

© JW

I also promised to send Dave the link free, gratis and for nowt, and he took up my offer. Now, why did I do that? In all my years of swinging the coil, I have amassed quite a few odds and ends. They will be worth very little – if anything – to my descendants. When I eventually shrug off my mortal coil they’ll just see them as a nuisance and hire a skip for disposal. The few better pieces will be offered to a museum. Sending the link to Dave, even though they are a disparate set was a good way of recycling. He will appreciate them. Indeed he said: “Thanks, John. They are very similar to the links I found but slightly smaller and very nearly a match”.

© Dave Smith


Something old, Something new, Something borrowed, Something blue …

Recently, I’d been reading a book about superstitions. You know the sort of thing: walking under ladders, crossing fingers, touching wood … or carrying a favourite good luck charm when metal detecting … and also the time when Maggie Thatcher killed off the sixpence.

Briefly, the sixpence, introduced in 1551, was made obsolete by the decimalisation of sterling and the last coins were struck in 1967, but that’s another story. What’s the connection between superstitions, cufflinks and sixpences? Stay with me. It happened like this …

I had a brainwave! Why not capitalise on all the sixpences I’ve found and make some money? The coin is meant to be lucky. You may have heard the saying echoed in the illustration above, except there is a fifth line, which today seems obsolete: ‘and a silver sixpence in her shoe.’ A sixpence in the bride’s shoe was placed there by the father wishing her prosperity, love and happiness in her marriage. For optimum fortune, the sixpence should be worn in the left shoe. I collected all my tanners together. Here’s a sample:

A Selection of Sixpences by JW

I had the brilliant idea of making that fifth line more relevant. Make a collection, clean them up by dunking in tomato ketchup or the latest culinary cleaner of the time (just joking, Mr. Barford) and sell them for brides to place in their shoe.

Alas, in the cold light of day a quick check on eBay showed me that a thousand other people had had the same idea. Back to the drawing board!

Why did we call the sixpence a tanner?

My first port of call was the Oxford English Dictionary, which said that the origin of ‘tanner’ is uncertain. Asking Mr. Google the same question brought forth a myriad of different answers. I go along (with reservations) with those who give this as a possible source.

The name ‘tanner’ came about during the reign of George II when the silver sixpence was designed by John Sigismund Tanner, and the denomination was known as a tanner since then. Tanner was chief engraver at the Royal Mint for about 40 years from 1728 and engraved dies for the gold coins of 1739, for the copper coinage of 1740 and for the silver coins from 1743.

I’ve found out that the designer died in 1775 and the king in 1760. And now the plot thickens. I also read that the very first use of the word ‘tanner’ to mean ‘sixpence’ did not appear in print before 1811. You would have expected the word to emerge in written form somewhere during their lifetimes rather than about two generations later. I very much doubt we’d decide to nickname a coin today after a designer who worked in 1950! Info cobbled together from various sources.

Just to give you a taste of one off the other improbable theories:

… this alternative name for the sixpence probably dates from the early 1800s and seems to have its root in the Romany gypsy ‘tawno’ which means ‘small one’.

Take your pick … or search for yourself 🙂



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16 responses to Cufflinks, Superstitions and the Death of the Tanner

  1. ‘Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye,
    Four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie’

    When you first mentioned sixpence, John, that ditty sprung to mind..

    And I had never heard the word ‘Tanner’ either.. Learn something new each day.

    Thank you for the musings

  2. I’m surprised that you are familiar with an English nursery rhyme, Micheal.

  3. John from Ontario (AKA Geobound) 23rd April 2017 at 12:39 AM

    John I appreciate the aging process and wanting to leave things to people, rather than see them get binned.

    For that reason should you feel the need to part with some of your dosh, I would be more than happy to send you my address. LOL………

    Nice gesture on sending Dave your find.

    The chances of us finding a sixpence here is pretty slim, but I’d be pretty chuffed were I to do so.

  4. John You went all over on that blog

  5. Why would gypsy would for ‘small one’ refer to a sixpence when there were smaller silver denominations? Also why would you use the engravers name to refer to a sixpence when other silver coins could have been given the nickname? I’ll throw this into the melting pot it maybe a corruption of the pronunciation of the Scottish coin the Turner!

  6. Ah the tanner, our midweek treat was to be given a sixpence to spend on sweets in the mobile grocery van that would stop outside to sell his wares. Half a dozen penny arrow bars and I was a happy bunny.

  7. Still enjoy finding a tanner or shilling when detecting
    Did any other areas use the word “bob ” to denote a shilling
    i.e 50 bob was 2 pounds 10 shillings
    Just this week I was offered 50 bob for a 1928 Half Crown by an old farmer in Co Tryone
    Still with small silver coins , when did the silver 3d stop being minted?

  8. As far as I can recollect a 10 bob note was half of £1.

  9. found this on the net:
    “Additionally, coincidentally or perhaps influentially, apparently British people in colonial India referred to a half rupee (eight annas) coin as ‘eightanna’, which obviously sounds just like ‘a tanner’. The eight anna coin is said to have resembled the British sixpence of the time (which would have looked much like a pre-decimalisation sixpence). Britain issued India’s coins during colonial rule and so some connection here is plausible. ”
    I used to get ‘one and a kick’ (3 tanners) pocket money, just enough for a matchbox car

  10. Would that be the cost of paying the leather worker to repair your shoes ? The Tanner.

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