The above copper farthing token measures 16.0 mm and weighs 1.29 grams. It was issued by John March, a tradesman of Ratcliff Cross in the parish of Stepney, Middlesex.
The design of the token may be formally described as follows;
Obverse: (mullet) IHON. MARCH. THE. SWN , around a depiction of a swan walking left with wings raised and with a chain around its neck.
Reverse: (mullet) AT. RATLLIF. CROSE, around a twisted wire circle, within a triad of initials comprising I | .M. | .M with a dot below the upper “M”.
The token is undated but on stylistic and historical record grounds is likely to date from the period 1650s or early 1660s. The initials on its reverse are those of its issuer (i.e. John March where “J” in Latin script is equivalent to “I”) plus that of his wife’s Christian name (i.e. possibly Mary or Martha etc.).
John March lived and worked from premises at or by the sign of the Swan, Ratcliff Cross in the village of Ratcliff. During the mid-17th century the area to the east of the Tower of London was still relatively lightly populated and semirural. It contained a scattering of villages which collectively were to become the borough of Tower Hamlets.
By the early 17th century Ratcliff was one of the largest communities in the parish of Stepney. It had a population of approximately 3,500 inhabitants. Being located on the north bank of the River Thames It had long been associated with ship building, fitting and provisioning and was home to many mariners.
Very little is known about John March. His associate trade sign, i.e. the chained swan, may suggest that he was a publican or brewer. The sign of the swan had been favoured in London by brew houses and taverns from as early as the 14th century (1).
A review of early maps of the Ratcliff area indicate that just north-west of Ratcliff Cross, on the south-east corner off Broad Street was a court area known as Swan Yard. It is tempting to think that this marked the location of a tavern or brew house of the same name. This location has a very high probability of being where John March had his home and business.
A search of local parish registers has identified two baptism records which may throw further light on John March’s trade. Both of these records are from John March’s home parish, i.e. St. Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney. A summary of these records is given below;
5th July 1650 – Baptism of Joseph, son of John March of Ratcliff, cook and Mary
15th May 1667 – Baptism of Mary, daughter of John March of Dog Road, silk weaver and Mary
It is impossible to say if either of the above refer to John March and his wife. In both entries the mother’s Christian name starts with a letter that fits with that of the token issuer’s. The first entry fits with the location of the token issuer. The location of “Dog Road” mentioned in the second entry is unclear. Given the two dissimilar trades mentioned in the above parish register entries it is unlikely that the John Marchs mentioned are one and the same person despite them both having a wife with the same Christian name.
A review of Hearth Tax returns for Ratcliff and other locations in the parish of Stepney for 1666 has failed to identify a John March. There is however a mention of a widow March living in a property with two hearths in Nightingale Lane in the adjoining village Lime House in the same parish. No burial record has so far come to light for a John March within the parish of Stepney during the period between the mid-1650s to mid-1660s. One possibility for the apparent disappearance of John March from the Hearth Tax returns from the parish of Stepney in 1666 is that he and his surviving family may have fled the area, as did so many Londoners, during the infamous outbreak of Plague in the capital during 1665/6.
1) Lillywhite, B. – London Signs: A Reference Book of London Signs from Earliest Times to about the Mid Nineteenth Century. (London, 1972).