The brass farthing token, pictured above, measures 15.9 mm and weighs 0.80 grams. It was issued by Edward Fish, a pewterer trading at or by the sign of the Sun in Wapping, Middlesex.
The design of the token may be formally described as follows;
Obverse: (mullet) EDWARD. FISH. AT , around a depiction of a stylised sun with a face and radiating rays.
Reverse: (mullet) THE. SVNN. IN. WAPIN, around a twisted wire circle. Within the initials “E” and “F” separated by a rosette decoration.
The token is undated but on stylistic and historical record grounds is likely to date from the mid-1650s to early 1660s. The initials on its reverse are those of its issuer.
Whilst there is no mention of Edward Fish’s trade on his tokens the fact that he was operating at, or by the sign of, the Sun in Wapping might suggest that he was the proprietor of a tavern or brewhouse of the same name; although the sign was adopted by other tradesmen of the period (1). Although Edward’s trade premises may have stood close by a tavern of this name he was actually a citizen of London and a member of one of the city’s more ancient Livery Companies, the Worshipful Company of Pewterers.
In the 17th century pewterware could be found in every room of the house, not solely the kitchen. The alloy was used to make a variety of goods from spoons, basins, bowls, dishes, platters, porringers, flagons, ewers, tankards, mugs, pepperettes, pounce-pots, candlesticks and inkstands. From 1505 it became obligatory for London pewterers to stamp their ware with personalised trade marks, known as touch marks. Unfortunately while items of pewter made by Edward Fish may still be in existence in both private and museum collections there is no way of identifying them any longer. All records of such personalised touch marks from before the mid-1660s were destroyed when the records and hall of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers’ was consumed by the Great Fire of London in September 1666.
A review of contemporary maps and gazetteers does not indicate a Sun tavern or court etc. in the precincts of Wapping. However, there was a Sun Alley (2) located off New Gravel Lane, close to New Crane Stairs on the River Thames just east of Wapping in the parish of St. Paul’s, Shadwell. It is possible that this was where Edward Fish lived and ran his business making and selling pewter goods. Edward Fish was by no means the only British or London pewterer of the period to issue his own trade tokens. There are several other examples one of which, Robert Bristow, lived in an adjacent street of Wapping Wall in lower Shadwell.
During the mid-17th century the area to the east of the Tower of London was still relatively lightly populated and in parts semi-rural. It contained a scattering of villages, including Wapping and Shadwell, which collectively were to become the borough of Tower Hamlets.
Wapping developed along the north embankment of the Thames, hemmed in by the river to the south and the now drained Wapping Marsh to the north. This gave it a peculiarly narrow and constricted shape, consisting of little more than the axis of Wapping High Street and some north-south side streets. John Stow, the 16th century historian, described it as a “continual street, or a filthy strait passage, with alleys of small tenements or cottages, built, inhabited by sailors’ victuallers”(3). A chapel to St. John the Baptist was built in Wapping in 1617. However, the hamlet continued to remain part of the parish of St. Dunstan and All Angels, Stepney until it was constituted as a parish in its own right in 1694.
Being located on the north bank of the River Thames, Wapping had long been associated with ship building, fitting and provisioning. It was inhabited by sailors, mast-makers, boat-builders, blockmakers, instrument-makers, victuallers and representatives of all the other associated maritime trades. Wapping was also the site of “Execution Dock”, where pirates and other water-borne criminals faced execution by hanging from a gibbet constructed close to the low water mark. Their bodies would be left suspended until they had been submerged three times by the tide.
Edward Fish was baptised on 17th September 1626 at the parish church of St. Mary Magdalene, Bermondsey in Surrey. In 1640, at the age of 14, his father (also named Edward Fish) apprenticed him to John Bennett a well-established London pewterer who lived and worked from premises in the parish of St. Dionis Backchurch in the Langbourn ward of the London (4). Fourteen was the usual age for boys of this period to be bound into an apprenticeship. Typically they would serve their master and learn their trade for a period 7 years before receiving their freedom (i.e. qualifying) and moving on to making their own way in life. Edward appears to have served his apprenticeship well and on gaining his freedom (17th March 1647 (5)) his master had sufficient faith in him to allow him to immediately marry his daughter. Edward Fish married Cicely Bennett on 23rd March 1647 at the parish church of St. Bartholomew the Less in West Smithfield, just outside the city walls.
By April 1648 Edward was operating as a pewterer in his own right. He obviously felt confident enough to take on an apprentice of his own, Thomas Champneys. Thomas had previously been apprenticed to a John Brooks who had passed his services on to Edward. It is not clear whether the relationship between the apprentice and master was strained or not but by September 1650 Edward has passed Thomas on to another master by the name of Oliver Lunne (5). It is possible that Edward felt he could no longer keep an apprentice and may have fallen back on help from his wife who would have been no stranger to the trade having been born into it.
By 1653 Edward and Cicely are confirmed as living in the Wapping area as testified by the baptism entry for their first child in the parish registers of St. Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney;
31st May 1653 – Baptism of Machelle daughter of Edward Fish of Wapping, pewterer, and Cicely
In the same year Edward appears to have taken on a new apprentice, John Butterfield, a blacksmith’s son from across the River Thames in Southwark (4).
A review of London parish registers indicates that Edward and Cicely had a further three children.
2nd February 1656/7 – Richard Fish son of Edward was born ye 20th November
14th April 1663 – Susanna Fish the daughter of Edward and Sicely Fish was buried in Wapping
14th June 1663 – John Fish the son of Edward and Sicely Fish, pewterer, was born on the 2nd of June and baptised on the 14th June
All three of the above entries are from registers for St. John’s, Wapping. They confirm that in 1663 the family was still living in Wapping. The next reference we have for the family is again from the parish registers of St. John’s Wapping, this time it for the death of Edward Fish the issuer of the farthing token.
14th July 1665 – Edward Fish died of a consumption and buried in Wapping.
The date of Edward’s death has previously led one researcher to suggest that he died of the plague. Bubonic plague ravaged London throughout 1665 and into 1666 and is estimated to have claimed the lives of approximately 100,000 citizens amongst which were just over 25% of the Worshipful Company of London Pewterers (6). Deaths from the plague in and around London reached a peak at the end of Summer 1665. Edward Fish’s home parish in Tower Hamlets was equally affected by the outbreak as other areas of the capital.
However, the burial register entry for Edward Fish clearly states “consumption” (i.e. tuberculosis) as the cause of his death and not plague. Thanks to the existence of a copy of Edward’s Will (7) it is clear that at the time he made it on 15th June 1665, a month before his death, he was “of perfect mind and memory but sick and weak in body”. This does not imply plague was Edward Fish’s undoing unless he contracted it in the later stages of a protracted illness such as tuberculosis. Plague typically only has a 2 to 3 day incubation period and death usually follows very shortly afterwards. A month would be too long a period to have lingered if plague was the cause of Edward’s death.
In his will Edward Fish named his wife, Cicely, as executrix and principal recipient of his goods and estate. The Will set aside the sum of £20 to be split equally between his two sons, Richard and John, to set them up in apprenticeships when they reached suitable age (typically 14). A search for their names in the registers of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers has drawn a blank which suggests that they didn’t follow in their father’s footsteps.
A review of Hearth Tax returns from 1666 for the Tower Hamlets area has failed to identify a Widow Fish or a Richard Fish (i.e. Edward’s oldest son) in the area so it is assumed that either Cicely re-married soon after Edward’s death or moved out of the area for pastures new with her surviving children.
At some point after Edward’s death Cicely did re-marry. According to one source (8) to “one Moore a foreigner of Edinburgh” after whose death she asked (14th October 1679) to be admitted into the freedom of the Worshipful Company of London Pewterers. After some debate the court of the company agreed to accept her asking her to pay the usual fees and accept the condition that she should not bind any apprentice to her.
1) Lillywhite, B. – London Signs: A Reference Book of London Signs from Earliest Times to about the Mid Nineteenth Century. (London, 1972).
2) Saunders, A. (Ed.) – The A to Z of Charles II’s London 1682. (London Topographical Society. 2013).
3) Strype, J. – A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster: Containing the Original, Antiquity, Increase, Modern Estate and Government of those Cities. – Corrected, Improved, and very much Enlarged Edition. (London, 1720).
4) Webb, C. – London Livery Company Apprenticeship Registers, Pewterers’ Company 1611-1800. Volume 40. (Society of Genealogists. 2003).
5) Entry for Edward Fish (No.3344) within the database of pewterers held and maintained by the Pewter Society of Great Britain.
6) Homer, R.F. – The London Pewterers and the Plague of 1665. Journal of the Pewter Society. Volume 23. Spring 2005.
7) PROB/11/317. National Archives (London).
8) Entry for Sicely [sic] Moore (No.6504) within the database of pewterers held and maintained by the Pewter Society of Great Britain.
I would like to thanks Roger Barnes, John Bank and Steve Custons of the Pewter Society of Great Britain for their assistance in sourcing information and illustrations used in the preparation of this article.