The above copper farthing token measures 15.2 mm and weighs 1.19 grams. It was issued by James Stephens, possibly a tavern keeper or tradesman, operating from premises at or by the sign of “The Three Nuns” in Giltspur Street in the Farringdon Ward Without district of London.
The design of the token may be formally described as follows;
Obverse: (star) IAMES. STEPHENS. AT. YE, around a solid line circle, within the depiction of three nuns standing in a line facing.
Reverse: (star) IN.GVLTSPVR. .STREET, around solid line circle, within a legend in four lines; WITH / OVT / NEW / GAT.
The token is undated but is likely to have been issued prior to the early to mid-1660s by which time the issue of farthings was in decline in favour of half penny tokens. This tradesman’s token is one of six different issues known from this very small street. All were produced during the period 1648/9 to 1672 (1).
In mid-17th century Giltspur Street was located immediately to the north-west of the Newgate entrance to London. Newgate was one of the city’s ancient fortified gates. It was located on the north-west perimeter of the old city walls in the Farringdon Ward of the city.
The current alignment of Giltspur Street is slightly to the west of the course it took in the mid-17th century. It now runs directly alongside the eastern perimeter of the churchyard of the parish church of St. Sepulchre, Holborn. Tradition has it that it was at the end of Giltspur Street, at the junction with Cock Lane in West Smithfield, that the Great Fire of London of 1666 reached its farthest limit in this part of the city before being finally extinguished on the last day of the Great Fire. Today the spot is still marked by the statue of the Golden Boy of Pye Corner (2).
Little to nothing is known of this token’s issuer, James Stephens. An initial search of the London Hearth Tax returns from the 1660s has failed to return any mention of him. A search of London parish registers and other genealogical sources has only yielded one probable reference to him. The parish registers for St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate, located only a stone’s throw to the west of Giltspur Street, records the burial of a James Stephens on 29th March 1664.
The sign of the Three Nuns is first recorded in London in 1367 as a brew house. It was a fairly common sign in the capital and is often thought to have denoted a site with former religious associations. While the sign was used by several inns or taverns it was not exclusive to that trade. In the 18th century the sign was chiefly associated with linen drapers, mercers and milliners. It may well have had similar but less frequent associations in the mid-17th century.
1) There are six separate tradesmen in Giltspur Street who are known to have issued tokens in the mid-17th century. Five of the token types are of farthing denomination while the sixth is a half-penny. Of these tokens two of the farthings were issued by separate tradesmen using the sign of “The Three Nuns”. Other than James Stephens the other issuers were Samuel and Hannah Botley. Samuel Botley (born 1639) married Hannah White on 2nd May 1662 in Acton, Middlesex. Samuel is recorded as a cordwainer (i.e. shoe maker) of the parish of St. Sepulchre. It is impossible to say if Samuel Botley and James Stephens were neighbours or if Samuel Botley took over the premises of James Stephens after the latter’s probable death in March 1664. Either way married life for Mr. and Mrs. Botley in Giltspur Street would have been fairly short lived. Presuming that the couple made it through the Great Plague of 1665 Giltspur Street and the adjacent parish church of St. Sepulchre were both consumed during the latter stages of the Great Fire of London in September 1666 (see location map below).
2) Below the statue of the Golden Boy of Pye Corner is a tablet bearing the following inscription;
This Boy is in Memory Put up for the late FIRE of LONDON Occasion’d by the Sin of Gluttony.
The statue, made of wood and covered in gold is a listed monument and according to its listing entry was formerly winged. Originally the statue may also have been painted naturalistically. A larger more modern sign below the monument explains more of its history;
The boy at Pye-Corner was erected to commemorate the staying of the Great Fire, which beginning at Pudding Lane was ascribed to the sin of gluttony when not attributed to the Papist as on the Monument and the boy was made prodigiously fat to enforce the moral.
The statue was originally built into the front of a Public-House called “The Fortune of War“, which used to occupy this site before it was demolished in 1910.
In 1761, the tenant of this public house, Thomas Andrews, was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to death. However, he was pardoned by King George III in one of the first cases of public debate about homosexuality in England. A further claim to fame of this establishment was that until the 19th century, it was the chief house north of the River Thames for “resurrectionists”. It was officially appointed by the Royal Humane Society as a place “for the reception of drowned persons”. Prior to it demolition the landlord used to show the room in the pub where benches were placed around the walls and where bodies laid out to await their inspection and collection by the surgeons from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.