Defaced! Money, Conflict, Protest

Explore three highlights from ‘Defaced! Money, Conflict, Protest’, a major exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Published on 25 November 2022


Dr Richard Kelleher, Senior Curator of Medieval and Modern Money, Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge’s exhibition ‘Defaced! Money, Conflict, Protest’ (11 October 2022 – 8 January 2023) looks at 250 years of money defaced as acts of protest, dissent, rebellion and revolution. This blog highlights three objects from the exhibition.

In 2018 I was a recipient of an Art Fund New Collecting Award for a project called ‘Currencies of Conflict and Dissent’. These grants are designed to support curators in building new collections for their institution. My pitch was to build a collection of monetary material which reflected themes related to conflict and dissent. One of the key acquisitions of the project was Gavin Scott’s collection of 550 politically-defaced coins. This single collection, formed over five decades, was a major boon for the project as it contains a range and quantity of material that would have been impossible to acquire from scratch. Some of the highlights of the collection are detailed below.  

George III cartwheel penny, stamped in response to the Peterloo Massacre. Image copyright: Fitzwilliam Museum.

In August of 1819 a crowd of 60,000-80,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Field, Manchester to demand reform of parliamentary representation. There were many causes of popular disaffection, but voter issues were of urgent concern. Almost one million people in the northern towns of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Blackburn, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne, and Oldham were represented by just two MPs. In contrast Old Sarum, with just one voter, also elected two MPs.

The grim events of that day are commemorated on a uniquely-stamped George III cartwheel penny, pictured above. The front reads ‘HUNT.AND.LIBERTY:’, alluding to the main speaker of the day, Henry Hunt, a popular radical orator. The back reads ‘PETERLOO MURDER AUG 16’, the place and date of what came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre, by sarcastic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo. Economic depression in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars was particularly acute in textile manufacturing areas in Lancashire, where wages stood at a third of their previous level. This problem was compounded by the introduction of the Corn Laws, which increased the price of grain. 

Shortly after Henry Hunt’s speech, local magistrates called on the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest him. The Yeomanry charged the crowd, knocked down a woman and killed a child. Rather than disperse the crowds, the 15th Hussars charged with sabres drawn, slashing and trampling the crowds.

Irish florin, 1964, stamped ‘Lenny’. Image copyright: Fitzwilliam Museum.

The period known colloquially as the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland (c.1968-1998) witnessed one of the largest periods of mass coin defacement ever recorded and was particularly prevalent in the 1970s and early 1980s. Both UK and Irish coins circulated together until up to 1986 and as such were available for defacement as a means of everyday intimidation, identity and affiliation. The majority of those in the collection show loyalist slogans such us ‘UVF’ (Ulster Volunteer Force), stamped on Irish coins. Republican examples are UK coins typically stamped with ‘IRA’ (Irish Republican Army). 

Individual names are rare on coins of the Troubles. The example pictured above refers to Lenny Murphy, leader of the notorious loyalist murder gang, the Shankhill Butchers. The gang used indiscriminate targeting of (presumed) Catholic civilians and torture, and were most active from 1975-1979 when most members were convicted for roles in the killing of 23 people. Murphy escaped prosecution but was murdered by the IRA in 1982.

UK two pence, 1971, stamped ‘Smash H Block’. Image copyright: Fitzwilliam Museum.

The above example references a darkly sinister period from the Troubles. A two pence coin has been stamped ‘Smash H Block’ over the bust of the Queen. ‘Smash the H Block’ was a particularly well-known slogan that supported political prisoners’ protests at Long Kesh or Maze Prison, colloquially known as H Block. This defacement was made during the 1981 hunger strike in which ten Republican prisoners starved themselves to death. International interest was drawn when the leader of the strike, Bobby Sands, was elected as a Member of Parliament.