Whilst still at school I started to collect coins. This was well before decimalisation, when British currency was pounds, shillings and pence (there were 240 large bronze pennies to the pound sterling). Lots of scarce cons were in circulation, such as 1930 halfcrowns, 1932 florins, 1952 sixpences, 1946 and 1949 threepences, 1869, 1871, 1950 and 1951 pennies, plus Kings Norton pennies dated 1918 and 1919. All these coins sold at a good premium over their face value. Sometimes, when I was hard up, I’d pay my bus fare with scarce date coins. I might pay with three 1919KN pennies, which today would be worth perhaps £20. Hindsight can be depressing!
My first wage was £2-14s-2d, out of which I gave £2 to my mother. This left14s-2d, which doesn’t sound much but at the time things were very cheap. For example, a large bar of chocolate cost no more than 5d (about 2p in today’s money). The weekly publication, Exchange and Mart was the only publication to include advertisements for coins and medals. Some advertisers were dealers, some were private collectors. There were four columns per page in the Exchange and Mart. The Coin and Medal section made up about half of a single column.
When I had saved up a couple of pounds I wrote off to a collector, who was offering some of his duplicates for sale. I received a list a couple of days later, from which I ordered six coins (shillings of Anne, George I, George II and George III, together with sixpences of William III and George II). They were all in very good condition and cost me the grand total of £1-5s. This is an example of how cheap coins were at the time. My first purchase of ‘real’ coins would be followed by many more. I initially focused on early milled English silver coins. I soon added Scottish, Irish and Anglo-Gallic to my sphere of interest
By the mid-1960s I dealt in coins on a part-time basis and sent out lists each month to anything up to 150 potential buyers. This continued up to the mid-1980s. However, I was never any good as a dealer as I am too fond of coins. So many of the best coins went into my private collection. When I married in 1969, I placed my stock of coins, together with my collection, in a bank safe deposit. It has been there ever since.
Pressure of work from my job forced me to stop dealing in the mid-1980s and only occasionally after that date did I add anything to my collection. Nevertheless, my interest in coins was as strong as ever. My wife sometimes complained that I always had my head stuck in coin books and sale catalogues but I’d then say I could be doing far worse things.
Degree in the History of the Fine and Decorative Arts
In 1994 I was made redundant after spending close to 30 years in the same type of employment. I decided that I wanted a total change. However, exactly what the change would entail I didn’t know. I was eventually persuaded to do a degree course at the University of Leeds. The course focused on the history of the fine and decorative arts and would last three years.
On my first day I stood out like a sore thumb! Imagine the scene: a lecture theatre filled with girls and boys – mostly aged 18 – and me sat on the front row. There were a few other mature students in the Department of Fine Art but I was the only one in the new in-take. Once the other students realised I wasn’t some kind of weirdo we all got on really well. Some of them used to seek advice from me on various topics, including where was the best nightlife in Leeds. My answer to this would be “I’ve no idea.” Anyway, the years passed and I eventually gained a 2.1 BA (Hons) degree in the History of the Fine and Decorative Arts. Better still, I won a prize for producing the best dissertation of 1997 in the Department of Fine Art.
On leaving the university I didn’t know what I would do next. One day the thought struck me that for three years I’d been writing deeply researched essays for the degree course. I’d enjoyed doing this, so could I continue writing articles and stories and selling them to publications? This seemed like a good idea but would any publication buy what I had written? It was worth a try, so I started sending things off. My first sale, a piece about a coin of Charles I, was to the Northern Echo (a newspaper). They paid me the princely sum of £25. Seeing my name as the by-line was a real thrill. Other sales, to a varied range of publications, followed on.
In 1996, I’d come into contact with a metal detecting enthusiast, who showed me a tray full of his finds. I’d heard of the hobby but until I saw this chap’s finds I had no idea of the range and quality of the material coming out of the ground. In 1997, I gave a talk to a detecting club, which seemed to go well. Afterwards someone asked me if I would like to take part in an outing. I said I’d love to but I didn’t have a machine and couldn’t drive, so it would be impossible. Within seconds someone offered me a lift and someone else the loan of a machine.
The following Sunday I went out with a group of detectorists on a pasture field and given instructions on how to dig a hole. My first find was part of the drawer pull from a Victorian chest of drawers. I was immediately hooked. Here was an electronic gadget that made a noise every time it passed over a piece of metal. The prospects were therefore limitless. After being made honorary member of the detecting club, I attended every outing I could. The machine I eventually bought wasn’t very efficient but it was cheap. On my fourth outing I manged to locate my first hammered coin: a penny of Henry V.
Identifying and Valuing Rare Coins
In 1998 the editor of The Searcher (the late Karolyn Hatt) invited me to take over the Price Guide, which we renamed the Identification and Valuation Desk. I would continue to do this for the next 22 years.
Over a period of 30+ years when I collected and dealt in coins I saw and handled quite a number of rarities. However, the number pales into insignificance in comparison to the number I have seen and handled after my involvement with metal detecting began in 1997. Not only have I written about a very large number of rarities, I have lost count of the number of unique coins I have had the pleasure of identifying. The same is also true about the huge range of artefacts I have identified.
Scholarship in many fields has moved on and expanded purely through the finds unearthed by a relatively small number of detectorists who go out in all weathers in pursuit of finds. I count myself as being very fortunate indeed to be involved in a hobby that is responsible for saving so many precious coins and artefacts from being irreparably damaged by farming machinery, or the actions of modern-day chemicals deposited on farm land.