The Duty Mark and Stub

by Anthony B. L. Dove F.R.S.A.

Since writing my monograph on the duty mark in 1984(1), some new facts have come to my attention. The first relates to the use of the stub or combination punch at the London assay office. In an entry in the Assay Office Committee book (2) on 1st March 1753, reference is made to "two sorts of patterns of engine to strike the marks more true and regular than by the former method both as to order and visibility --- the better to prevent counterfiets [sic] " It is not know precisely on what objects these "engines" were used but they were possibly applied to waiters or salvers as these have very regular marks. (3) I am unaware of any examples of flatware so marked before 1781 when the stub was introduced, the precise date of which is not known.

A second point relates to the duty mark itself. I was in error describing it (4) as a "hallmark" as this term technically applies to marks relating to the standard of the metal, its date or place of assay. The duty punch was struck at the assay offices of London and elsewhere, on behalf of the Stamp office. It is very important to bear in mind that this mark existed for one reason and one reason only, simply as receipt of duty. It served no other purpose whatsoever. (5) Once the principle of a receipt is appreciated, a number
of potential questions can be answered, and it will be seen that the actual head did not matter. In this country, before decimalisation, a perfectly valid receipt could be given over a two-penny stamp of an earlier monarch. One assumption made is that the duty mark changed with the sovereign. The new Jackson (6) states that the date letter for
1837 (B) was used with the head of William IV only until his death on 20th June. However, the relevant records at the Goldsmiths'Hall show that at the London assay office, this head was used throughout the extent of the assay year commencing 29th May 1837 and that of Victoria started on 29th May 1838 with the new date letter (C) (7).

There are a number of instances in provincial hallmarks (where individual punches were still struck) for a particular sovereign's head still being used long after his death. The most seemingly anachronistic example I have seen is that of George III on a piece of York silver of 1839 (nineteen years too late!).

The likely reason for the change from incuse to cameo was probably the same as that for the abolition of the exportation mark in July 1785; namely that the former could cause damage to the article assayed. As to why it existed in the first place, it is possible that the Government of the day did not forsee the possible repercussions (and damage) caused by an incuse punch. When the change took place it was a radical one as it also included the alteration from a rectangle to oval outline and the sovereign's head facing the other way.

Finally, a few last words on the incuse duty punch which was always struck separately. It was used at the London assay office only with the date letters i and k for the 1784/5 - 1785/6 years respectively. However, it is also found at the English provincial assay offices and at Edinburgh with the 1786/7 date letter, as its use was extended there to 31st December 1786. Details of this can be seen elsewhere on this website.

I am grateful to Martin Gubbins for his constructive comments in the writing of this paper.


(1) "Some new light on plate duty and its marks"- Antique Collecting September 1984.
(2) I am grateful to the Goldmiths' Hall for permission to quote from these records.
(3) I am grateful to Robert Barker for this suggestion and for the reference.
(4) "Some new light on plate duty" (op cit - page 39).
(5) In Parliamentary papers 190 (1856) vol. XVI page 7. William Garnett, Inspector-General of the Board of Inland Revenue stated. "The Queen's head is merely to denote that the duty has been paid upon the plate. It has nothing to do with the quality --- there are separate marks provided to denote the standard but those are not Government marks".
(6) Jackson's silver and gold marks of England, Scotland and Ireland edited by Ian Pickford, published by Antique Collectors' Club 1989 (page 62).
(7) Goldmiths' Review. 1984/85 (page 18) "Heads you win" by Susan Hare.

This paper was first published in the "Finial", the Journal of the Silver Spoon Club of Great Britain (Volume 11/01 - August/September 2000).