The Cusped Duty Used At The Assay Offices From 1797

By Anthony Dove F.R.S.A.

In last month's FINIAL (Dec/Jan/Feb'2003/4, page 23), Mark Nevard inferred from my original monograph[1], from which the entry in the new Jackson was taken, that the triple cusped duty punch was used on London flatware. The simple answer to this is that it wasn't! However, I realise that the use of this mark at all the assay offices can be confusing, and hope what follows will serve to clarify the matter.

General Background To Cusped Duty Marks
From 5th July 1797 the duty on silver doubled from sixpence to one shilling per troy ounce. In the Act which imposed this duty (24 Geo.III c.53) a provision was made for a refund when silver was exported. Where a change in the amount of duty payable occurred in the middle of an assay year, it would be readily seen that there was the possibility of too much being refunded on export. There had, therefore, to be some method of distinguishing the two rates actually paid and this was accomplished by the insertion of indentations or cusps into the field of the duty head.

The second change in duty on silver was from 10th October 1804 with an increase to one shilling and three pence per ounce. The final actual increase was from 31st August 1815 to one shilling and six pence. There was, however, a need for a new duty outline from 14th June 1815, which was necessary resulting from a change in legislation in, export/imports to and from Ireland. Briefly, prior to this date, Ireland was paying an import duty of one shilling on English silver and this could therefore be dishonestly reclaimed on export as one shilling and three pence.

The London Assay Office
The increase involving the 1797 date letter 'B' was denoted by two or three cusps in the duty punch. With the new date letter 'C' for 1798 the duty shape reverted to an oval. By 1797 most articles of silver were struck with all the marks (including the duty) made in a single punch called a 'Stub'[2]. There were basically four of these. The first, with two cusps, (fig.1), is the one most frequently found[3] and is used on all spoons, forks and serving pieces, together with salvers and various items of hollow-ware with the head on the extreme right-hand edge.

Fig.1 London stub with cusps to the right and base (from 5th July 1797)

The next one, also with two cusps (fig.2) was, used on sugar tongs and knife blades (among other articles). These items had no town mark, at this date, and the duty was on the left. The third stub (fig.3) was used ONLY on mourning rings. The last (fig.4), although admittedly of trefoil outline, was used ONLY on watchcases. There were some single duty punches with three cusps, I have seen examples of these on a mug, a cake basket and a mustard pot, the first being on the rim, the last two marked in an arc, the punches all being struck individually where use of a stub was impracticable.

Fig.2 London Stub with cusps to the left & base
(from 5th July 1797)
Fig.3 London stub with cusps to the left & right
(from 5th July 1797)

Fig.4 London stub with three cusps
(from 5th July 1797)

The increase in 1804 was shown by a single cusp (fig.5) described in the records as a "nick at the bottom" [of the duty], as was the first alteration for 1815 (fig.6). The final increase from 31st August was denoted by a flat base to the duty (fig.13). As with the 1797 punches, when the next date letters were used, this shape reverted to an oval.

Fig.5 London stub with cusp in the base
(from 10th October 1804)
Fig.6 London stub with cusp in the base
(from 14th June 1815)

In my original paper[4] I referred to these marks as "amended" as I had reason to think that rather than re-cut all the stubs they could have been altered. If a sharp file is drawn across the outer edge of a punch this produces a cusp in the item marked. I have experimented with a mock wooden duty head filed as described, and the impression gives exactly the effect of a cusp (fig.7).

It will be noticed that in all the four stubs, the cusps are on the external edges only, (excluding the top of the sovereign's head). This is a strong indication that my theory is at least possible, as it would enable cuts to be made in the duty punch on the finished stub. In 1815 there were two variations in the duty punch, the first with a single cusp (as was also used in 1804) and the second with a flat base. The transition from one to the other would be simple in that the two curves of the cusp could easily be removed with a file or saw cut, thereby producing a flat base. In figure 8 the tip of a cusp can be quite clearly seen in the centre of the base and I submit this as proof of my "amendment" theory.

Fig.7 Mock duty punch with
Fig.8 London stub with flat base and trace of cusp
(from 31st August 1815)

The Provincial Assay Offices
In l797 NONE of the provincial assay offices used a 'stub' - all punches were individually struck, so triple-cusped (trefoil) marks could be used. To record the increased duty from 5th July 1797 they were sent a directive from London (which was held responsible for collecting duty from the other assay offices) to strike the duty head twice until such time as the new trefoil punches arrived[5]. Although the triple-cusped duty was used for some years, apparently indiscriminately, at all the offices outside London until c.1830, it was NEVER used BEFORE 1797.

Birmingham, Newcastle, Sheffield and York all duly obeyed this instruction.

Edinburgh did not comply, stating categorically that "the incorporation refuses to do so"[sic][6]. This office did, however, agree to change the starting date of its assay year in 1815 from the middle to the 1st September specifically to accommodate the final increase in duty. This would mean that everything assayed in that year would automatically pay at the new higher rate. The only other variation of the duty mark used here was the double cusp or hourglass outline as shown in figure 9. In this instance the assay "stub" is over-striking itself upside down[7]. I cannot relate any of these outlines to a relevant year so am unable to prove that it was a duty increase amendment.

Fig.9 Edinburgh separate duty punch of hourglass outline (1822)

Chester assay books show that their year started on 20th July from 1757 to 1796. There is an unfortunate gap in these records from 1796 to 1808 but from then on this date had been brought forward to 5th July. It would seem most likely that it started in 1797 with the duty increase. As with Edinburgh in 1815 all items assayed would then pay the double duty, thereby making two heads unnecessary. There are some variations in the duty shape found at Chester, which could possibly be relevant but I have been unable to relate them to specific dates[8].

Exeter started its assay year in early August at this date, so it is possible that the same applied. I have only seen two examples of 1797 from Exeter, of which one has an oval duty (fig.10), the other a trefoil (fig.11). The sugar tongs of 1815 (fig.12) show what appears to be a flat base, which could coincide with that of London assay office (fig. 13) and relate to the final duty increase. I would be grateful if any members have other dateable examples of 1804 or 1815 with unusual duty marks that could correspond to these increases.

Exeter single punches with oval duty (1797)
Exeter single punches with trefoil duty (1797)

Exeter single punches with flat based oval duty (1815)
London stub with flat based duty (from 31st August 1815)

York assay office provides a duty curiosity in a dessert spoon of 1834 formerly in the Martin Gubbins collection. This shows a punch of George IV with three cusps (fig.14). As there was no logical reason for any variation in this sovereign's head, it is a mystery I am unable to explain.

York single punches with trefoil duty of George IV (1834)

1. The trefoil duty was found at London on certain specific articles but NEVER on flatware.
2. The trefoil duty can be found on ALL items of silver assayed at the provincial offices from 1797 to c.1830 (but see figure 14).
3. The single cusp in the base of 1804/1815 is found ONLY at London.
4. The double cusp (hour-glass) is found ONLY on Edinburgh silver (or London gold rings).

1. Antique Collecting - October 1984, pages 39-42.
2. Touching gold and Silver by Susan Hare - exhibition at Goldsmiths' Hall 1978, page 83.
3. These were made in various sizes.
4. Antique Collecting (op. cit - page 41).
5. See The Finial, Dec/Jan/Feb'2003/4, page 8, figures 1a & 1b.
6. I am grateful to Ronald Grant for this reference.
7. This particular item will be the subject of a future paper in The Finial.
8. Chester Silver 1727-1837 by Maurice Ridgway, page 29.

My thanks to David Beasley, Robert Organ and the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths for permission to quote from their records. I am also grateful to Michael Golding for figures 1 to 13 and to Simon Moore for figure 14.


Chester Gold & Silver Marks 1670 to 1962

The Antique Collectors' Club have recently published a new reference book 'The Compendium of Chester Gold & Silver Marks 1570 to 1962 from the Chester Assay Office Registers' by Phillip Priestley and the late Maurice Ridgway (Silver Spoon Club member).

Without doubt this book has been needed for a long time now, it has over 500 pages with the majority of them showing thousands of photographs of maker's marks with registration dates, company details and addresses. The forward is written by spoon club members Cathlyn and Simon Davidson and is a tomb that will be forever dipped into my both collectors and dealers alike.

The book (65.00, and very reasonable in view of the information inside - Ed.) can be bought at your local good bookshop or directly from the Antique Collectors' Club on Tel: 01394 389950.


.4. / .5. / .6. / .7.
The Finial, March/April 2004

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