Local currencies like the Brixton pound or the Totnes pound are nothing new. In the 18th century London merchants issued their own currency too, and James Lackington, an associate of Thomas Wright, the man who built Bell House, took the opportunity to issue his own currency and to advertise his business at the same time. If Thomas Wright did likewise sadly no tokens have survived. However, at Bell House we do have a Lackington token, which Thomas Wright would have known and may have used.
When the price of copper rose steeply following the wars of the eighteenth century, copper coins became more valuable due to their metallic content. Counterfeiters began melting down the coins and replacing them with ones containing less copper. Minting more coins would have encouraged the counterfeiters so the government simply closed the Royal Mint, creating a coin shortage. Enter James Lackington.
James Lackington was the Jeff Bezos of his day, a bookseller who revolutionised the British bookselling trade. He honed his salesmanship selling pies in the street but he always said his first love was books so he became a bookseller, almost certainly selling Thomas Wright’s bibles and prayer books. The story went that on arriving in London with his wife, Lackington spent their last half-crown on a book of poems called Night Thoughts, explaining ‘for had I bought a dinner, we should have eaten it to-morrow, and the pleasure would have been soon over, but should we live fifty years longer, we shall have the Night Thoughts to feast upon’.
Lackington opened a huge bookstore in Finsbury Square, called the ‘Temple of the Muses’, said to be so big that a coach-and-four could be driven round it. He went up and down the country buying whole libraries and remaindered books, which he then sold as cheaply as he could, though he did not spare any expense in fitting out his ‘Temple’.
Lackington tokens had to be spent in his shop, cleverly ensuring shoppers had to return. He also used the tokens to advertise the shop and himself: it is his portrait on the obverse and on the reverse it says ‘Lackington, Allen & Co. Cheapest booksellers in the world’.
Lackington’s talent for publicity showed in other ways too. He flew a flag above the Temple of the Muses to let customers know when he was in the shop and when he was travelling around London (and possibly Dulwich?) his carriage was inscribed with his motto: Small profits do great things.
If you are interested in local history, Ian McInnes is leading a walk around Georgian Dulwich on Sunday 13 May 2018, as part of the Dulwich Festival. Click here for details.