Curator's corner
Defacing coins like a suffragette

Stamped in crude lettering across the head of the king is the phrase ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’, the slogan of the suffragette movement. The deliberate targeting of the king, as the constitutional monarch and head of the Church of England, could be likened to iconoclasm, a direct assault on the male authority figures that were perceived to be upholding the laws of the country. As Neil MacGregor wrote in A History of the World in 100 Objects, ‘this coin stands for all those who fought for the right to vote’.

The British Museum’s example was minted in 1903 but most likely circulated unaltered for ten years before it was defaced, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War in around 1913–1914. We know this from the date of other coins bearing the same slogan in identical lettering. It was said at the time, that the suffragettes had copied the practice from anarchists, who were defacing similar coins with the phrase ‘Vive l’Anarchie’. Precisely just how many coins were defaced is unknown: several other examples are known to exist besides the Museum’s ‘Votes for Women’ coin, but the effort required to deface a single coin means it is unlikely that many were made. It was probably carried out by a single person using just one set of individual alphabet stamps, a process that would have been repetitive and time-consuming. The perpetrator has never been traced, and no direct connection has ever been established between the coins and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) or other suffragette organisations.

The First World War is commonly perceived as a watershed moment, when the sun finally set on the Victorian golden age: ‘never such innocence, never before or since’, to use the oft-quoted words of Larkin. Yet this is a romanticised and superficial view of pre-war Britain that conceals a more disturbing image, of a country beset by domestic crises and civil disorder. These included anarchist violence and the beginnings of the Troubles in Ireland, and chief among them was the campaign for women’s suffrage. Suffragette militarism, or ‘direct action’, as it was also known, was characterised by bombings, arson, window smashing and the destruction of cultural property. It reached a tragic climax when Emily Wilding Davison ran out in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby, in June 1914. The simple act of defacing a coin can appear trivial in comparison with these more serious acts of sedition, but it nevertheless conveyed the same symbolic message of protest against a government that refused to extend women the vote.

 

The coin is displayed in the Citi Money Gallery (Room 68).

Hockenhull, Thomas. ‘Stamped all over the King’s Head: Defaced Coins and Women’s Suffrage’, British Numismatic Journal, 86 (2016), pp.238-245.