There’s a long history of the defacement of currency as a political act, from the battering and bending of a mid-fourth century Roman coin featuring the face of the emperor Valens to 1970s coins stamped with paramilitary slogans in Northern Ireland. Recently on the British Museum blog, Thomas Hockenhull, the institution’s curator of modern money, shared a 1903 penny that has the suffragette slogan “Votes for Women” letter-stamped over the face of Edward VII.
Although the penny was issued in 1903, the vandalism was probably carried out a decade later. Hockenhull writes:
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.
How much effort? You can watch Hockenhull attempt to hammer a slogan into a non-museum coin in the enthusiastic video below, part of the British Museum’s Curator’s Corner series. As he proclaims, “What Marlon Brando took from the method school of acting, I brought to numismatics.” He notes that, in addition to the tedium of creating a subversive statement, the coins would have been difficult to use, as shop owners would have been wary to accept them. Further, the similarity between the known “Votes for Women” artifacts suggests they were most likely made by the same person.
The suffragette penny was featured in the BBC’s “A History of the World,” which positioned the coin in the context of other cultural attacks. In 1914, Mary Richardson repeatedly slashed Diego Velázquez’s “The Rokeby Venus” at the National Gallery following the arrest of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history,” Richardson stated. Other suffragettes used hammers to break the glass on 13 Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian paintings at the Manchester Museum of Art.
As Hockenhull explains, almost all the coins with the suffrage “countermarks” are defaced on the head side, with text printed across the face of the king; on the one known coin with Queen Victoria, the tail side was engraved. Yet the alteration of a coin was not always intended as a rebellion against the ruling powers. The British Museum’s Citi Money Gallery, where the penny is on view, also features a 1916 “love token” coin, altered by a British soldier during World War I with the words “From Fred to Nellie, France 1916” (there’s a Curator’s Corner video on it, too).
The 1918 Representation of the People Act permitted women over 30 to vote, and the 1928 Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act finally gave suffrage to all women over 21. Decades later, in 2003, the suffragettes were honored with a legal 50p coin to mark the centennial of the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union, whose members may have included the still-anonymous individual who once defaced coins in an act of defiance.