BRITISH SILVER HALLMARKS
The British system of Hallmarking and the unbroken continuity of marks over the centuries is unique and a source of great fascination for many people. Much of the charm and interest in British silver hallmarks lies in their variety and individuality. However the main object of silver hallmarking was and is to protect the public against fraud. What follows here is a brief overview of silver hallmarks in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
It has always been difficult to determine the purity of silver in an object by visual means and many countries have tried to establish a system of ensuring that certain standards are kept to protect customers who buy silver objects. In Britain our system developed about six hundred years ago, when laws were passed to fix the purity of silver in manufactured silver articles to be at least 925 parts of silver in every thousand parts. This standard became known as Sterling silver and, in order to be struck with a sterling silver mark, any object had to be sent to, and tested by, the wardens of the goldsmiths guild at the London Assay Office. This system probably represented the first form of consumer protection world wide. Later, in 1478, a further mark known as the date letter was added. This date letter changed each year and has proved to be of enormous value giving an accurate guide to the year in which an item was made. As other assay offices were established in different towns and struck their own identifying marks, it rapidly became possible to look at any piece of British silverware and find marks which show standard, town of assay, year of manufacture, and maker. This is a unique system and is the main reason, coupled with the excellence of the silversmith, that British silver is held in such high regard.
The minimum standard of silver within Britain has always been set at the Sterling standard (92.5 %), and this is represented by the Lion, either passant (English) or rampant (Scottish). There is a higher standard called Britannia (95.8 %) which was introduced in 1697 to combat the melting/conversion of silver coinage into silverware. Although the use of the Britannia silver standard was not compulsory after 1720, it is still an authorized alternative. Good quality old Britannia marked silver is quite rare and collectible and therefore command a slightly higher price.
The Lion Passant for Sterling silver in England.
The Lion Rampant for Sterling silver in Scotland.
The Crowned Harp for Sterling Silver in Ireland.
Britannia for Britannia silver in England and Scotland.
Before the advent of mass transport and efficient communications there were many assay offices dotted around Britain to enable silversmiths to hallmark their goods. Even some relatively small towns had offices such as Plymouth, Colchester, Lincoln, Shrewsbury, Preston, Hull, Carlisle, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, Perth, Cork, and Limerick. In England the main marks were for London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Chester, Exeter, York, Newcastle and Norwich. The main marks in Scotland were for Edinburgh and Glasgow. For Ireland there is Dublin. This is by no means an exhaustive list and we recommend the book Jackson's Silver & Gold Marks (ISBN # 0907462634) for a more detailed analysis.
As time passed, all of these smaller provincial assay offices closed down. Pieces of silverware with rare town marks are now very collectible and command high prices when they come on the market. Today the only assay offices that are left open for silver hallmarking are London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Edinburgh, and Dublin.
The Leopards head for London
The Anchor for Birmingham
The Crown for Sheffield
The Castle for Edinburgh
Hibernia for Dublin
All pieces marked for Sheffield after 1975 bare, instead of a Crown, the Rose.
The alphabet cycle is used to indicate the date of manufacture. With the letter changing each year you would expect only 26 options, but after each cycle the style of the lettering changed, and also the shield that the letter was surrounded by. The autonomy of each Assay Office and the piecemeal development of the Law over the centuries led to many peculiarities in the marks and in their application, so in 1973 a new Hallmarking Act was passed that tidied up many of the complexities and anomalies and led to a simplified date letter system. From 1975, all the major assay offices, excluding Dublin, used the same date letter cycle starting at the same letter. This made it a lot easier to understand but still retained as much of the interest and tradition as possible. Certain dates were commemorated with special marks such as the present Queens Jubilee in 1977, or King George V's jubilee of 1935. This silverware again is quite collectible and starting to command a slight premium.
Each town or area obviously had a number of registered silversmiths and they all had their individual marks, which they sometimes changed to reflect changes in their business lives. But it was still the assay office that held their mark and there are various books that list makers marks. We can recommend the book 'London Goldsmiths 1697 to 1837 their Marks & Lives' by Arthur G. Grimwade (ISBN # 0571180655), or 'The Directory of London Gold & Silversmiths 1838 to 1914' by John Culme (ISBN # 0907462464). Certain makers are again very collectible and command very high prices. For example Paul Storr, Hester Bateman, Christopher Dresser, and Omar Ramsden.
Old Sheffield Silver Plate
Until 1742 only silver items were made in Britain but then a process was invented to fuse sterling silver to copper and the Old Sheffield Plate industry started to develop. For almost one hundred years wonderful silver objects were crafted, by hand, from sheets of fused plate and almost everything made in silver was made in the new material. There was no legal requirement to mark Old Sheffield pieces so the system of hallmarking described above does not apply. Therefore it is often quite difficult to precisely date Old Sheffield silverware. Most of the time these silver pieces are dated based on their style and the way they are made, and this can lead to a fairly accurate circa date within 5 to 10 years either side. The Industrial Revolution, the invention of electricity and general forms of mechanization caused the demise of this industry and saw the growth of electroplating in the 1840's.
In 1840 the electrochemical deposition of silver onto base metals was patented by a company called Elkington of Birmingham, England. This technique was very suitable for use in the new factories being set up to manufacture silverware to satisfy demand created by the great wealth of mid Victorian Britain. Early electroplating was on nickel and produced many fine objects, this silverware is now becoming more and more sought after by silver collectors. Many pieces were struck with pseudo-hallmarks and, to avoid confusion, this was made illegal in 1896 and pieces had to be marked EPNS for 'electroplated nickel silver'. There was no legal requirement to mark electroplated goods so the system of hallmarking described above does not apply. So it is often quite difficult to precisely date electroplated silverware. However some makers, such as Elkington & Co., actually marked their pieces with a date letter which is very helpful when deciding on the age of pieces. Most of the time electroplated silver is dated based on their style and the way they are made, and this can lead to a fairly accurate circa date within 5 to 10 years either side.