Benjamin Orwell and his Farthing Token



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farthing token

Benjamin Orwell  was one of only two manufacturers of their own trade tokens in Great Chesterford. The other was John Housden - both were mercers (grocers). Benjamin was born on 12th Sept 1625, eldest son of Benjamin and Frances. He had six sisters and four brothers, two of whom were twins born in Jan 1635, who did not survive more than a few days.

17th century tokens were produced during the time when there was no copper coinage in circulation after the Civil War. Towns, boroughs and private merchants were allowed to produce their own farthings, halfpennies and pennies. There are examples from most towns of tokens from this period, and private merchants range from inns and taverns to candle-makers, grocers, wool merchants and tailors.

The production of tokens was brought to a halt by Charles II who introduced a new series of minted coinage for use throughout Britain, and issued a law prohibiting the circulation of earlier tokens.  Benjamin’s son wrote several letters to William Holman, giving him information on Great Chesterford to be used in his History of Essex.  His father, also a mercer, was a trustee of Hyll’s Charity, and they were probably in business together.  His son, an intelligent and well-read man, died in an Almshouse, dependent on charity.

One side of the token has the name Benjamin Orwell round the outside , and the date 1667 in the centre. The other side has Great Chesterford round the outside, and the letters B O M in the centre -

B O    with some sort of embellishment underneath.


Two other Orwell tokens can be seen in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge



Transcriptions of Correspondence obtaining information for Holman’s History of Essex.

D/Y 1/1/151/1

January 10th 1722

Reverend Sir,

Mr Jekyll told me two or three days ago, that he had a letter from you r…..? you

--------? me to write to you what ----? I know regarding Chesterford Magna, which I should have distinguished before if I did not; I know no more ----------? worth your notice than I then wrote. But without your commands (knowing what you are about touching the County) I did endeavour to get a copy of what they call their Charter, that I believe is only‘Letters’ Patentos: but it was such a one as Mr Fordham whom Capt. Humphrey knows very well told me they gave 10 shillings to have it translated from the Latin in a Saxon character. Mr Fordham has the original patent which I believe you could already? have the copy of: but since I can’t do that I have endeavoured to get a copy of the translation; and spoke to my brother who lives at Walden to write it out, which he promised me to do. By that if you have not the original copy you will see the purport of it. If Mr Buck of Littlebury Green can copy it (which I somewhat doubt) there is no doubt but if Capt. Humphrey request it of him he will.I know Mr Buck has such an interest in Mr Fordham that he will not deny him. It is a very Ancient Grant from the Crown and worth your obtaining. There was two years ago a suit at Common Law, between that town ( who claim by virtue of that Grant a freedom from Toll even all over England) and the University of Cambridge who would dispute with them the validity of their Grant, for not paying Tolls at their Great? Bridge.How it went, and whether the University obtained a verdict I know not.

Sir I pray favour me to acquaint Capt. Humphrey that I have Peter Martyr upon

Judges in folio in the German character: the book is fresh? but wants a title page.  I believe I can find some sermons of Bishops Hooper and Latimer in the same character. If they may be of any service to him shall be sent,

Sir Your Most Humble Servant


Sir I forgot whether I told you in my former that the place where the Encampment was is called the Borrow: and several parcels of lands without the foundation of the walls is called BorrowLand; and such land they may sow if they please every year: these coins which are found there ------------(rest is missing)


January 16th 1722

Reverend Sir

I had of Mr Jekyll two shillings being Mr Morley’s Charitable Gift and six pence from yourself. It was the more welcome as it was unexpected by me who never have more than I want but always want more than I have. Sir Mr Morley’s Charity and you must be very extensive who seek out the miserable, and find those objects of compassion that the most of mankind have forgotten. May the Almighty reward the Charity of you both a thousand fold, for I can only present my most humble servant and greatest thanks and am Mr Morley’s and your most thankful humble servant

B Orwell


Having formerly been very conversant at Great Chesterford I presume to mention some historical facts that perhaps may lead you who are so eminent and indefatigable an Antiquary to further discovery: as that there has been an Ancient Encampment or Fortification, the foundation of thick stone walls yet remaining: in it have been frequently found by spades and ploughs, Roman Coins and Medals, divers of which formerly I gave Mr Jekyll; Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian etc.The place consists of about 20 acres, and if it has not been viewed by so good an Antiquary, it deserves it.

For modern gifts there is one for Casual poor of about 24 shillings per annum. The Ancient Will of the donor is read in the Church every New Year’s Day by the Pastor for which he has an allowance of 6 shillings by right paper? to buy him a gown cloth, with other peculiar legacies to the poor. And in as much as Dugdale for example ---?  mentions divers things of this nature I add, that the surviving Trustee of twelve attempting      (within the memory of man) to convert the whole Charity to his own use and his heirs, was not only disappointed by a Chargeable Law Suit, but a curse seemed to attend him and his children, who after that from living well never prospered. There is also an Ancient Charter about freedom from Tolls: and a Charity House dedicated to a Lady of about 40 shillings a year with divers such gifts as I forbear troubling you with but for your pardon for this.

D/Y 1/1/151/3

July 27 1722

Reverend Sir

Mr Jekyll acquainted me that you desired to know whatever I could tell now than I wrote before which is very little; what I can say of my own memory Cr----? only that the Great House which once stood in Great Chesterford Park was pulled down by James Earl of Suffolk ( who died 1688/9) to set up a house at Newmarket. This house was the seat of that family before Audley End House was built bought as I have heard by the family of the Howards of the Lord Audley. The Park was deparked by the Earl Henry of Suffolk and Brandon and converted to tillage.

Copy hold estates – these descend always to the youngest son.

Chesterford Parva half a mile further affords very little only a small park of the Earls of Suffolk but is now converted to tillage. Adjoining to this land was a park belonging to the S-----? Family called Little Walden Park which was for deer of the stag kind: this Little Walden is a hamlet about a mile and a half from Great Walden Town.

The ancient encampment mentioned in my last the people call the Borrough and the money found there Burrough Money; but -------------? the place where the encampment was which was about 20 acres there are about 100 acres more adjoining to it called BorrowLands which the owners have a privilege to sow every year, although it be in the ------?. Hollingshed in his description of England carries the BorrowLands further than their inhabitants do now; even to be very near Burton Wood.

A copy of that which they call their Charter mentioned in my last may be had without question by Capt. Humphreys writing to his friend Mr Buck of Littlebury Green, to procure it of Mr Fordham, who is the principal man of Great Chesterford, and in whose custody ( if I am not very much mistaken this Patent or Charter is ) and he also can procure a copy of the Will which is read by the Parson every New Year’s Day if you think itneedful.

Sir Mr Jekyll tells me of your confirmation in soliciting a charitable benefactor on my behalf. I am bound to bless God for your goodness in it whether it succeeds or not.

I am Sir with all gratitude

most thankful and most humble servant

B Orwell

D/Y 1/1/151/4

June 16 1724

Reverend Sir

There is something more concerning Great Chesterford as I think I forgot to acquaint you with: there is a piece of ground lying close to the town’s end of about 6 acres called Littlemead; where every family may go upon a Lammas Day and take some grass and carry off, I have been told, to reap it with a sickle, but now one man cuts with a scythe and another lays out the several shares, which some that have no cattle sell to their neighbours.

About two miles from the town, close to the road leading from thence to Newmarket, is a place called Sunken Church – of which I could never meet with any account from any author.The inhabitants are told ( but it is only tradition) that there a church sunk into the ground. I have gone to the place and could find stones and mortar; some building there has been ( but I am ----- --- ----- ----?) perhaps a cross or fort or mark for the Bounds of the Counties of Essex and Cambridgeshire. I can’t think it a Church : I write this because perhaps some of your Ancient historians may -----------? light on to it; it seems to have taken up about a rod of ground.

Please to accept of this book I send you as a testimony of my thankfulness for the many favours I have received from you. I shall not pretend to satisfaction that bring beyond my poor ability but this far I can pretend to that I will ever remain


Your most thankful and obedient servant

B Orwell

Photocopies of the original letters obtained from the Essex Record Office 24/10/07


Nicholas Jekyll lived in Castle Hedingham. He was the son of Thomas Jekyll, and brother of William, and nephew of Thomas ( mentioned often in his letters to William Holman)

See D/Y 1/1/111/42 , D/Y/1/1/112/1

John Morley (Merchant Morley) was a merchant and later, land factor in Halstead.

See Essex Review, 111, p203.

Capt. NicholasHumphrey was the son-in-law of Mr Thomas Buck, and lived inLittlebury Green. He is also said to be the son-in-law of Samuel Wilson, clothier, Halstead

Mr Thomas Buck left a will in Nov 1746 (SEAX). He lived in Littlebury Green.

John Fordham owned a lot of property in Chesterford and was a man of standing in the community, donating annually to the poor . One of the Hill’s Charity Trustees, he is mentioned with Ben Orwell on D/P 10/25/29 in a Feoffment on 15th May 1663, for the Hyll’s Charity property Town Place.

Town Place – a messuage and land in the fields of Great Chesterford. Part of the bequest of Thomas Hill when he set up his charity. To be leased out by the Trustees, and the rent used for charitable purposes and the maintenance of Town Place. The building had been destroyed by fire in the late 1590s. John Felsted helped buy a replacement, Kebles in Dark Lane. It is mentioned inD/P 10/25/8 dated 1580.

It stood at or near Carman’s Pond (junction of Jacklyn’s Lane and Middle St). On site of Infant School?From 1811 it was known as Town Farm.

Rev.William Holman wrote his History of Essex over 30 years. He lived in Halstead and was buried there in 1730 at the United Reformed Church. For 20 years he was Pastor of the Church of Protestant Dissenters in Halstead – T/Z 151/82

Benjamin Orwell was a mercer in Great Chesterford amd one of only two people to produce their own farthing tokens during the copper shortage. The other was John Housden, a well-off merchant. He seems to have been an intelligent, literate and well read person. He wrote many letters to William Holman with information about the village to be used in WH’s History of Essex. Nicholas Jekyll seems to have been a kind of intermediary between them. By 1728 Benjamin was living in an almshouse, dependent on charity. He had a brother in Saffron Walden.

He died c.3rd Aug 1728.