The Marking of British Silver

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By Merav Schejtman-Gilai.

The marking of British silver is one of the oldest pieces of consumer protection legislation in the world.

There are 4 main marks:

1) The Maker’s mark
2) The standard Mark
3) The City Mark
4) The Letter Date Mark

The first statutes regulating the standard of silver and gold were laid down in an Act of 1300 during the reign of Edward I . A hallmarked piece indicates that the piece has been checked for purity - that is, having the minimum silver or gold content - or passed at assay. The term "Hallmark" was derived from Goldsmiths' Hall in London, the first "assay office", as we know them today.
On English silver, the symbol for sterling silver, Is the lion passant (walking lion).
Originally, all pieces of silver or gold had to be taken to London to be marked. For many makers this was a particularly long and risky journey, and for this reason, many makers never had pieces marked - despite it being law.
Towards the end of the 15th century it was ordained that the "keeper of the touch" (the Assay Master) should be responsible for maintaining the standards of gold and silver presented for assay. This was a result of continuing complaints regarding substandard wares, which did not comply with the Sterling standard. Towards this end, the date letter system was introduced, devised to ascertain the year a certain piece was presented for assay and to trace offending makers.
Generally, the date mark is a letter; the style of the lettering is changed every cycle of the alphabet. The London assay office used 20 letters, (without J, W, X, Y and Z), while Birmingham used the full alphabet. The letters vary from office to office.

The symbol for the London assay office is the Leopard.
Throughout the times, the leopard itself changed. The most significant of changes came in 1821 when the crown was taken off the leopard’s head.



The symbol for Birmingham is the anchor:




And the symbol for Sheffield is the crown:



These are the three major cities in silver production in England.


How does one go about deciphering the Hallmarks?
Here we have marks, which were found on a silver cane handle:

The first mark on the left is the maker’s mark. This mark belongs to William Chawner who worked in London between 1820-1890.

The second is the Lion Passant, which is the English sterling silver mark.

The third is the city mark, the leopard tells us that the handle was made in London, the leopard is crownless therefore it is after 1821, and also the top two corners of the shield are cut, this puts the date between 1876-1895.

The last mark is a capital letter N. to know the exact date using hallmark books is essential, this is part of a page in such a book:

We can see that the leopard at the top is the same as the one we have, the letters are uppercase with a horned shield around them, exactly fitting our letter N, and therefore we can date the cane handle to 1888. A good book helps maker the deciphering easy.

There are many books about English hallmarks some can be found here.
To this date, there is only one comprehensive book about silver hallmarks, which include countries other than Great Britain. This book is called International Hallmarks on Silver Collected by Tardy. 1985. (This book was written originally in French).


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