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Larger Than Life

John Wilkinson was a man of his times. He supported the ideals behind the French Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence. He opposed the power of the Church and the Crown. He was an associate of the Lunar Society (a group of Midlands industrialists and thinkers who met to discuss science, industry, art, medicine and politics) and close friend to Joseph Priestley, the chemist and political thinker. He helped Priestley after a 'church and king' mob destroyed his house and laboratory in Birmingham in 1791. Wilkinson set up guns at Bersham, near Wrexham, and at his Staffordshire ironworks, as he feared his revolutionary beliefs made him a target for the mob too.

Nicknamed 'Iron Mad Jack', Wilkinson was obsessed by iron and its possible uses. In 1787 to the astonishment of the many sceptics, he launched an iron boat. The boat was designed to carry freight on canals and was ahead of its time. He also built an iron chapel and inside it had an iron pulpit. Not even death would separate him from his beloved metal; he even had an iron coffin made for his own use.

His tokens sum up his character best. On one side they featured forge hammers and anvils, while on the other side was his profile. He was the only commoner to appear on any British coin in the 18th century.

Manufacture and Commerce will always flourish where Church and King interfere least.

John Wilkinson

John Wilkinson silver token. - © National Museum Wales

Wilkinson issued his own tokens from 1787 as coin was in short supply. Made in Matthew Boulton's factory, Wilkinson used the tokens to pay his workforce. He issued leather, copper and silver tokens, as well as one guinea notes. The tokens were stored at his counting house in Bersham. Forgers and commentators poked fun at Wilkinson for putting his own face on his tokens.