Value of a plack: the curious case of Scottish money in Swaledale

[Revised and updated 6 October 2017]

A fellow researcher, Clare Pilkington, spotted in a collection of Swaledale manor records from 1686 that some of the annual rents paid by copyhold tenants included an unfamiliar monetary denomination – a plack.

The references were in the court books of the manors of Healaugh and Muker, and the amounts were recorded in words and digits, making it clear that the value of a plack was one-sixth of a penny.[1] There was a special reason why these particular rents involved such tiny fractions of pennies, which is explained later. First there are more curious issues concerning the plack.

It wasn’t a denomination of English currency. It was Scottish. And even in Scotland it was long-since obsolete. It seems to have been treated like an alien value too. Sometimes it was awkwardly tagged on to the regular English values of pounds, shillings and pence. In one case, a value of four placks, recorded in digits as 4/6d, appeared in words as ‘a half-penny and a plack’, i.e. three-sixths plus a sixth. The implication seems to have been that the half-penny was real money while the plack was a nominal remainder. So what was going on?

The story of the plack and its place in the development of Scottish currency is found in an excellent online article by Ken Elks.[2] The plack was first minted in Scotland in around 1470, in the reign of James III, and was worth four Scots pence. During the first part of the reign of James VI, in the period 1567-1603, the plack was downgraded to the value of two Scots pence. It probably signified the beginning of its end because it was joined by another coin of the same value, known as a hardhead or a Turner.

In 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, uniting the two thrones, a fixed exchange rate for Scottish and English currencies was introduced. The Scots twelve-penny piece was set as equal to one English penny. By the same ratio of 12:1, the plack and the hardhead or Turner were fixed as equal to one-sixth of an English penny.

The fixing of the rate was probably very helpful in the border counties where the movement of people between England and Scotland must have involved routine interchange of the two currencies. In particular, it would have helped the trade with large numbers of Scottish drovers bringing cattle to sell in English markets. For centuries the drovers came through Swaledale on their way to markets at Richmond, Middleham, and farther south.[3] They must have influenced local economies, and their plack and hardhead or Turner coins in particular must have been a useful addition to the English currency, which otherwise had nothing smaller than a farthing, which was worth a quarter of a penny.

After the death of James I in 1625 the plack was no longer produced. In the succeeding reign of Charles I, only the Turner continued to be minted, and it acquired new optional names of half-groat or bodle. Of the three names, bodle seems to have become the most widely accepted over time. Dictionary definitions of a bodle consistently confirm that it was worth two Scots pence or a sixth of an English penny. However, there is anecdotal evidence that in some northern English counties the bodle was used as a half-farthing, which makes sense since two Scots bodles could then be exchanged for an English farthing. [4]

The bodle continued to be minted in Scotland during the reign of Charles II, who died in 1685. So at the start of the surviving records of the manors of Healaugh and Muker in 1686 the bodle was clearly current coinage, whereas the plack was almost certainly obsolete. So why did the manor stewards assess rents using the archaic Scottish term of a plack? Perhaps Swaledale folk were among those who treated the bodle as a half-farthing, and so the manor stewards found it more convenient to persist with the obsolete term plack to mean a sixth of a penny.

To understand this better it’s necessary to appreciate why rents in the manors of Healaugh and Muker involved such small fractions of a penny. It was to do with the Swaledale custom called partible inheritance, whereby copyhold tenants, who had the right to pass their tenancies onto their children, traditionally divided the properties equally between them. This was in contrast to the more usual system of primogeniture in which all the land went to the eldest son.[5]

A Muker Manor court record of 1686 showing an example of partible inheritance creating rents involving placks. Facsimile created by Timothy Bagenal. Image courtesy of North Yorkshire County Records Office and Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group.

A Muker Manor court record of 1686 showing an example of partible inheritance creating rents involving placks. Facsimile created by Timothy Bagenal. Image courtesy of North Yorkshire County Records Office and Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group.

The rents were fixed by ancient custom and were rarely reviewed. Therefore, as the example above shows, land that was passed by inheritance could easily create rents involving sixths of a penny. In this case the late George Metcalfe’s rent of 14 shillings 11 pence was divided into three equal rents of 4 shillings 11 and 4/6ths pennies, or 4 shillings 11 pence and four placks. In practice, people inheriting by this system often co-operated to re-consolidate the holdings in order to keep farms together in viable units. But when this couldn’t be achieved it often left small parcels of land with rents involving fractions of pennies.

But in 1686 how did anyone pay a plack? In theory a bodle, albeit a foreign currency, could have been accepted as a ‘Swaledale plack’ since officially it had the correct value. But maybe the plack element of the rent was only collected every three years, when a ha’penny would cover the debt. Or maybe it was never paid and was recorded only for legal and accounting purposes, in the same way that a peppercorn rent today is recorded but not paid.

Change came when the currencies of Scotland and England were united at the unification of the two kingdoms in 1707. Thereafter coins that were not part of the new single currency of Great Britain were no longer legal tender. It isn’t clear whether the bodle was withdrawn or just allowed to fade away. But it must have been obvious that the plack in rental valuations had to go.

The last plack in a rent assessment of Healaugh and Muker manors was recorded on 3 May 1712. After that, divided rents involving sixths were rounded up and down to quarters and eighths of a penny, so that some siblings paid slightly more than others. There wasn’t a coin with a value of one eighth of a penny until the half-farthing was introduced in 1844. It wasn’t popular and was  withdrawn in 1870.

Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, published in six volumes from 1898 to 1905, found evidence that the words bodle and plack remained in the language of Scots and northern English folk long into the 1800s as metaphors for poverty or worthlessness in phrases such as ‘I haven’t got a plack’, or ‘it’s not worth a bodle’.[6]

Timothy Bagenal’s facsimiles of the first five books of the manor courts of Healaugh and Muker, together with and expanding collection of transcriptions of the following books can be found at www.swaag.org.

[1] North Yorkshire County Records Office, Healaugh and Muker Manor Records, ZA.

[2] Ken Elks, ‘Coinage of Great Britain, part 12 Scottish coins’, Predecimal.com, ed. Chris Perkins, www.predecimal.com/p12Scottish.

[3] Arthur Raistrick, Green Tracks on the Pennines (Clapham, 1962), pp. 12-17. K J Bonser, The Drovers (Newton Abbot, 1972), pp. 17-37.

[4] Blue plaque at Bodlewell Lane, Sunderland, www.openplaques.org/plaques/40428.

[5] R Fieldhouse and B Jennings, A History of Richmond and Swaledale (London, 1978), pp. 135-40.

[6] Joseph Wright, The English Dialect Dictionary, vols. 1 and 4 (London, 1898 and 1905).

 

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