Blog: British Hallmark Date Letters
First published: 31 August 2023, last updated 01 January 1970.Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.
I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently but, because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages, the changes are not very noticeable. I decided to create this blog to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that is either completely new or I have recently changed or added to significantly.
If you enjoy this website,
why not buy me a coffee?
This entry is from the page about British Hallmarks.
My latest article about hallmarking imported gold and silver watch cases, published in the Horological Journal, can be downloaded from Hallmarking Imported Watches.
If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
British Hallmark Date Letters Span Two Calendar Years
It is often assumed that British hallmarks identify a particular year, such as 1839 or 1914. But this is wrong. Before 1975, British assay office hallmarking years, and therefore British hallmark date letters, spanned two calendar years.
Many tables of date letters in recognised references such as Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks and published on internet websites give only the first year in which a date letter was used, leading to the understandable but erroneous assumption that a hallmark date letter identifies a particular calendar year. And some people, and so-called experts who should know better, either don't know this or are just lazy.
The reason why British hallmark date letters spanned two calendar years is interesting, but some people reading this might be thinking, ‘Why does it matter?’ So first, let's look at some reasons why it does matter.
Three Reasons Why It Matters
The first reason that it matters is that it's just plain wrong to quote only a single year as the date of a hallmark, and I believe that we should always try to be correct, simply because that's the right thing to do.
When so-called experts say, as they do, for example, ‘this item was made in London in 1839’, they are wrong. The hallmark shows that it was hallmarked (which is not necessarily where it was made) in London in either 1839 or 1840.
If that is not convincing, then the following are two real examples that were encountered recently.
The photograph shows an item with Chester Assay Office hallmarks for sterling silver. The Chester Assay Office town mark is to the right of the image, the cameo mark of an upright sword between three wheat shaves. The lion passant, the standard mark for sterling silver, is to the left of the image. In the centre of the image is the sponsor's mark, showing who bore the responsibility for the item when it was submitted to be hallmarked, below which is the hallmark date letter.
The sponsor's mark S&R in cameo within a rectangular surround was entered at the Chester Assay Office on 18 February 1864 by Mary Samuel & Arthur Rogers trading as Samuel & Rogers, Watchcase Manufacturers, 72 Wood Street Liverpool. Mary Samuel was the widow of Ralph Samuel, who was the owner of the largest Liverpool watch case factory at the time. Ralph Samuel died in February 1860, and his widow Mary took over the running of the business. The 1861 Census describes Mary's occupation as ‘Gold case maker employing 40 men and 20 boys.’
The hallmark date letter is the Blackletter (Gothic) "Z" of the Chester hallmarking year from 1863 to 1864. If the date letter is read as only 1863, the date of entry of the sponsor's mark in February 1864 would be a puzzle.
However, since the Chester Assay Office hallmarking year ran from 1 July to 30 June, February 1864 was only just over halfway through the 1863 to 1864 hallmarking year.
A correspondent wrote
I have two watches which I believe carry the hallmarks for 1798 but both lack duty marks. The requirement to pay duty was abolished from 1798, which I take to mean from 31st December 1798. On your website, you explain that from the restoration of Charles II in 1660 until 1975 the London Assay Office hallmarking year ran from 29 May to 28 May the following year. Therefore, a watch hallmarked in London and carrying the date letter “C” for 1798 could actually date from any time up to 28th May 1799. If it were from the period 1st January 1799 to 28th May 1799 it would legitimately be exempt from duty and not carry the duty mark. In fact, the absence of a duty mark could be regarded as evidence that the watch in question was hallmarked in 1799.
This is sound reasoning based on the assumption that the duty mark ceased to be applied after 31 December 1798. However, the Act in question, 38 Geo. III c. 24, specified that duty on watch cases ceased to be payable from 25 March 1798.
The date 25 March was before the date in the year when any assay office changed their date letter punches, so the duty mark on watch cases was discontinued during the tail end of the 1797 to 1798 hallmarking year.
Watch cases hallmarked from 25 March, at the end of the London Assay Office hallmarking year from 1797 to 1798, were not liable to duty and, therefore, would not have the duty mark. So if a watch case with London Assay Office hallmarks and the date letter Roman capital 'B' for 1797 to 1798 does not have a duty mark, it was hallmarked between 25 March and 28 May.
No watch cases hallmarked by the London Assay Office during the 1798 to 1799 hallmarking year, with the date letter Roman capital ‘C’, or in any subsequent year, would have the duty mark.
Origin of the Date Letter and Hallmarking Years
The punch mark that was changed every 12 months when new wardens were elected at an assay office was not intended as a date indicator. It began as a way of identifying the assayer and ‘touch warden’ who were responsible for the assay and hallmarking of a particular item. The next two sections discuss why this was and the hallmarking years of some assay offices
The year denoted by the so-called date letter can be confusing because before 1975, the hallmarking year did not run from 1 January and therefore, the hallmark date letter does not indicate a calendar year.
The mark that is now called the date letter was introduced at the London Assay Office in 1478 as a result of a statute enacted under King Edward IV, which introduced a penalty for marking substandard wares of twice the value of the item, one-half to be paid to the King and the other to the injured party. Prior to this, the wardens had periodically gone to guild member's workshops and established to their own satisfaction that items of gold and silver were of legal fineness, which they then ‘touched’ with the mark of the leopard's head. The potential penalty enacted by the new statute made them decide to put the assay on a more formal and professional basis.
In December of 1478, the first full-time salaried assayer was appointed to perform assays on behalf of the wardens, and a workshop called the assay house was created at Goldsmiths' Hall. The first assayer was Christopher Elyot. Gold and silversmiths were thereafter required to bring their wares to the hall to be assayed and, if they were found by the assayer to be of legal standard, stamped with the Company’s marks. This requirement to bring items to Goldsmiths' Hall to be marked is the origin of the term ‘hallmark’.
As a consequence, it became desirable to identify who had performed the assay of a hallmarked item in case it was subsequently found to be substandard. For this purpose, a mark in the form of a letter of the alphabet within a distinctive surround was introduced. This made a permanent record on an item of who performed the assay and was at first called the assayer's mark.
After the assayer had struck his mark on the item, a warden who was designated as the ‘touch warden’ struck the leopard's head mark. From this date until 1821, the leopard's head was crowned to distinguish it from the earlier version.
The assayer's mark, or date letter, punches were changed each year at each assay office when new wardens were elected, which varied from office to office. The date letter indicates the 12-month period in which an item was assayed and hallmarked, although this was not its original purpose.
Date letter marks, also called the “assayer's mark”, show who was responsible for the assay and were therefore changed when new Wardens were elected. This was usually about halfway through the calendar year, so a hallmark date letter refers to parts of two calendar years. For brevity, most tables of hallmark date letters show only the first year in which the date letter was used, but you need to remember that an item could equally well have been hallmarked in the first part of the following year.
Each assay office used its own cycles of date letters, which depended on when the office was set up and the date on which the wardens were elected, which is also when the date letter punches were changed. Because of this, date letter tables are unique to each assay office. You cannot use a date letter from one assay office to read the date of a hallmark struck by a different assay office.
Before 1975, the hallmarking years of the assay offices that frequently hallmarked watch cases were as follows:
- London Assay Office. The assayer's mark, now often called the date letter, was introduced in 1478. Cycles of twenty letters are used; j, w, x, y and z were always omitted before 1975. Before the Restoration, the date letter punches were changed on the Feast Day of Saint Dunstan, 19 May. From the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 until 1973, the London hallmarking year ran from 29 May to 28 May the following year.
- The Chester Assay Office hallmarking year ran from 5th July from 1701 until 1839, then from 5th August until 1890, after which it ran from 1st July, neatly bisecting the calendar year. The Chester Assay Office closed in August 1962.
- The Birmingham Assay Office hallmarking year ran from 1st July to 30th June.
- The Edinburgh Assay Office hallmarking year ran from the start of October to September the following year. The new wardens were elected on Michaelmas day, 29 September. The new date punches were used from the first hallmarking day in October.
- The Glasgow Assay Office hallmarking year ran from 1st July to 30th June. The Glasgow Assay Office closed in 1964.
- The Dublin Assay Office changed its date letter punches on 29 or 30 May each year.
There were a number of other assay offices, Sheffield (first Monday in June), Exeter (since 1701, on the 7th of August), Newcastle upon Tyne (from 1702, on the 3rd of May), etc., but since these were not routinely used to hallmark watch cases I have not included them all. If you have one that you want to know the dates of the hallmarking year for, please feel free to ask.
If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated January 1970. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.