History of UK transport tokens

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A transport token is a coin-like object that has at its principal purpose to serve as payment for public transportation (ticket) or to serve as evidence that the holder is qualified for a reduced or zero fare because of his status (e.g. pupil, retired) or function (e.g. postman, nurse).

The earliest transport tokens

Middlesex DH363.jpeg

Transport tokens were issued during the token wave of 1787 - 1799. The oldest tokens referring to transport are considered to be the Palmer halfpenny set dated 1797. [1] However, these are more likely to be a general circulation and advertisement token but the objective to celebrate Mr. Palmer's mail coaches "for trade expedition and property projection" may be linked to what is now known as business travel and highway robbery.

It is unlikely that the tokens served as a "ticket", so that the stagecoach crew would not have to handle or carry official money. Mail coach prices were too high to be settled in halfpennies. However, halfpennies such as these could easily be spent as money at the time. It is far more likely that the issuers offloaded their halfpennies on freshly arrived travellers, who would have their first meal at their destination at the post house, normally an inn that would offer food, drink and lodging.

Dalton & Hamer says the initials AFH are probably those of Anthony Francis Haldimand, merchant, at 51, St Mary Axe, London. Haldimand and the unknown JF just used similar obverse dies and may not have had any other connection.

Another token referring to paid transport appeared in the token wave of 1811-1820. [2] Withers identifies the issuer as William Waterhouse, owner of the post house "The swan with two necks" on Lad Lane in London. The word neck is a corruption of nick, as swans with two nicks in the beak were royal property. Swans were highly appreciated food. Other swan-owners made different markings.

Davis Middlesex 64.jpg

Victorian tokens

New coins were issued only in 1820. By that time, the first UK tramway, the Swansea & Mumbles Railway, was already in operation. The first transport tokens used as a ticket were probably those of John Greenwood from Manchester. He started the first regular omnibus service, between Manchester and Pendleton, in 1824. When he died, in 1851, the company changed name and issued tokens with that name.

The first form of paid transport within the cities and not on rails was the Hackney carriage, a private coach that could be hailed and hired for a short ride. By the 1820s, the price of a ride was moving from 3 pence to 6 pence, beyond the means of most people. Around 1825, regular passenger services were inaugurated. Fierce competition drove prices down to a penny. Yet, the success of horse-drawn trams kept the services of the omnibuses marginal at first.

It is no coincidence that both the first tram line and the first bus line came about in mining and quarrying areas. Unlike factory workers, miners cannot live near the job. It is in the interest of both miners and mine owners that miners arrive regularly and on time. Moreover, line operators could and did handle carrying off mining products from the mine. These reasons kept transport tokens in mining areas in following periods also.

The first transport tokens of this kind have a denomination of 3 pence. The first dated token of this kind is that of Sheffield and Heeley issued by John Shortridge in 1852. The tokens of this period usually have a horse drawn carriage depicted along with legends detailing denomination (several pence), issuer name, town/city and the word "OMNIBUS". These tokens have the added function of being tied to the line operator. Where several competitors exploited part of a route, the tokens could give a loyalty discount.

From the first resin tokens to decimalisation

By the end of the 19th century, engines, electricity, petrol and diesel were replacing horses, requiring large new investments. Public transport had become an important social service. As a result, public transport became a city affair, often the business of a specialised local transport corporation. Depending on the political leaning of the city government, public transport fares would be more or less subsidised. The subsidies were meant for local voters, so they needed a distribution system that could be accessed by locals only. That system already existed. Some companies had come to use transport tokens to subsidise workers' travel cost. Now, the tokens could be used to pre-pay travel at a lower rate.

The corporations also used tokens to allow concessional fares to certain people, such as children or pupils only. Some functions also called for lower tariffs, such as GPO workers or postmen only, policemen in uniform, city workers, city corporation workers or tramway/bus employees only. Their tokens would be of a different colour and mention the target group. Tokens for pupils could be issued by a school (district) board. The National Coal Board (NCB) had its own transport token system for coal miners. Discount rate tokens could in some cities be available for workers or night workers, large local employers or for the blind (Aberdeen, Bristol, Glasgow and Nottingham). The second world war gave rise to additional groups benefitting from low rates, such as nurses and Air Raid Precautions (ARP) personnel.

At the same time, there was a shift away from metal towards artificial materials, that tended to be cheaper, lighter and more durable. Metal tokens of different denominations or validity would have a different shape. Artificial material could distinguish with colours, remaining significantly smaller. Nevertheless, after a while, there was a tendency for the most common denominations to be dominantly in the same colour, such as blue for halfpenny tokens and red for pennies.

The earliest of these tokens were made in "early plastics" such as celluloid. They look slightly cruder and thicker than later series. However, later series also seem to have come in a limited number of colours. As the contrast on the token is not good and designs tended to be largely similar, one wonders what kept drivers from accepting tokens of other cities, especially in bad light. Derby stuck to brass pre-paid tokens, until the second world war made brass unavailable, as it is a war material. Nottingham used both colour and shape to differentiate some of its tokens.

Shortly before or after the second world war, there was a massive shift from trams to busses. This is often noted on the tokens, where "Tramways" was replaced by "Transport".

Decimalisation in 1971 changed little in the first years. Tariffs remained quite low, compared to later periods. The Transport Act 1968 had more effect. It permitted corporations to allow concessionary tariffs to invalids, blind and retired people. From this time on, the tokens would be less and less used and replaced by paper and - later - electronic tickets, but their use would become increasingly tied to concessionary tariffs for these groups.

Local Government Act 1972

One of the more important disadvantages of the city tokens was that they could be used for short distance travel only. Moreover, those who lived near a boundary would be faced with two or three token systems. On joint routes, that could even mean letting a bus go by or pay cash, because you only had tokens of the "wrong" bus company. The Local Government Act 1972 offered an opportunity to fix or at least alleviate this issue.

The act created a system of two-tier local governments. In most cases, counties were divided in districts, sometimes called rural district. Many of these districts were newly created or renamed in 1972, which is helpful to identify post-1972 tokens. The responsibility for the tokens shifted towards the districts. There was a tendency for the districts to cooperate, covering a larger area - up to the whole county.

The tokens tend to be thinner and larger, diameters going from around 7/8 inch (22 mm) to 1 inch (25 mm). They tend to be coloured brighter with more colours available, to the point where the colour of some tokens borders on bad taste. The design is sharper and more modern, it loses the heraldry of the previous period but wins a novelty: a letter-shaped hole that would make instant recognition far easier. Many of the tokens have the word concessionary, reflecting the fact that the tokens were increasingly used for exceptional fares only. Another innovation was limited validity, such as the Basingstoke tokens, which removes contingent liabilities for old tokens and increases seigniorage for unused tokens.

Local Government and Transport Acts 1985

The Local Government act 1985 was by far not as influential as the Local Government act 1972. However, further reorganisations and renaming occurred under this act, making it a convenient point for dating tokens on the basis of the name of the issuing authority. By this time, light railways (tram, underground, urban railway) were becoming fashionable again. The acts reflect this by including them in the regulation, even when busses continue to dominate.

The accompanying Transport Act 1985 was of much greater importance, as it deregulated the ownership of bus lines. In 1985, 75% of bus ticket income benefitted a lower government. By 1997, the share of lower governments had dropped to 7%. The private sector rapidly became dominated by four companies: Stagecoach, FirstGroup, National Express Group and Arriva. Bus tariffs rose quickly in this environment of limited competition. Tariffs rose further as a consequence of a reduction in public subsidy. The ability to provide concessional tariffs for children, the elderly, the blind and invalids remained local, but the central government decided on the definition of these groups, e.g. the district can decide if children get a concessional tariff and what the tariff is, but child is defined nationally as a person of 16 or less or a person of 17 to 18 undergoing full time education.

The tokens do not change much from the previous period, though there is slight increase in the use of different shapes, in particular the heptagonal shape made popular by the UK 20 pence coin.

The denomination of modern Transport tokens is based on the adult full fare. The tokens are sold for the concessionary fare, not for their denomination. As full fares rose quickly, the value on modern tokens can be used as an indication of the date. Lower values were issued not long after decimalisation, while higher values, such as £1 have been issued since the new millennium.

National Transport Tokens

NTT bag.jpg

The transport act of 1968 created the option of concessionary travel for the blind, invalid and elderly. The act also created four large Passenger Transport Authorities. One of these, SELNEC, inherited a concessionary scheme from the Manchester Corporation Transport (MCT) to provide concessionary rates by means of a brass token. SELNEC expanded this scheme to its whole area, but replaced the metallic token with a yellow plastic token. Together with neighbouring corporations, the system was expanded and re-named North West Public Transport. This entity issued an aluminium token for 3 pence with a central hole, presumably to make it instantly identifiable and prevent use as legal tender. The simplicity and low cost of the scheme attracted yet more users, so the name was changed in 1972 to National Transport Token. Tokens were issued by a new body, National Transport Tokens Ltd. It issued tokens of 2, 3, 5 and 10 pence, all holed and the same on both sides. The 5 and 10 pence tokens set a trend to follow the denominations of circulating coins.

Eligible persons could buy the tokens at half (or less) the amount of their denomination and spend them for their full value. They would usually be bought from the transport company or a welfare organisation. For the local companies, this limited administration to ordering and returning tokens and keeping track of inventory. For NTT, the profit was in the time lag between orders and returns, amounting to a large free loan. Moreover, some tokens were not returned. They were lost or taken up in collections. It is likely, that there were no tariffs of 2 pence, so that this token served mostly to complement a 3 pence token to pay a 5 pence fare. Any token could be used for travel with participating entities, also in combination with cash, but no change was given for tokens. The tokens could also be used on rail lines, trams and taxis of participating entities. In spite of its name, NTT was never an official or government-owned body. Participation was voluntary.

Rising rates necessitated more token values. In the 1980s, 20 pence tokens were added. They are only slightly smaller than the coin and of the same shape, but they are much lighter. In the next decade, a 9-sided 50p token was added. These new tokens had a number of different, interesting and well made designs.

In 1992, the largest UK bus operator, Stagecoach, acquired NTT. It quickly replaced the old 10 pence (by that time the lowest denomination) by a new, thicker and smaller token, as the old types were so light that they caused trouble in sorting and counting machines. The new tokens, with a seven-sided inside of the edge, were nicely decorated by the signs of the zodiac and dated 1994 and 1995. In 2002, a pound token was added to the range of available tokens. In comparison with earlier types, they look utilitarian. Further pound issues of the same type are dated 2003 and 2005.

The National Transport Token range is the only reminder of what was once a vast area of public transport tokens. It is under threat from electronic tickets and especially the National Concessionary Bus Travel Pass. We may have seen the last addition to the National Transport Tokens already.

  1. Dalton & Hamer Middlesex 363-366
  2. Davis Middlesex 64