Striking Gold in the Archive: Goldsmiths’ Hall

By Kirsty Wright (@BeingKirst)

Perhaps ironically in a year when access to archives has been restricted, my research shifted direction to examine the materiality of early modern records and record-keeping. In the summer when I was able to return to The National Archives, I spent some time sifting through different boxes for relevant material and was about to give up for the day when I noticed the page I was about to turn was oddly heavy, which made me pause.[1] Turning it carefully, I was met with a thick layer of gold on the righthand page and silver on the left marked with a distinctive zig zag pattern. This was exciting and unexpected, for most of the documents I worked on are monochrome (distinctly brown) letters and accounts books, and I had no idea what they were.

The volume I had been flipping through was a collection of documents relating to the Royal Mint and Trial of the Pyx – a ceremony in use since the twelfth century that assesses the quality of the coinage produced by the Mint. In the Trial, samples of coins were taken and compared against a standard by a jury formed of members of the Goldsmiths’ Company.[2] Assuming that the gold and silver pages were likely connected to the Trial, I was thrilled to learn both that the Trial is still held annually at Goldsmiths’ Hall, and that in it there is an archive.[3]  Intrigued, I booked an appointment to visit.

Goldsmiths’ Hall is a grand building in the City of London that was completed in 1835. It is the Company’s third hall on the site since 1339, which makes visiting its archive a real treat. In the quiet building, the Librarian, Eleni Bide, very kindly indulged me in a tour of its five function rooms which are richly decorated with gold leaf and huge chandeliers. Eleni assured me that the function rooms were usually a hive of activities and that I just missed the cast of Bridgerton, who had been in the hall for filming. The archive, which locates inside the wood panelled library, holds valuable collections covering the history of the Company, the Assay Office and the architect Philip Hardwick’s papers about the hall.

For my purposes, it also holds the most extensive collection of materials relating to the Trial of the Pyx. Here, in a volume of minutes and ledgers from the trials in the early seventeenth century, was a neatly labelled version of the golden page I had encountered at The National Archives (see image).[4] This reveals that it was a ‘modell of the standard of fine golde,’ effectively a template which was to be used as a guide to make the standard coins. Known as trial ‘plates’ or ‘pieces,’ these metal plates were of set quality and fineness that acted as a control. Due to their value, they were traditionally held in the Pyx Chamber in Westminster Abbey under five locks and keys. The zig zag patterns denoted the way that the plate would be cut into separate pieces, which would then be inscribed with the date, its fineness and an imprint of the coin to which it would be compared. These sheets of precious metal were used by contemporaries as historical records to regulate and trace the quality of the coinage over time, which is why they were held so securely.

They also offer much to historians. My research is now exploring how these plates were held, their relationship to documentary records and who had access to them. Beyond the novelty of archival bling, exploration of the trial plates and their models demonstrates the utility of drawing together material and documentary evidence to inform understanding of each other. Moreover, it highlights the value of integrating more specialised archives, such as those of the Livery Companies, with work at national repositories. As valuable as digitised resources have proven in the past year, there are aspects of the archival experience that they are unable to replicate. My experience upon returning to archives and the unexpected research avenue that led me to Goldsmiths’ Hall serves to reinforce my belief in this and I hope to validate my continuing work on the materiality of records to understand their use.


[1] The said text is TNA, MINT 7/130.

[2] S. M. Stigler, ‘Eight Centuries of Sampling Inspection: The Trial of the Pyx’, Journal of the American Statistical Association 72, no. 359 (1977).

[3] For an overview of the history and purpose of the Trial see https://www.thegoldsmiths.co.uk/company/today/trial-pyx/

[4] Goldsmiths’ Hall Archive, 0.G.I, Archive Box: Trial of the Pyx, 1603-1649. 1.

Image Credit: Archive: The Goldsmiths’ Company. Photography by Richard Valencia.

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