The English hallmark system in the United kingdom goes back over 700 years. In the year 1300, King Edward I of England enacted a statute that required all silver to be marked if it met the standard of sterling silver, which stipulated a millesimal fineness of 925 or, in layman’s terms, achieving a level of 92.5% silver purity. Almost all pieces of silver coming out of the UK from the last 500 years have an English silver hallmark, authenticating both its purity level and indicating many other factors regarding its origins, date, and maker.
British silver hallmarks are regulated by assay offices across England, Scotland, and Ireland. There are currently offices in five locations across the three countries: London, England; Sheffield, England; Birmingham, England; Edinburgh, Scotland; and, Dublin in the Republic of Ireland. The original assay headquarters were established in 1339, at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London. The word hallmark was created in reference to these headquarters, hallmark originally meaning “marked in Goldsmiths’ Hall”; by the mid-1800s the word had lost this meaning and was merely synonymous with the mark of quality.
There have been many hallmarks used throughout the years, and numerous guide books have been written on the subject. The standard, however, is the Bradbury’s Book of Hallmarks, which was last updated in 2014. By using this book, anyone can easily decipher the hallmarks stamped into silver pieces from the UK. There are five steps in reading hallmarks:
- Standard Mark
The standard mark indicates the fineness of the alloy used. There are five standard marks on silver from the UK:
- The walking lion (lion passant) guarantees a fineness of 925/1000 (sterling silver) for pieces made in England
- The standing lion (lion rampant) guarantees a fineness of 925/1000 (sterling silver) for pieces made in Glasgow
- The thistle guarantees a fineness of 925/1000 (sterling silver) for pieces made in Edinburgh
- The crowned harp guarantees a fineness of 925/1000 (sterling silver) for pieces made in Dublin
- The Britannia symbol guarantees a fineness of 958/1000 (sterling silver) for pieces made in England. (this standard was primarily used between 1697 and 1720)
When there is no hallmark present on piece, it means that either it was not made in the UK or that it is not solid silver.
- Town Mark
There is a mark for the town in which the silver was assayed, which comes after the standard mark. There are several towns where silver has been hallmarked, and each used a different symbol, the most common are London which uses the face of a leopard (with a crown, for silver hallmarked pre-1820) as its symbol, Birmingham uses and anchor, Sheffield used a crown (until 1975 and thereafter a rose) and a castle for silver hallmarked in Edinburgh.
It is worth noting that Dublin is unique in its hallmarking of silver. The symbol for silver hallmarked in Dublin is a crowned harp, the same symbol for silver made in Dublin. Instead of putting two crowned harps onto silver both made and hallmarked in Dublin they instead use one, single, crowned harp.
- Duty Mark
A duty mark only appears on silver made between 1784-1890. The purpose of a duty mark was to denote that there was tax paid on the silver. The duty mark was a profile portrait of the current reigning monarch, and there are five duty marks which feature four monarchs:
- King George III
- King George IV
- King William IV
- Queen Victoria
The practice of using duty marks ended eleven years before King Edward the VII succeeded Queen Victoria.
- Date Mark
Date marks are made up of three elements: a letter, a font, and a shield. Only 20 letters are used in rotation, both in upper and lower case, making 40 different combinations of individual letters. The assay offices used different fonts and shields for each series of dates to create a nearly endless array of combinations.
Different towns use different date marks for each year, so the date mark used in London in 1900 will be different than the date mark used in Edinburgh in 1900. This means it is crucial to identify the town before you try to identify the date of a piece of silver.
- Maker’s Mark
A maker’s mark denotes the maker of the piece. Initially, early maker’s marks were typically symbols, but this later evolved into the use of the maker’s initials.
- Imported Silver
While it is less common to find a piece of silver with an import mark, silver imported into the UK between the years 1867-1904 was marked with an F inside of an oval shield. In cases of imported silver, the maker’s mark would then be replaced with the mark of the British importing firm.
Using steps 1-6 and a recent copy of the Bradbury’s Book of Hallmarks, even amateur antiquers should be able to take part in the identification of silver hallmarks.