Tokens of a lost world

2011-04-14 00:00

“I CAN still smell it, that mix of maize and sweat and paraffin,” says Milner Snell, recalling the trading store run in the Transkei by his grandfather.

The store belonged to Strachan and Co, the company founded in 1858 by brothers Thomas and Donald Strachan, who created a network of trading stores spread over the eastern interior of southern Africa. When the Cape Colony decided to take over the administration of East Griqualand in the 1870s, Strachan and Co took advantage of the new trading opportunities and issued tokens that would give them an advantage over other traders, knowing it would be a while before the imperial currency became established in the area.

These tokens and those issued by other traders and a variety of enterprises — even brothels —- are the subject of two books by Snell: Tokens of the Transkei and Tokens of the Colony and Province of Natal.

“I come from a trading family, it’s part of family history,” says Snell, who lives in Kokstad where he teaches English at Kokstad College. “As my grandfather worked for Strachan and Co, I naturally first became interested in the tokens issued by the Strachans. Then I began looking at all the Transkei tokens, and that led to those used in Natal.”

The numismatic definition of a token, quoted by Snell, is “a piece of metal or plastic, resembling a coin in shape, size and type but issued privately, usually without government authority, that is used as a substitute for official coinage, generally as a pledge to be redeemed either in goods to the value it represents or in corresponding coins of the realm.”

Somewhat akin to field guides, Snell’s two large-format books, which have been skilfully designed by Marise Bauer, provide histories of the individuals and businesses that issued tokens, together with descriptions and photographic illustrations of the tokens themselves.

“The first tokens issued in Natal, and South Africa for that matter,” writes Snell, “were by merchants and shopkeepers in Durban.”

The volume devoted to Natal looks at tokens issued by enterprises in Durban, Ixopo, northern Natal, Pietermaritzburg, Port Shepstone and Richmond.

The Natal tokens fall into two main chronological groupings: those issued in the Colony of Natal from the 1860s to the 1880s, and those issued after the Union of South Africa in 1910 in the province of Natal in the twenties and thirties.

“There were different kinds of tokens for different uses,” says Snell. “The tokens issued and used in the Colony and Province of Natal can be divided into eight broad categories: Trade Tokens, Monopoly Tokens, Credit Tokens, Discount Tokens, Commodity Tokens, Machine Tokens, Soliciting Tokens and Advertising Tokens.”

Tokens issued in the Transkei were created to compensate for the shortage of small change, says Snell, and were all issued, with the exception of milk tokens, in payment for maize which traders purchased from black farmers living in the vicinity of their shops.

Tokens could not be used other than at the store that issued them. “This meant you had to go back to the same store that issued them,” says Snell. “That might seem restrictive but at the time, banks and other stores were usually very far away. But it did create a partial monopoly and while trading stores have been criticised for introducing the capitalist economy, there’s no doubting they were important economically and socially.”

At the time, tokens were criticised as being exploitative and their use on mines eventually led to their banning in the thirties. Mines frequently issued tokens in part payment of salary — up to 70% of salary could be paid in tokens — and this meant that employees were forced to spend their wages in the company’s stores where goods were often sold at highly inflated prices. This effectively lowered the value of the salary and the amount of disposable income. This practice came under fire as miners found themselves caught up in a cycle of debt but mine owners and mine managers supported the use of the token system as it forced workers to spend longer periods on the mines.

“The criticism of the use of these tokens increased during the Depression and this led to a court ruling in 1932 making the use of trading in metal discs illegal,” writes Snell.

To counter this ruling, store owners began using embossed paper tokens until these were outlawed in 1935. However, many store owners continued to defy the law and the token system on the mines only ended with the outbreak of World War 2.

In the Transkei, tokens were used until the mid-sixties in the stores of L. P. Moore. When a government inspector queried their use, “Moore explained that it was very difficult to acquire large amounts of small change as the closest bank was in Umtata, 90 miles away. The official suggested written chits. When Mr Moore pointed out that this was impractical as they would soon be lost or soiled, the inspector turned a blind eye to the use of tokens.”

Tokens were used over a wide range of enterprises, from clubs, hotels, stores and businesses to brothels. Three brothels in Durban issued tokens: Martha’s, Bertha’s and Jeanette’s. “Martha’s, the most famous of all the brothels in Durban, was situated at 70 Fountain Lane,” writes Snell. “It was well run and offered a pleasant and airy room in which clients could sit and wait their turn with the lady of their choice.”

Such tokens are now collectors’ items. “A 6d trade token issued by C. B. Downes of Blood River recently fetched R19 250 on an Internet auction site,” says Snell, “making it the most expensive trade token to date.”

A token from the Durban Club, which is generally accepted as having issued the first tokens in South Africa, recently fetched R5 000 on auction. The tokens were used for payment in the billiard room. Similarly at the Crown Hotel in Pietermaritzburg, where they were issued in 1861. The other tokens used in Pietermaritzburg were issued by Mark Franklin for use in his shop Melbourne House, a general store in Chapel Street. “They were minted to overcome a shortage of small change,” says Snell.

The world of tokens is peopled with many colourful personalities, perhaps none more so than James Cole, owner of one the biggest trading companies in the Transkei. From 1870 to 1871, he worked as farm manager for Cecil John Rhodes in the Ncibi Valley in the Ixopo district on the cotton farm run by Rhodes and his brother Herbert. Cole left their employ shortly before Rhodes left for the diamond fields in 1871.

“Even today in Kokstad, people still tell stories about Cole,” says Snell, “how he was a great character, incredibly wealthy and very mean. That he used to count his matchsticks.” Several such stories are related in Snell’s book, including a somewhat macabre one about Cole testing his custom-made coffin for comfort. “Comfort was of the utmost importance to Cole as once he died he would be in (his coffin) for a long time.”

•  Tokens of the Transkei and Tokens of the Colony and Province of Natal by Milner Snell are available from the author at 083 549 5457


Trade tokens were usually issued in times of a severe shortage of small change. In Natal, Blackwood, Couper and Co., McArthur, Muirhead and Co. and Mark Franklin all issued tokens in the second half of the nineteenth century as there was very little small change available in thecolony.


These tokens were usually used by traders to pay part, or all, of their employees’ wages. These tokens could only be redeemed for goods at the stores from which they were issued. The use of these tokens was generally considered to be unfair, and it was the strong opposition to monopoly tokens that resulted in the abolition of the use of tokens in South Africa in 1932. Tokens issued by H. J. Creighton, Creighton and Dennis and a shopkeeper at St Faith’s in the Ixopo area, are all examples of monopoly tokens.


These tokens were issued to employees to allow them to purchase goods from a specific supplier. The tokens were to be redeemed once the workers had been paid. Like monopoly tokens, the use of credit tokens was often regarded as unfair, with employees being caught in a cycle of debt. The tokens issued by shopkeepers on the collieries in Northern Natal are the best example of credit tokens.


Discount tokens were issued by traders or shopkeepers as a discount on cash transactions, and could be used in part or in full payment in later purchases. This was a shrewd business move as customers often returned to the shop from which they were issued. J. F. Baumann in Durban made wide use of discount tokens.


Commodity tokens were usually sold by a supplier of a given commodity to overcome the problems associated with handling small change. Tokens used by the Durban Club and Crown Hotel for the playing of billiards, as well as the milk tokens issued by Model Dairy, were the most obvious examples of this kind of token.


These tokens were provided by the owners of slot machines. The Automatic Amusements Co. in Durban provided tokens of this kind to their customers, as did Peter’s Lounge.


Soliciting tokens wereissued by brothel owners. Martha’s, Jeanette’s and Bertha’s in Durban all made use of soliciting tokens struck in Paris.


These tokens did not have any monetary value for the customer but were issued to advertise businesses. The well-known department store Payne Brothers in Durban issued advertising tokens, as did Woolfsons.

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