The Imitation Spade Guinea Token, J Sainsbury and General Mite

There is an extensive series of over 1,000 different Imitation Spade Guineas, issued not in gold but in brass or bronze. Some are gilt which can make it look like gold and this often causes confusion. They were mostly struck during the reign of Queen Victoria, but to avoid the Counterfeit Laws they usually have the bust of King George III on the obverse and sometimes the reverse includes the spade shaped shield – hence the name ‘spade guinea’. The token below is a detecting find by ‘Waspman’, an advertising token recorded on the UKDFD No.30642.

An advertising token of J Sainsbury, possibly from the last issue of its type, which was distributed in 1913 to celebrate the opening of a new branch at Haymarket, Norwich. Sainsbury’s was founded in 1869 by John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury, who opened their first shop in Drury Lane, London. The token is modelled on the popular gaming counters of the late 19th century, which themselves were modelled on the guineas of George III. The tokens were handed out to customers as a means of spreading the word about the store and to remind them to return.

from the UKDFD

The tokens were made by manufacturers in Birmingham, and bought in vast quantities by many retailers to be stamped with their own devices, and given away to customers. Although these tokens had no monetary value and could not be exchanged for goods, customers collected them in large numbers for use as toy money or gaming tokens – and they proved to be a highly successful advertising gimmick for many types of businesses.

Several designs were issued between 1882 and 1913. For example, some tokens (like my example) have the inscription J.SAINSBURY PROVISION MERCHANT OPPOSITE WEST CROYDON STATION on one side and and bust of George III with inscription WHOLESALE DEPOT LONDON N.W on the other.


‘Simply Tokens – Pretty and Attractive’

Press cutting from the Newbury Weekly News featuring an article on spade guineas. One of the intentions was to reassure a confused public that the tokens issued by Sainsbury’s were not real guineas. By kind permission of the Sainsbury Archive

One of the interesting and fascinating things about a detecting find of this nature is the research you can do afterwards. It may be a cliche, but we do learn something every day. The Sainsbury token has increased our knowledge of local history, but my second example is perhaps more interesting . . .

One can’t go into so much detail unearthing a Roman brooch or coin . . . the available information is basic. Nevertheless, the majority of detectorists consider these finds are more important and prefer them to a token they erroneously believe is mundane and not worth a Trumpian dance of delight.

A Little Gentleman and a Human Miracle

I believe that this is not not only a Spade Guinea but could also be a Love Token.

Perhaps it’s both. The obverse reads: WITH MILLIE EDWARDS LOVE * WILLING. The reverse: WITH GENERAL MITES COMPLIMENTS. The token is probably a reminder of a publicity stunt (they married) whilst in Manchester. 

General Mite and Millie Edwards were dwarves  – or is it more politically correct to say ‘vertically challenged’ people? General Mite, whose real name was Francis Joseph Flynn, was born in 1872 in New York. He was exhibited at fairs and billed as A Human Miracle and Assuredly the Smallest Man in the World. Flynn was 22″ high and weighed only nine pounds: In comparison, Tom Thumb was a ‘giant’ at 25” for most of his life. When he died, aged 45, he had reached a height of 36”.

General Mite standing on a table, circa 1880. Little people were often posed next to furniture to emphasise their small size. CARTE D’VISTE by J. Wood. In Memory of Francis Joseph Flynn “General Mite”.  Died October 5, 1898 Aged 25.wwwe

Demise of the ‘Little Fella’

General Mite is still considered as one of the smallest human beings ever documented. By all accounts he was lively and talkative, but died from kidney failure at the age of 25. The little fella happened to be in Australia presenting his show in the mining town of Broken Hill when he expired in the October of 1898. 

So, on your next detecting trip to the Australian Outback fossicking for gold and looking for prime metal detecting sites, be sure to stop off at Broken Hill at pay your respects at the memorial erected to mark the General’s final resting place!

Booklet: Life of General Mite. Written by Himself

The brief biography, Life Of General Mite was written by Flynn. (Doesn’t that make it an autobiography?) The book hasn’t any images, only plain text and is dedicated to Flynn’s parents. In his lifetime he worked in various circuses and was originally exhibited in Philadelphia before joining the Barnum circus. In the photograph I believe he is posing with his parents.

Interesting Information

In one of the comments on this post, DENN H from Canada said that 40 years ago he’d purchased spade guineas at an Ontario farm sale. I answered saying that they were an unusual find for Canada. WRONG.

I found out that these tokens were used for trading purposes, especially at the Hudson Bay depots when bartering for furs with the Northern Canadian Indians. 

8 thoughts on “The Imitation Spade Guinea Token, J Sainsbury and General Mite

  1. That is a fascinating bit of history , John {forgot to say first welcome home!!].

    I guess I could say I am a bit vertically challenged as well.. Mind you, I was taller until I had three discs removed and nothing else put in.. Lost a couple of inches there.. LOL.. the good thing is I can say I am the correct weight for what my height should be.. Again LOL

    You have the most fascinating history and tokens over there.. All of ours [out west anyway] are merely ‘good for’ tokens [loaf of bread, milk, cigar, etc.].

    AI have never seen a token turned into a love token.. Love it!!

    Many thanks again for the article and your return


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank for your comment . . . and the welcome back.
      I wished that I wasn’t decrepit, still. searching, and could take you out swinging if you ever crossed the Big Pond.
      Ahh, well . . .


  2. Thanks John for a very informative article on the imitation spade guineas. I was led to believe some of these were direct copies of the real thing and the aristocracy would gamble with them in front of the peasants who were bluffed into thinking they were witnessing betting on games with original gold coins, I have found quite a few of these over the years and the first I found left me to think it was the real i-am and it wasn’t until a couple of years later I was informed about them being brass gaming pieces and my heart fell out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s something I haven’t heard before, Randy.
      Finding one – then realising its wasn’t kosher – has happened to most of us.
      A kinda right of passage for rookie detectorists.

      Your comments are always welcome.


  3. I have some of these gaming tokens in my collection of coins. I found them 40 yrs. ago at an Ontario Canada farm sale. They were in a container on a pile destined to be burnt. Mine are the “In Memory of the Good Old Days” variety. I had never really put an ID to them until I had seen some that were found by a metal detector. ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve seen your token Gary. Ta.
      Would have made many a heart race when unearthing a ‘coin’ like that.
      Methinks NOT only those new to the hobby.


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