Reading British Silver Hallmarks
The vast majority of English, Scottish and Irish silver produced in the last 500 years is stamped with either 4 or 5 symbols, known as hallmarks. The prime purpose of these marks is to show that the metal of the item upon which they are stamped is of a certain level of purity. The metal is tested and marked at special offices, regulated by the government, known as assay offices. Only metal of the required standard will be marked. It is a form of consumer protection, whose origin goes back almost 1000 years.
There are so many different hallmarks found on British silver that to know all of them would be impossible. Fortunately, with the use of a single reference book, it is possible for even a complete novice to decipher the vast majority.
Although there are many books on the market which can be used to help read hallmarks, the standard book of reference, used by dealers and collectors world wide is Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks. This pocket sized reference contains all of the marks that one is likely to encounter on a regular basis. Armed with this book, the process of reading these marks can be split into the 5 simple steps shown below.
Bradbury's book of hallmarks was last published in 2009 by the Sheffield Assay office, and so it is easy to get hold of from any major book seller.
Step 1 - Look for the standard mark
There are 5 standard marks found on British Silver
- The walking lion for all sterling silver made in England
- The standing lion for all sterling silver made in Edinburgh
- The thistle for for all sterling silver made in Glasgow
- The crowned harp for all sterling silver made in Dublin
- The image of Britannia for Britannia standard silver
You don’t need to memorise these marks because they are in Bradburys book of hallmarks. Simply flick through the book, looking at the top of the tables of marks to remind yourself if you forget.
If you can't see any of these 5 marks, the chances are that the item is either not British or is silverplated. If you can find one of these marks, then you know that the item is British silver and you can move onto stage 2.
Step 2 - Look for the town mark
There are many different town marks but the main ones are shown to the left.
Note that dublin is unique in using the same mark as the town mark and the standard mark. This mark is only struck once. However, the crowned harp is often seen with another mark called the Hibernia which is similar to the Brittania Silver Mark of a seated lady. This mark is sometimes mistook for the standard mark but it was in fact a special duty mark, used only in Dublin.
Again, you don’t need to memorise these marks, just flick through Bradburys to find them.
Step 3 - Look for the duty mark
The duty mark was only struck in certain years and when found, will take the form of either a King or Queen’s head, depending on who was on the throne at the time. It tells you if duty has been paid. To the collector, the main importance of this mark is that it helps you find the date letter.
Step 4 - Look for the date letter
Go to the appropriate section in Bradburys for the given town. Look for a matching date letter with or without the duty mark as needed.
Whilst looking for the date letter, you need to bear in mind that the font, it’s capitalisation and the shape of the background, known as the shield, are varied in each cycle of letters. So, although, only 20 letters are used, it is possible to know exactly which year that particular combination of font, and shield is referring to.
It is also important to note that each town has a different series of letters, starting on a different year. That means that not only is the font and shield different depending on the town, but also the letter.
As an example, above you can see the date letter for 1898 in London, Sheffield and Birmingham. As you can see, London is a lowercase ‘c’. Sheffield is a lowercase 'f' and Birmingham is a lowercase ‘y’. The shield and font is different in each case. This is why it is important to find the town mark before you try to find the date letter.
Step 5 - Look for the Maker’s Mark
The Maker’s mark was initially a picture, but this practice was superseded by using the first two letters of the maker’s surname and later the initials.
There are simply too many maker's marks for a pocket guide to include, and so to find the maker one needs to refer to a variety of large reference books. Most people would need to rely on the dealer or auction room from which the item was bought to identify the maker.
And that’s it! with those simple steps, you can quite easily decipher the hallmarks on any piece of British silver made in the last 500 years.