The Welsh Affair

The Welsh Affair

This week Dr Michele Blagg (Institute of Contemporary British History) looks at the move of the Royal Mint from London to Llantrisant.

On 25 April 1967, as Britain prepared for the introduction of decimal currency in 1971,[i] the Chancellor of the Exchequer James Callaghan (1964-67)[ii] ended months of speculation over future plans for the Royal Mint when it was announced to the House of Commons the London venture would relocate to new premises at Llantrisant, South Wales.

The Mint facility, located on Tower Hill, was commissioned at the start of the nineteenth century. Prior to that for 500 years it operated from the fortified walls of the Tower of London. Following the move to Tower Hill, in order to accommodate new steam driven plant, the Mint had thrived. It became an active venture that coped well as it adapted to the ever-changing demands placed upon it as it carried out its traditional activities of striking coin and the production of medals. Over the 160 years it operated from Tower Hill important improvements in techniques and machinery were instigated; moving from steam power to electric; the introduction of gas-fired annealing furnaces; advances in die-making processes; all increased melting capabilities which speeded up coining processes. This enabled the Mint to keep-pace with domestic requirements and also the demands of its growing overseas clientele.

Changes to the operation were not unexpected and, as in earlier times, concerns for security and distance from the Bank of England remained high. In 1946 talk of redevelopment of the cramped Tower Hill premises had been on the political agenda.[iii] Ways to increase the limited footprint of the site were muted. There was an opportunity to purchase a parcel of derelict land adjacent to the site and also a proposal was put forward to approach N M Rothschild & Sons with a view to re-acquiring the next door premises which housed the Royal Mint Refinery, these premises were purchased by the firm from the Exchequer in 1852.[iv] Plans quickly escalated into a major rebuilding scheme but there was little support for either a total rebuild, or the removal from London which was thought to be too disruptive.

Periodically over the next decade rumblings continued over redevelopment versus relocation. In 1959 fresh surveys and feasibility studies were carried out and new sites discussed. With the impending decimalisation it became apparent that the best option would be a move away from London. A list of possible sites was drawn up which included a number of development areas. Investigations into the range of resources, workforce, engineering skills and technical evolution on offer were made. By 1967, 18 different locations had been considered; Durham in the North East of England; five sites in South Wales; a number in Scotland, including Livingston near Edinburgh; Scotland’s newest town which vied with the Cumbernauld Development Corporation (near Glasgow) and the Highlands & Islands Development board staked a claim for Inverness.[v] Sir Knox Cunningham had pressed the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider Ulster, where unemployment had recently risen to 9 per cent.[vi] The stakes were high and competition fierce as the allocated expenditure of £6-7 million was set aside for the purchase of land, the build and equipment.

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Reproduced with permission of The Rothschild Archive, The Royal Mint Refinery operated by N M Rothschild & Sons between 1852 and 1967. This image was taken in 1952 to mark its centenary.

The first phase of building on the chosen site was of massive industrial importance. A number of staff moved from London and were joined by new employees from surrounding areas. The facility at Llantrisant was opened by the Queen in December 1968, when she switched on the coin processor to begin production of decimal coins.[vii] Over nine billion coins were required for the change over.

As time grew nearer to start the second building phase, the unpopularity amongst the remainder of the London workforce to relocate spilled over and a series of industrial actions began.[viii] After an unsuccessful deputation to pursue the Chancellor to reverse the decision to move the whole operation away from London, a strike was called. A march on the House of Commons to lobby MP’s followed in protest of the Government’s refusal to listen to workers concerns. In their treatment workers accused management of behaving ‘rather like 19th Century iron masters in the same sort of dictatorial and inconsiderate way, as though they had not heard of modern consultation methods.’[ix] From that January calls were made for the Government to set up a Court of Inquiry claiming that conditions had altered drastically since the original decision to move was taken. All of this was of no avail. Roy Jenkins, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1967-70), stood tall and announced that there was ‘no question of reversing the plans to phase out production at Tower Hill and transfer all operations to South Wales, where the modern plant had already been established.’[x]

As for the London facility, despite the ongoing battle the second phase of building was announced in 1972 and completed in 1973. The old Tower Hill site continued to operate until the last gold coin was struck in November 1975. By 1980 the last of the staff left London for Llantrisant.[xi]

Today it should be pointed out, that the event took place at a time when the industrial scene in South Wales could be neatly summarized as iron and steel. Although these industries still dominated for a while, it was also a time when the nature of industry started to change. The relocation reflected the Governments anxiety to disperse industry away from the South-Eastern nexus which played a notable part in the new diversified Wales. Several important Government departments were established or relocated to Wales, namely the Royal Mint, Motor Vehicle Licencing department; Inland Revenue E Computer Centre; the Passport Office and the Business Statistics Office of the Department of Trade and Industry. The development of the M4 Link to London with the Severn Bridge and its motorway system and the improvement of the road links to the Midlands, further reduced journey times and was of immense importance.[xii]

In May 2016 a new Visitor Centre at The Royal Mint is due to open. The Welsh Government made a significant contribution to the project which will allow visitors to get behind the scenes and see for themselves ‘the people and processes that put the pounds and pennies in their pockets.’[xiii]

[i]Hansard (House of Commons), 25 Apr 1967. On the 1 March 1966 the Chancellor announced a change from the centuries old £sd system to decimal currency. Decimal day was set for 15 February 1971.

[ii]Coincidentally James Callaghan won his Cardiff South seat in the 1945 UK general election and would hold a Cardiff-are seat continuously until 1987.

[iii]The National Archives, Kew, MINT 20/1923, Craig to Treasury, 31 Dec 1946.

[iv]This was felt an expensive option and was subsequently abandoned. The relocation of the Royal Mint from London to Wales was a contributing factor that leads to N M Rothschild and Sons selling the Royal Mint Refinery in 1967.

[v]See, for a more comprehensive history of the move to Llantristant, C E Challis, History of the Royal Mint (Cambridge University Press, 1992), especially Chpt 5. See, for an overview of the Mint in Scotland including a postscript on the attempts to bring the Royal Mint to Scotland, 1963-7, Athol L Murray, ‘The Scottish Mint after the recoinage, 1709-1836’ in Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1999), pp. 861-886. Initially Mint officials and the Treasury agreed on Cumbernauld as the best site. Following a re-examination, and no doubt the Chancellor’s backing proved crucial, the site was subsequently switched to Llantrisant.

[vi]Hansard (House of Commons), 25 Apr 1967.

[vii]See, G P Dyer, ‘The Royal Mint, An Illustrated History’ (Royal Mint Publication, 1986), pp.43-7.

[viii] Financial Times, 31 Jan 1970. 200 workers went on strike on the 30 January. Strikers mainly belonged to the Transport & General Works Union and Amalgamated Union of Engineering. Foundry workers had been working to rule for several weeks ahead of the strike.

[ix]Financial Times, 7 Apr 1970

[x]Ibid.

[xi]Dyer, ‘The Royal Mint’, p. 46-7.

[xii]Financial Times, 18 Jan 1971, p.14.

[xiii]http://www.royalmint.com/the-royal-mint-visitor-centreaccessed 21 Apr 2016

Dr Michele Blagg is a Visiting Research Associate at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King’s College London. Her areas of interest are in financial and business history with special regard for the actors and networks located in the London market. She has recently completed an oral history for the London Bullion Market Association. Her publications include ‘Gold Refining in London: The End of the Rainbow, 1919-20’ in Bott, S, The Global Gold Market and the International Monetary system from the late 19th century to the present (Palgrave, 2013).  

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