article # 109



by David McKinley  
(click on photos to enlarge image)


leopard's head evolution: from 1558 to 1696
from 1558 to 1696
I have felt constrained to write on this subject because so many authorities continue to refer to the leopard’s head as the London mark without any further clarification and to those not familiar with how both the leopard’s head and the sterling lion came into existence this can be very confusing since patently there is much plate assayed outside London which is stamped with the leopard’s head and equally there is much plate assayed at Goldsmiths’ Hall which, being of Britannia standard, is not so marked.

In the reign of Edward I it was decided that the fineness of silver for both coin and wrought plate should be standardised and thus the statute of 1300, titled "Vessels of Gold shall be essayed, touched, and marked. The King’s Prerogative shall be saved" (note 1), was enacted making sterling (11oz 2dwt in the troy pound) that standard for all English silver. This statute was originally written in old Norman French, in which language the following directive is given: "E qe nul manere de vessele de argent ne parte hors des meins as overers tant qe ele soit assaie par les gardiens du mester e qu ele soit signee de une teste de Leopart".
As ‘teste’ translates as head (note 2) this passage therefore translates as: "......and that no manner of vessel of silver depart out of the hands of the workers until it be essayed by the Gardiens ( Wardens) of the craft, and further that it be marked with the Leopard’s Head,........") (note 3).
leopard's head evolution: from 1736 to 1815
from 1736 to 1815
The statute went on to say: ".....and that all the good towns of England, where any goldsmith be dwelling, shall be ordered according to this statute as they of London be;....." and ".....and that one shall come from every good town for all the residue that be dwelling in the same unto London; for to be ascertained of their touch.") (note 4). A passage in the Goldsmiths’ Company’s charter of 1327 contains similar wording, although the word "fetch" instead of "ascertained" is used, with the addition of the sentence ("….also the punch with the leopard’s head with which to mark their work as was ordained in times past…."). (note 5)

It can be seen from this that not only was the leopard’s head a standard mark but also that its use applied to all goldsmiths throughout the land and not just those working in London. It was not until 1856, when the statute of 1300 was repealed by the statute 19 & 20 Vict. c. 64, that the leopard’s head mark could have been used for any purpose other than a fineness mark.

Royal Commissioners, "responsible for assaying and marking in cities throughout the realm" were to be appointed in accordance with this statute and another of 1363 reinforced by an ordinance of 1379 (note 6) and there is evidence that action was taken to appoint Commissioners as the records at Oxford show. A mandate was issued to the mayor and bailiffs of Oxford on 14th October 1328 "to cause those ordinances to be observed" and this resulted in the appointment of one Edward de Wircestr, goldsmith of Oxford to enforce the ordinances (note 7).
However I have found no evidence that de Wircestr or representatives from any town did go to London to receive a punch of the Leopard’s head or that any plate either at Oxford or elsewhere was ever struck with the leopard’s head punch at this time.
This has caused some authorities to attribute, quite erroneously, a dual purpose to this mark. Although it was designated as a standard mark and applied rigorously at the London Assay Office it appears not to have been so at other towns until the 18th century and has thus been said to be the London mark whereas, in fact, London had no distinguishing mark of its own at this time. This has led to some confusion since, in its capacity as the standard mark, it was later required to be stamped on plate assayed at the offices at Bristol, Chester, Exeter, Norwich, York and Newcastle when these were established at the beginning of the 18th century.
from 1816 to 1895
from 1816 to 1895
With the exception of Chester and Exeter, both of which offices had already ceased to use the leopard’s head by 1856 and Norwich and Bristol which had gone into decline by then, these towns continued to strike this mark on their plate throughout the 19th century. The last of these was Newcastle which closed its office in 1883.

London continued to use the leopard’s head on both gold and silver of sterling standard into the 20th century and by then was the only office so doing. It was not until 1975 however that they first struck this mark on silver of Britannia standard so that technically it is from that year that the leopard’s head can be truly said to be the London mark although, of course, it can be treated as if it were the London mark for the period between 1300 and 1697 and again between 1883 and 1975.
leopard's head evolution: from from 1896 to 1976
from 1896 to 1976


(1) The word ‘Gold’ in this context means precious metal.
(2) The ‘s’ was not replaced by the circumflex until 1762 when the Académie Francais, founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635, rewrote the French dictionary.
(3) 28 Edw c. 20
(4) 28 Ewd c. 20
(5) J.S. Forbes-HALLMARK-A History of the London Assay Office p46.
(6) Ibid
(7) Oxford Goldsmiths Before 1800-Ann Natalie Hansen.p11
David McKinley
- 2009 -
David McKinley devotes much of his time to researching the history of silversmithing in England with particular reference to hallmarking at the London office. He writes for both The Silver Spoon Club of Great Britain and The Silver Society.