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South Sea Company box and counters




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South Sea Company - the answer to a long-standing riddle that has bugged me for years! Around fifteen years ago, I found an armorial fish with a weird coat of arms. I spent hours trying to find out whose arms it was. A globe - or an astrolabe?- or a lantern? with part of the arms of the United Kingdom above and two crowned fishes forming a cross. A mystery to me. I concluded that it must be a Society or a company of some sort - and I (wrongly as it transpires) thought that the arms were made-up as they were so unusual. Then a few years later I discovered at the bottom of a bowl of very low-grade gaming counters another counter from the same set in the shape of a double-dog-of-Fo. Much excitement on my part led to more research and more frustration! Then I was offered the m-o-p box pictured above with a whole group of counters inside - including the third shape in the set, the round. That meant more research and hours spent poring over books. That globe/ lantern: what could it be? If it was a globe it didn't have any recognisable outlines on it - Africa, Europe, America etc. Round and round in circles. Then I discovered that in heraldic terms - much of it being based on old French- the globe could be described as a 'mound' from the French 'monde'. That was the missing clue. Very soon I found in Burke the full description of the arms: Azure a mound whereon represented the Straits of Magellan and Cape Horn all proper; in the sinister point two herrings haurient in saltire crowned or; on a canton the arms of Great Britain. The arms of the SOUTH SEA COMPANY! Thus the initials S.S.. This company was established in 1712 and caused a sensation by taking on the entire national debt in exchange for the monopoly of trade with South America. It was assumed that South America would be the new East India with gold in abundance and exotic spices and goods by the boatload. Shares were put on sale for £100 each amid much hype. The entire issue sold. The value of shares rocketed and at one point was over £1,000. There are echoes here of modern investment problems like the recent dot.com boom and bust. Spain controlled the Atlantic through their superior shipping capability and in addition Spain was at war with England. Effectively there was no possibility of any trade being done with South America! But that didn't stop the frenzy. And many more chancers saw their opportunity and floated new companies with share issues.  And by 1728 the South Sea Bubble burst. Many of the new Companies were total scams. The directors disappeared taking all the funds. Many investors were ruined. That wasn't the case with the South Sea Company however. In fact this company was still trading until around 1830 and successive monarchs were the figureheads of the company. In fact this was a company that the governments were forced to support. Directors who had made fortunes from the shares - selling before the crash through inside information, were forced to repay shareholders. And the Comapny survived. 

The other part of the mystery: S.S &  F.G. Who was F.G.? No obvious solution. But when the company was floated it obviously needed some financial backing to get started. At the time England was seeing the origins of modern banks. There were plenty of regional banks. National banks were in their infancy. The Bank Of England was one of the first. Gold was the commodity on which banks were founded. There were two goldsmiths in London at the time named John Freame and Thomas Gould; they diversified from their normal trade to start funding companies. They were among the original venture capitalists and they were very successful and expanded, taking on other partners, including Barclay. And where did their association lead? Barclays Bank. I can find no records of their involvement with the South Sea Company. But did they provide some backing very early on, before the company became embroiled in scandal? Another mystery. If they did then it may be that some effort was made subsequently to distance themselves from a company that was highly contentious to say the least. In their origins they were Quakers and I am positive that they would not wish to be associated in any way with a company that ended up providing slaves on a large scale to the colonies. This link to the South Sea Compnay is pure conjecture. 

What is clear is that this beautiful m-o-p box with massive armorial to the lid, was ordered from Canton, probably in around 1725 by some of the directors of the South Sea Company, many of whom had contacts with the East India Company including Harley, Earl of Oxford who was one of the original Directors - and who had made for himself a magnificent set of gaming counters with full armorial. The round is another piece in my jigsaw - this was at the time when it was becoming the standard pattern for there to be three different shapes in each set of gaming counters. There were in all probability four matching m-o-p boxes in the original set contained in a larger box. Where are they?? And the other counters?? It is hard to convey the pleasure and excitement that this group of counters has inspired in me! For someone who hated history at school - any possible interest was killed by hour after hour of tedious note-taking, copying from the blackboard. Good practice in handwriting perhaps, though even that is in doubt looking at my present scrawl. And I am pleased to say that teaching has moved on in leaps and bounds since those days of the old Grammar Schools. And not all teaching then was as bad as my experience of history. But this whole adventure concerning the counters made for the South Sea Company compensates for wasted opportunities. Is it even more satisfying to make these small discoveries for oneself? Even though I am fully aware that the mystery is not yet fully solved. Any ideas about F. and G.??????????


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