10. Lord Charles Beresford’s Chinese coins at the V&A

In 1899, “a small but interesting collection” of Chinese coins was displayed in the Cross Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. Gertrude Burford Rawlings, author of The Story of the British Coinage, Coins and How to Know Them, The Story of Books, and Old London (and a translator of 17th-century French philosophy) wrote a short, descriptive note about the display in Spink’s Numismatic Circular in September 1899. She noted that the collection was lent by Lord Charles Beresford, but offered no further information about him, suggesting perhaps that he was too well known to need an introduction. 


Portrait of Lord Beresford, from in his own book, The Break-Up of China, 1899 (Source: Wikimedia)

Lord Charles Beresford (Charles William de la Poer Beresford, 1st Baron Beresford GCB GCVO, 1846-1919) was a British admiral and Member of Parliament. In 1898 he was commissioned by H. Stafford Northcote, President of the Associated Chambers of Commerce to visit China to produce “a comprehensive Report … from a competent authority … from a non-official source” (see his letter to Beresford, 1 Aug 1898, Appendix to The Break-up of China, pp. 459-460).


Lord Charles Beresford By “Cloister” (Charles Garden Duff, 1852-1914) – Published in Vanity Fair, 6 July 1899. (Source: Wikimedia)

Beresford arrived in Hong Kong on 30 September 1898, and left Shanghai on 9 January 1899, having spent 100 days (in his own words) “conducting a swifter, more thorough and more practical investigation into the commercial, military and social conditions of China than had ever before been accomplished; so that its results, set forth at the time in the admiral’s many speeches and afterwards in his book The Break-up of China, struck the two great English-speaking peoples of the world, the British and the American nations, with something of the force of a revelation” (The Memoirs of Lord Charles Beresford, 1914, p. 423).


The Break-Up of China, by Lord Charles Beresford (1899) (Source: Wikimedia)

The Break-Up of China, With an Account of its Present Commerce, Currency, Waterways, Armies, Railways, Politics and Future Prospects (Harper & Brothers, New York and London, 1899)  —  “I wrote that work [The Break-Up of China] in thirty-one days; a feat of which I was not unjustly proud; for it was a long book, crammed with facts and statistics, extracted from a pile of memoranda and documents three feet high. I used to ride before breakfast in Richmond Park; after breakfast, I worked all day until 7.30; and when I had finished the book, I said I would never write another” (Memoirs, pp. 427-428).

In Chapter XXVI, Finance and Currency, he mentions his coin collection (pp.359-361):

“I made a very complete collection of the coinage in use in China in the various provinces, for the benefit of the Associated Chambers, and I hope to place this on view in some public place where it will be accessible to all who are interested in the matter. It illustrates effectively the diversity of the coinage, and the consequent difficulties of the trader, owing to the variations as well as the fluctuations in the rate of exchange.” He then gives a list of the collection.

I’ve copied Beresford’s list and Rawlings’ description of the display at the V&A below, and it seems that the coins listed by Beresford were complemented by earlier pieces of Chinese money. Were these coins also from Beresford’s collection? What happened to Beresford’s collection? Is there any more information about the display at the V&A?


Finance and Currency, Chapter XXVI of The Break-Up of China, by Lord Charles Beresford (Harper Brothers, New York and London, 1899), pp. 359-361 – view the original text on www.archive.org)

I made a very complete collection of the coinage in use in China in the various provinces, for the benefit of the Associated Chambers, and I hope to place this on view in some public place where it will be accessible to all who are interested in the matter. It illustrates effectively the diversity of the coinage, and the consequent difficulties of the trader, owing to the variations as well as the fluctuations in the rate of exchange. The collection consists of the following:


  • Hunan province – Changsha    5… taels     £0.15.10 (£.s.d)
  • Shansi province – Taiyuanfu    5… taels     £5.14.6
  • Hupeh province – Hankow       4… taels     £0.13.5
  • Chihli province – Tientsin        10.. taels     £1.9.5
  • Yunnan province – Talifu          1… taels     £0.4.10 ½
  • Szechuan province – Chingtu   10.. taels    £1.8.1
  • Chekiang province – Hangchow  5.. taels  £0.14.6
  • Shantung province – Chefoo     10… taels   £1.9.8
  • Fengtien (Manchuria) – Newchwang  56… taels  £7.13.2
  • Kiangsi province – Kiukiang      7… taels    £1.1.6
  • Kiangsu province – Soochow   55… taels    £7.9.6
  • Shanghai Sycee                          53… taels    £7.5.5
  • Central Szechuan, 1150 cash per tael
  • Chungking, 1080 cash per tael
  • Wuhu, 1320 cash per tael
  • Shantung, 1210 cash per tael
  • Shanghai, 1170 cash per tael
  • Peking, 550 large cash per Kung Fa tael


Ten-cent and twenty-cent pieces:

  • Minted at Kiangnan, approximate value 2 ½ d. and 5 d.
  • Minted in Kwangtung Province, (ditto)
  • Minted in Fookien Province, (ditto)
  • Minted in Hupeh Province, (ditto)
  • Minted in Anhui Province, (ditto)


  • Minted at Tientsin Arsenal, approximate value 2 s. 8 ½ d.
  • Minted Kiangnan, (ditto)
  • Minted Kwangtung Province, (ditto)
  • Minted Anhui Province, (ditto)
  • Minted Hupeh Province, (ditto)

Also current in China:

  • Mexican Republic scale dollar
  • Spanish Carolus dollar
  • Japanese yen
  • Indo-China dollar (French Republic)
  • British dollar.


Chinese Coins at the Victoria and Albert Museum – by Gertrude Burford Rawlings, Spink and Son’s Monthly Numismatic Circular, Sept 1899, cols 3554-3555.

A small but interesting collection of silver and copper coins, with which is some uncoined silver, illustrating the coinage and currency of the Chinese Empire, has been lent by Lord Charles Beresford to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and is now on view in the Cross Gallery. But unfortunately for the visitor not learned in Chinese numismatics, to say nothing of Chinese hieroglyphics, the pieces about which he would most desire information are not labelled, and much of their interest is therefore lost to him.

Among the older bronze or copper pieces are two specimens of knife-money. The first measures about six or seven inches in length, and consists of a pointed blade with a ring as a handle, and is of the pattern current between the seventh and second centuries, B.C. The second, which is about three inches long, is of the later type, – the “New Knife Currency”, – used in the early part of the first century, A.D. The handle of this specimen is pierced with a square perforation, and the whole resembles an ordinary Chinese coin with a blade attached, rather than a knife and handle. There is also one of the odd pieces known as Pu-money, which, so far as can be ascertained by the comparison of a rough sketch with the cuts in the late Professor Terrien de Lacouperie’s Catalogue of Chinese Coins, is of a type contemporary with the “New Knife Currency”. A piece of Pu-money has been well described elsewhere as “resembling in shape the outline of an ordinary blacking-bottle, with an oblong square piece cut out of the centre of its base”, and having a round perforation in the neck. Another curious copper coin shown is heart-shaped, with a round and pierced projection at the base. Apparently this also belongs to an early period.

In the provinces at the present day lumps of silver are used together with the coined money. Generally speaking, these resemble solid silver helmets more or less flattened at the top, and weigh from 464 (a 2/8 ½ = 12/6) to 5655 (= £7/13/2. These values are in Shanghai taels, or dollars). Some have what might be called flaps to the back and front of the helmet, and seem to be the money described as “shoe-silver”, from a fancied resemblance to shoes.

The subsidiary coins are very numerous and include the following:

  • Spanish Dollars of Carolus IV, of the approximate value of 2/3 ½.
  • The Japanese Yen, of which two types are shown, one bearing the legend in English, ONE YEN.
  • The British Dollar.
  • The Hupeh Province Dollar.
  • The Pei yang Arsenal Dollar, bearing a dragon and the English legend TA-TSING. TWENTY.FOURTH. YEAR.OF.KWANG.HSU. PEI YANG ARSENAL.
  • The Cochin China Dollar coined by France.
  • Dollars of the Mexican Republic.
  • Dollars, and 20 and 10 cent pieces of the provinces of Kwang Tung; Anhwei; & Kiang Nan.

The Yen, and all the Dollars just named, except the Spanish, are current, approximately, for 2/- each.

The small value of the common cash is shown by the exhibition of the equivalent in these pieces of £1 sterling. This equivalent is not less than ten thousand cash.


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