Hallmarks are one of the first things to look for when handling a piece of British silver. Hallmarks are small symbols, letters and numbers punched on an object, and decoding these marks can provide us with useful information regarding the piece we are handling, its production and history.

Why are hallmarks used?

Hallmarks can be found on the surface of an item of silverware. They are usually stamped to the exterior of an object, often to the side or underside of a piece, or on its reverse, as in the case of silver flatware.

Pure silver is soft and therefore rarely used for silverware designed to be functional. Instead, it is mixed with a small amount of copper to make it stronger, more durable and easier to work with. Purity cannot be determined by eye, so a chemical test or assay is required. Articles so tested are then punched with official hallmarks, providing they meet the standard required (925 in the United Kingdom). This system of hallmarking was introduced as a way of protecting customers and guaranteeing that every item contained the required amount of pure silver. The British hallmarking system has been in place for centuries: hallmarks were first introduced during the reign of Edward I (1272 – 1307). Prior to this, makers would sometimes engrave their name and that of their town or city on their works.

Common types of hallmarks

Hallmarks on British silver vary from object to object. Once understood, the system enables us to decode the marks on a piece and provides us with very important information. Hallmarks need to be inspected with great attention to detail, as several resemble each other and might therefore mislead the viewer at first glance. Another challenge often presented when inspecting hallmarks is that of reading marks that appear indistinct or ‘rubbed’, due to the passing of time or the process of polishing the silver item.
When handling a piece of silver, the first mark to look for is the standard mark. The standard mark shows that the fineness of the metal meets a specified legal criterion. In Great Britain the sterling standard is 925, meaning that in a piece of sterling silver there will be at least 925 parts of pure silver out of 1000: the remaining 75 parts will be of copper. In British silverware the mark used to show the sterling standard is the lion passant, introduced for the first time in 1544. This is the mark of a lion walking across the field of view (although it has been subject to variations over the years). Originally used by the London Assay Office alone, the lion passant mark was later adopted by all of the English assay offices, thus becoming the most widely recognised hallmark.

The left-hand hallmark here is the lion passant

Having spotted the standard mark, the second hallmark to look for in British silverware is the town mark, which allows you to identify the town office where the silver item was assayed (but not made).

Perhaps the most well-known is the leopard’s head, used for the city of London. The leopard’s head was first marked by the London Assay Office at Goldsmiths’ Hall, but for a period was used by some provincial assay offices in England and other cities.

At first the leopard’s head was uncrowned, but in 1478 when the law was made stricter, a crown was added to distinguish items marked under the new tighter regulations. The leopard’s head remained crowned until 1821, at which point it went back to be uncrowned. For this reason, if you own a piece of British silver bearing a crowned leopard’s head, you can be sure that it was assayed during a certain period and certainly not made after 1821.
The second image below shows a line of hallmarks clearly stamped to the underside of a silver waiter. The first mark from the right is the crowned leopard’s head, indicating that the waiter was assayed in London.

Outside of London, the best-known British city hallmarks are the following:

  • a ship’s anchor for Birmingham
  • a sword between three wheatsheaves for Chester
  • a three-towered castle for Edinburgh
  • a tree with a fish, a bird and a bell for Glasgow
  • a crown for Sheffield

Once you have identified the town mark, the next hallmark to look for is the date mark, used to ascertain when the piece was assayed. The date mark appears as a single letter on a shield background. As each assay office had its own unique sequences of date letters, and because fonts and shields were changed for each cycle, it is very important to pay attention to the sometimes minimal differences when reading a date hallmark.

Finally, the last hallmark to look for in British silverware is the sponsor’s mark, which indicates the workshop where the piece was made.

In the second image below, we can see the hallmarks stamped to the interior of a George IV silver snuff box. The stamped hallmarks are in very fine condition as they have not been subject to polishing and general surface wear. The marks are clearly defined and allow us to glean some very useful information about this box: we can see the lion passant, meaning that the piece is made of sterling silver, the letter “D” indicating that it was assayed in 1827, the anchor which is the town mark for the city of Birmingham and finally the sponsor’s mark, which in this case is for the workshop of Joseph Willmore.

Other marks

In addition to the aforementioned hallmarks, there are other marks worth discussing, as they too can be found on British silverware. One is the Britannia standard hallmark, which replaced the lion passant from 1697 to 1720, when a higher standard for silver wares was introduced to put a stop to the melting of silver coinage to make silverware. During this period, the Britannia standard was the only legal standard for silver wares in England (but not in Scotland or Ireland). It contained at least 958.4 parts of pure silver out of 1000. After 1720, sterling silver (925) was allowed again, although the Britannia standard continued to be used by some silversmiths and also enjoyed a minor resurgence in the early 20th century when it was adopted in reproductions of early 18th century pieces. This hallmark presents itself as a figure of Britannia seated and is not to be confused with the Hibernia hallmark, which is a mark introduced in 1730 by the Dublin Assay Office to indicate that duty had been paid.
The second image below shows the hallmarks stamped to the reverse of a George I silver marrow scoop, assayed in London in 1716. Among them, there is the Britannia standard, meaning that the piece contains at least 958.4 parts of pure silver.

In 1784 duty marks began to be applied on silver items as a tax to pay for the War with America. The tax was collected by the assay office and to show that it had been paid, the duty mark was applied to the piece. The mark took the form of the sovereign’s head. The second image below shows the hallmarks stamped to the underside of a Victorian silver gilt christening cup. Among these marks, the duty mark is represented by the profile of Queen Victoria facing left. The tax lasted until 1890, so after this date the duty mark was no longer punched onto British silverware.

Other marks important when it comes to British silverware are import marks. In 1842 it became illegal to import gold or silver wares into Great Britain and Ireland unless they had been assayed at a British office. Imported pieces can show the foreign mark ‘F’ in addition to the British hallmarks or a new symbol, if they were imported after 1904. The second image below shows the import marks stamped to the feathers of a German silver model of a turkey. The import marks are for Berthold Muller, London, 1973, and include the mark 925 for the sterling standard as well.


What about silver plate?

Sheffield plate and electroplate are made to look like silver but lack the inherent value of the precious metal. In the case of Sheffield plate, sterling silver is fused together with copper, while the electroplating process - perfected by Elkington & Co. in Birmingham – entails coating a metal object with a layer of pure silver.

Neither Sheffield plate nor electroplated items can be called silver, and for this reason they do not show true silver hallmarks. However, they can be stamped with marks used by manufacturers to simulate silver hallmarks. The most frequently encountered example of these marks is the acronym “EPNS”, which stands for Electro Plated Nickel Silver. The individual letters are sometimes placed in shields to look like a genuine set of silver marks.

Inspecting hallmarks and being able to decode them is essential to the understanding of British silverware. Should you wish to learn more about a piece of silverware that you own, we would be more than happy to help. Our silver specialists offer valuation services for both British and Continental silver so please do contact us if you would like our help in understanding the origin, or determining the value of your silver.