Burchell’s Famous Sugar Plumbs for Worms

In this latest post, Dr. Iain Macleod looks at one of the more unusual items in our collections.

Surgeons’ Hall Museums holds many fascinating objects, but few can be stranger than a collection of nine 18th Century tokens or medals. These were produced by Basil Burchell, (1765-1838), dealer in patent medicines, later a jeweller and goldsmith based at 79 Long Acre in London. The tokens were produced from around 1780 in either copper or more rarely white metal and advertised his sugar plumbs and anodyne necklace. They were deliberately pierced to enable them to be attached to his products as a guarantee of their authenticity.


Basil Burchell claimed to be “sole proprietor of the famous sugar plumbs for worms and anodyne necklace for children cutting teeth” but he also sold gold and silver lockets, corals (teething rings), silver pap boats (feeding bottles), pap spoons and clasps. The necklaces possibly consisted of beads of peony wood that could be sucked by teething children. The ‘sugar-plumbs’ were made with the active ingredient being lead acetate, which probably caused more harm to the children than the worms!


Such tokens became common during the 18th Century and were often used as money, particularly when there was an inadequate supply of legal currency in small denominations. Eventually, Parliament tried to regain control by producing a copper penny and two-pence coin in 1797 and from 1818, prohibited the production of “exclusive” tokens as currency. These Burchell tokens, produced in copper were the same size and weight as a halfpenny. Interestingly around the edge of the token is written “this is a coin but a medal.” So although by virtue of their weight and diameter, they look like halfpennies, there is no denomination shown on either face. It may be that the designer was just having fun, with the edge inscription being a defense against accusations of counter-fitting!

Dr Iain Macleod is a retired consultant and honorary clinical senior lecturer in dental & maxillofacial radiology who until recently, worked at the Newcastle Dental hospital and school. During his career, he was involved in forensic dentistry and it was this in conjunction with a long standing interest in history and archaeology that enabled him to get involved in several multi-disciplinary projects investigating ancient human remains. Iain has written one book on the topic and several peer reviewed articles as well as a number for a more general readership.


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