A law which was established over six hundered years ago by the London Goldsmiths requires every piece of silver to be sent to an assay office to be tested for it's porportion of alloy and either hallmarked or broken up for scrap.
Every assay office (such as Birmingham or London) has it's own distinct mark. Some of the smaller assay offices or the ones that are no longer open are rarer and therefore more sought after ( like York or Chester).
The mark the assay office used often incorperated the city's coat of arms althogh some other means were sometimes used. In 1773 the men involved in choosing the marks for Birmingham and Sheffeild were at the Strand's crown and Anchor Inn (in London) and on the toss of a coin the marks were established, hence Crown for Sheffield and Anchor for Birmingham.
There are generally four marks stamped on silver:
Thw town/city mark which tells you where the piece was assayed (tested and registered)
The date letter which indicates the year in which the piece was assayed.
The makers or sponsors mark
The standard mark whcih indicates sterling quality (Lion) or less commonly Britannia for silver of higher 958 purity.
EXAMPLES OF ASSAY OFFICES AND THEIR MARKS:
London assay office started to assay silver in 1327 using the leopard's head mark.
Birmingham assay offcie started to in 1773 using the anchor mark.
Chester used the three wheat sheaves mark.
Dublin, the earliest recorded assay marks 1638 using the crowned harp mark.
Edinburgh, a three-towered castle was used as the town mark here from 1485.
Exeter assay office legally existed from 1701-1883 (althogh wrought silver examples date from the middle ages) using Roman capital X mark.
Glasgow assay office existed from 1819 ( although wrough silver was date stamped here between 1681-1710) using tree, fish and bell mark.
Newcastle, Records show goldsmiths working here from the mid 13th century, a single castle was used as town mark in 17th century. This assay office was re-opened in 1702 and closed in 1884 with three distinct castles as the town mark.
Norwich assay office dates from the mid 16th century until the end of the 17th century using the castle over a lion passant mark.
Sheffield assay office established in 1773 using the crown mark.
York (possibly the most sought after silver). Assay office dates from mid 16th century with a town mark in the shape of half a leopard's head/half fleur-de-lis (1562-1631). From 1632 to 1698 half rose crowned/half fleur-de-lis, from 1700 a cross with fice lion passant, finally closed in 1856.
To a newcomer this can all be a little bit daunting but with practice you will soon learn to recognise the numerous marks and develop into a knowledgeable collector.
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