Radical Objects

Radical Objects: ‘Milk for Spain’

A card token which harks back to one of the more noble chapters in British radicalism. During the Spanish Civil War, supporters of the Republican side raised money to help ease the hardship faced by civilians living in areas largely under siege from Franco’s forces.

‘Milk for Spain, 6d’ is the main legend on this cardboard disc, about 4 cms diameter. Overprinted more haphazardly is ‘London Co-operative / Islington Group / 165, Upper Street’.

The Wikipedia article on the ‘Milk for Spain’ movement recounts: In November 1937 a Milk for Spain fund was opened after an appeal to the various co-operative societies and Labour Party branches around the country. The response was overwhelming. The London Co-op raised £877 alone. In addition to large contributions from societies, anybody who shopped at a Co-op store was able to buy milk tokens; the proceeds of which would go to the Republican civilians. In particular, the milk was directed at children of under four years old and invalids. As the rate of donations from the societies gradually subsided, the selling of six-penny and three-penny tokens in shops assumed growing importance.

Alexander Baron, in his Islington novel Rosie Hogarth, wrote of the generisity of local support for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War as ‘one of those blind and beautiful upsurges of human solidarity that sweep their class from time to time’. This is a wonderfully evocative emblem of that time, place and movement.

Andrew Whitehead

Do you live with, or have access to, a “radical object” – an object with links to an oppositional history? Send us a photo and tell us its story. Contributions to: marybeth@historyworkshop.org.uk.


  1. Great object: I like the idea of radical currency! It looks suspiciously new…. the overprinting is nice – it evokes the ways places could be connected through objects (from Upper Street to Spain…).

    It would be interesting to put this token alongside a whole history of similar objects associated with, or actually part of, the experience of consumption: I am thinking of the long history of consumer boycotts back at least to the C18th (slave sugar) and also of Fair Trade and its precursors….I am sure this history – a global history too – leaves a material trail of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ consumer objects….

  2. For some fascinating background to the history of tokens (radical and otherwise), I recommend Jim Newmark’s article, ‘Tokens as Documents of the Industrial Revolution’, in History Workshop 9, spring 1980.

    Newmark cites Francis Klingender as ‘the first Marxist historian to take up the subject of tokens’, and recalls how his essay ‘Eighteenth Century Pence and Ha’pence’ (Architectural Review, Feb. 1943), led Newmark to begin a collecting them.

    According to Newmark, ‘from the fifteenth century to their legal suppression in 1817’, the tokens issued by traders, merchants and manufacturers, were an unofficial response to the chronic shortage of small change. The Master of the Mint (even as late as 1799) ‘received his remuneration from a commission on output’ so gold coins were more profitable for him than silver, as were larger rather than smaller denominations.

    With the rapid increase in wage labour in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries shortage of small coin became ever more acute and to pay their workers mining and many other enterprises resorted to producing their own tokens. Unlike legal coinage, they identified a local origin and often more. ‘Inscribed with a rich variety of slogans and illustrations’ they furnish ‘a vivid picture of the times in which they appeared.

    The seventeen examples from Newmark’s collection which accompany this article include ‘trade tokens’ illustrating industrial machinery, process, achievement or political position (‘MORE TRADE AND FEWER TAXES’)and he discusses other similar examples. Of very different origin, half a dozen exemplify tokens produced by the radical Thomas Spence (1750-1814), for political agitation rather than currency. One depicts a man handcuffed and in irons, his mouth padlocked: ‘A.FREE.BORN.BRITON.OF.1796’. It is a commentary on the Libels (or Gagging) Act in 1795, while others celebrate the Tree of Liberty and Magna Carta. Other political tokens from the early nineteenth century were produced by the radical London Corresponding Society, discussed by E.P. Thomson in The Making of the Working Class (one of these was found under the floor of the house in Spitalfields where Raphael Samuel lived from the 1960s till his death in 1996), and to promote campaigns against slavery (‘AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER’)and against debtors’ prisons. On another, the radical scientist Joseph Priestley is depicted as CITIZEN OF THE WORLD.

    In Newmark’s examples there is a difference between tokens as currency and tokens as political propaganda. Today we could compare the virtual currency produced by supermarkets and their allies to promote more spending by us and profits for them, on the one hand, and on the other the badges, buttons, T-shirts and other paraphernalia which proclaim support for (and sometimes in part finance)political campaigns.

  3. I gave a talk at the Leeds Jewish Historical Society about Jews and the Spanish Civil War, and some of those present talked about the table top aid for Spain collections at Burtons, organised by the tailoring unions. The shop floor was heavily if not largely Jewish at the time and the collections were very successful.

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