"Now, don't drop any coins," says genial goldsmith Warren Benbow. "It's remarkably difficult to find them on this carpet."
So begins this year's Trial of the Pyx, an ancient and annual ceremony to check the coinage of the realm for metallic composition, weight and size. Today, we had the privilege of witnessing it first hand at Goldsmiths' Hall, one of the most opulent venues in the City.
In effect, we're here to watch people count money.
The Trial of the Pyx is the oldest form of consumer protection in existence. It dates back some 800 years to a time when the probity of coin makers was questionable and therefore questioned by this independent court (the sinister name, since you ask, comes from the Pyx Chamber at Westminster Abbey, where the boxes used in the trial, also known as pyx, once resided). Fans of Neal Stephenson may remember the procedure from The System of the World, in which Master of the Mint Sir Isaac Newton got into rather a pickle during the 1714 Trial. It has taken place every year since the 13th Century, including (in 1940) just two days after a bomb had destroyed a large portion of Goldsmiths' Hall. A fuller account of the history can be found over on IanVisits.
The Trial is opened by the Queen's Remembrancer, a stern-looking fellow in a long wig and tricorne hat. From this point, the Trial has the status as a formal court of law. All jury members have to swear on the Holy Bible (the Great Banker in the Sky gets name-checked on several occasions). Formalities out the way, the Remembrancer starts remembrancing. We've always wondered what remembrancing is. It seems to involve rambling on in an affected Scottish brogue about the connections between the Bawbee (a worthless Scottish coin), Stuart hegemony and the poet-son of James Boswell. Baffling.
That done, the Remembrancer clears off, leaving the ladies and gentlemen of the jury to begin their count. The corner of the room is stacked with pyx containing some 63,000 coins from the Mint. The poor jury must work their way through around 10% of these, placing the occasional sample coin in a copper bowl for further testing. Assistance with the remaining 90%, mostly lower denominations, is offered by coin-counting machines in the neighbouring room.
"It isn't a race," reminds Benbow as the jury tuck into their shiny mounds. "But you wouldn't want to be the last to finish, now, would you?"
After the surreality of the situation wears off, watching a room of people count money is hardly going to get the endorphins flowing. We leave them to it, and look forward to the outcome of the trial in a few months time. For today is just the beginning of this trial. After the coin-count is verified, the coins from the copper bowls are tested for composition, weight and size. The result is then announced by the Remembrancer (possibly in a comedy Scottish accent) at a reconvened session in May.
What if the trial fails? Well, no one seems to know. Occasionally, miscalculations have led to slight deviations from the expected result, but a complete failure of the Pyx is unprecedented. Watch this space, however. Our economy has a new-found flair for surprises.
With grateful thanks to IanVisits for arranging the visit.