A Guide to British Sterling Silver Hallmarks
British sterling silver hallmarks help to identify the maker and year of manufacture of sterling silver items produced by Great Britain. Understanding and learning to recognize these marks can help you avoid costly mistakes in both the purchase and sale of antique English silver. This guide will explain what each mark means and how to find them on a piece of antique British sterling silver.
I've been buying and selling antique silver for many years now. When I first started going to estate sales, I was always drawn to the silver gleaming on the tables. I didn't know what the marks meant, but I was determined to find out. Thus began my education and passion for silver. I found great resources online, bought out of print books on the subject and picked the brains of antique dealers I met. The knowledge I have gained has helped me score some big finds over the years. The estate salespeople often miss these sterling treasures and sell them cheap, not realizing their great value. I once purchased an English silver sovereign case for $5 at an estate sale and later sold it on eBay for $250.
Learning to recognize these marks will help you to find treasures too, maybe even in your own home. Here's how to read the marks.
The British Standard for Sterling Silver
Ever hear the word "sterling" used to describe a person? "Why, John has a sterling reputation". Britain's long use of the sterling standard has made the word "sterling" mean the pinnacle of quality, whether in metal or a person's character.
By law, British sterling must be 925 parts silver to 75 parts other alloy metals, or 925/1000. This is known as the "sterling standard." This standard has been in place in Great Britain for centuries, with most other countries adopting this standard much later... Every removable part of a British sterling item must be fully hallmarked. For example, a teapot with a lid will have marks on the pot, as well as on the lid.
Look for hallmarks on the underside, rims, and handles of items.
British System of Sterling Silver Hallmarks
All of Great Britain use the same system to mark their sterling silver. Each item is assayed (tested) for quality, then marked with a series of 4 - 5 symbols, each in a cartouche of the same shape. The shape is used with letters to help date the item. The hallmarks will tell you if the item is sterling silver, what town it was assayed in, the date of assay and the maker's initials.
British Sterling Quality Marks
The symbol for English sterling is a walking lion, or "Lion Passant". Most countries that live under the reign of the British crown have their own sterling mark, instead of the lion. Scotland uses a thistle flower, Ireland uses a harp, and so on. Make a note that England itself has made the bulk of sterling wares over the centuries. Items from Scotland and Ireland are rare and can command higher prices.
British Town Marks
The town or city mark denotes the place where the item was tested for its silver quality, or "assayed". Common town marks are:
- London: Leopard's head (with or without a crown)
- Birmingham: Anchor
- Dublin: Seated lady
- Edinburgh - Castle
British Date Marks
British date marks use letters from A - Z to represent dates. Each town of assay uses its own system. London uses A - U, Birmingham uses A - Z, etc. One letter represents one entire year, then it changes to the next letter in the following year. Some letters can be omitted, like "J" or "V", because they are too similar to other letters. When the last letter is reached, the alphabet is repeated, but with a different style of lettering or font.
The style of letter changes every 20 years or so, For instance, the letter "A" can be either lowercase "a" or uppercase "A", BLOCK or script, or even old English. There are guide books that can help you identify the date mark on most older pieces of sterling silver.
British Sterling Maker's Marks
The maker's mark is a series of initials representing the name of the silversmith or company. They are set into a cartouche, usually the same as the other marks, but not always. For example; W & H, for Walker & Hall of Sheffield is set within a flag. A crown on top of the initials means that the maker was a designated crown jeweler for that year, serving the royal family in repairs and creating new things for royal use.
Other British Silver Marks
Britannia Mark: A seated woman; Used by law from 1697 - 1720, optional later; denotes higher quality silver than sterling at 958/1000.
Monarch's Head: A duty mark denoting taxes paid to the crown. This tax was instituted in 1784, after the American Revolution, to rebuild Britain's coffers that the war had drained. This tax remained in place until 1890, when it was rescinded. The image was changed to reflect the current reigning monarch.
Tips on Collecting Antique British Sterling Silver
Find English Sterling Silver at various places, including:
- local antiques shops and auction houses
- estate sales
- eBay, RubyLane, or other antiques websites.
Terms to know and questions to ask:
- Solid Silver: Often used by International Sellers in place of "Sterling". Be careful though, as sometimes this means that the silver content is NOT sterling, but coin silver. Coin silver is still considered "solid" silver, but the actual silver content is lower, anywhere from 800 - 900 parts per 1000, instead of sterling's 925. Read the description carefully. Ask the seller questions if you aren't sure.
- Era: English silver is often listed by the era it was produced in. This includes words like Colonial, Victorian, Edwardian, and Modern.
- Always ask the seller for a picture of the hallmarks, if one is not shown on the listing.
- Ask questions about the condition. eBay sellers are notorious for giving very few details in their descriptions sometimes. Always ask if the description is sparse. Ask if there are any deep scratches or dents in the silver, broken hinges, detached handles, etc.
Questions & Answers
I have a serving tray with three stamped symbols on the back. I think one is a crown over the number 5, a funny shaped M and another, differently shaped M. if Is there a way for me to send you a photo of the mark?
I have a silver with cobalt glass insert salt cellar. On the bottom it is stamped England and has something that looks like either a challis or possibly a menorah. Would you know who made this?
Yes! Your salt cellar was made by Barker Ellis Silver Co, Ltd (sometimes listed as Ellis-Barker Silver Co) out of Birmingham, England. They have been in business since 1801 and make both sterling and silverplate wares. Your salt cellar is plated, not sterling. The "menorah" mark was used in 1912. There is lots of information about the company online.
I have a coffee and tea set with GOWLAND & GRANT Sunderland stamped on the bottom along with the number 8579 and a symbol that looks like a genie lamp. Can you tell me its approximate age?
I can't give you an exact date or details, but I can tell you what I found on the internet. Gowland & Grant was a retailer in Sunderland, England. I found an auction for a Silver Salver that had the stamp. The auction house stated that it was from 1927. They did not make the piece; they are the retailers. It was common for high-end sellers to have fine pieces stamped with their name. The number you describe is most likely a pattern number. All the pieces of the set would have consecutive numbers showing that they belonged in a set of that pattern style. I found a "genie's lamp" stamp. A maker called Robert & Belks used it, but I can't find any information on that maker.
I have a silver tea service of 7 pieces with a hallmark of a crown, followed by a B, then S, then possibly a Q. I can find no other markings. The set is quite heavy. What can you tell me about it ?
Your tea set was made by the Birmingham Silver Company. They were in business from 1957 to 1974 first in New York, and later moved to Connecticut. The set is silverplate. Sometimes this company made silver on copper items. These tend to be quite heavy, but weight alone may not be an indicator of whether or not there is copper underneath. You may have to do a scratch test in an inconspicuous part, like under a lid, or on the bottom of a teapot, to see if there is copper under the silver. Silver on copper tends to be more valuable than silverplate made with a pot metal base.
I have a silver (plated?) tea set with the letter J and a shield shape with two horizontal lines. There are also the characters L896. Can you tell me who made it and where?
I looked through the list o f makers and I can't find anything with that mark. Your tea set is most likely silverplate. The L896 is most likely a pattern number. It is also most likely American, but as I said...I can't find any maker's marks to match your description.Helpful 1