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 tea and coffee service with a lovely pumpkin pattern. It is marked as "Made in England Silverplated Copper" and has the initials "NB & S." Is that a manufacturer's mark or a description of the material?
It sounds beautiful! Those letters are the maker's mark. It looks like that is an unidentified maker. I found it on an English silverplate list, and it is a known "unidentified" maker's mark. You know it is made in England at least. It is probably old. Most makers stopped using copper under silver in the mid-1800's.Helpful 6
I have a spoon that is marked Sterling with an image of a walking lion and an R 925 engraving. I'm confused, as I read that "R" means that the spoon is coated, but if it says "Sterling 925" then it's not coated. So which is it?
The walking lion is the British symbol for sterling silver. 925 is also a symbol for sterling. If the mark is: lion, symbol (town of Assay), R, Name or initials of maker, then it is British sterling silver. The letter "R" is a date indicator. You will have to go to the Encyclopedia of Silver Marks website to look up the mark. Match the town symbol with yours, click on that, then look for a match in the date table for your letter "R" to find the date. The initials at the end are the maker. You can look that up too.Helpful 2
I have a small silver teapot with a wooden handle. It says "silver on copper", and "castle. silver" It also has a symbol of a crown and a small cross on top. Do you, the writer of this article, have any information you can share about my teapot?Helpful 1
I've found a thimble with an anchor and a lion, as well as the letter z stamped on it. It also has the letters "h c" and the number 15 stamped on it. Would you have any clues?
Thimbles were often made of sterling, which your thimble is. It is from Birmingham, England. The date letter is the letter "z", but without seeing the style of the letter, I can't tell you what the date is. You would have to look it up on a Birmingham date chart. The "HC" is the maker's initials. Unfortunately, I can't find a maker with just those initials. All the ones with "HC" in it also include another letter, such as "D" or "A". The number 15 is likely the size of the thimble.Helpful 3
I have a chalice with j f with a crown underneath f-p n-s ?
I am wondering if "f-p-n-s" is actually "e-p-n-s"? E-P-N-S stands for Electroplate over nickle silver. I cannot find anything for the initials JF though. Nickle silver was used for a base material for a while, often in Germany, and some in the US. It is a white metal that doesn't show the wear if the silver gets worn and thin.