Since the late 12th century silversmithing in Britain has been regulated by Parliamentary Acts and Royal Ordinances. This means that objects have to be stamped with 'hallmarks', a term derived from Goldsmiths' Hall which was the guild hall of the London Goldsmiths' Company. The first marks were overseen by this body. In 1300 the Sterling standard was established at 925 parts per 1000. All objects had to assayed (tested) before leaving the craftsman's hands. The system calls for various hallmarks which enable us to tell when something was made, by whom, where it was tested for purity and most importantly how pure it is. London was the first assay office and then others were established in the English provinces and Ireland and Scotland.
Now we know what is meant by a hallmark we need to find out what we are looking at.
MARKS OF ORIGIN Each assay office has its own mark which identifies the town or city where the item was assayed, and probably manufactured.
MAKERS' MARKS Since 1363 silversmiths have been required to stamp their work with a registered mark. From early in the 18th century on initials are found, prior to that a slightly different combination of marks were used.
DATE LETTERS Used in England from 1478, in Scotland from 1681 and Ireland from 1638. The date stamp uses a letter of the alphabet, changed to the next letter annually in a regular cycle. Each new cycle was given a new style of lettering and shape of shield to distinguish one cycle from another.
STANDARD MARKS From 1544 a specific standard mark, a lion passant, was introduced to be marked on items which met the Sterling standard as the coinage (up to then 92.5 % pure) had been debased to only one third silver. In 1697 the Sterling standard was replaced by the Britannia standard of 058.4 parts per 1000 to stop the melting down of coins for plate, the Britannia figure replaced the lion passant. From 1720 we are back to using the lion passant and standard Sterling although Britannia continued to be used to 1974, usually to celebrate a special occasion.
DUTY MARKS 1784-1890 Between 1784 and 1890 a duty (tax) was imposed on silver in Britain. To prove that the duty had been paid by the silversmith an extra mark depicting the ruling monarch's head was struck on most items during this period. There were some who evaded this duty, so the mark is not always present.
HOW TO READ HALLMARKS When looking at hallmarks, begin by studying the mark of origin to find out where the piece was assayed. If you don't see an assay office's mark the piece is probably from London as this was where the greatest amount of silverware was produced. Using your handy Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks turn to the relevant city's section. Now look at the date letter, not the easiest part of the process, as you have to check (a) is it a capital or lower case (b) what kind of script it is in (c) note the shape of the shield containing it. You must get an exact match to your hallmark to be confident about the date. For reference at home or at a library ,Sir Charles Jackson's English Goldsmiths and Their Marks is essential if you wish to identify makers.