The Tree Cents of Prince Edward Island

The “Tree Cents” of Prince Edward Island.

By: MICC Lifetime member #001

For many years, the local currency pound of Prince Edward Island was out of step with those of the rest of her neighbours who typically used “Halifax Currency” whereby a dollar (U.S., Spanish-American or Spanish) was valued at 5-shillings (a Halifax Pound = $4). P.E.I. used this as well during the War of 1812 but afterward, her currency slipped until by 1849 the dollar was officially rated at 6s3d P.E.I. (or 75-pence).

Officially, the table used to rate the various coins had anomalies. The American gold Eagle ($10) was rated at only an even £3 while ten silver dollars were worth 2s6d more. Unofficially, the Islanders paid a premium for the gold coin by something like that much. Also – officially – fractions of the silver dollar were also low, a “half-dollar” listed at only an even 3-shillings; however, most of these fractional silver coins were the old Spanish-American (or “Mexican”) 4-, 2- and 1-reale pieces, devalued by both Canada and the U.S. to bullion status in 1853 and, therefore, forming a sort of silver “token” issue.

Jamaica 1/2d, 1869 (copper-nickel)


The big problem was the copper (or bronze) coins. Since those of no other country came close to an even value, the Island used her own. These were the lightweight, anonymous “halfpenny” tokens issued by merchants and others up until the 1860s or so. So far as weight was concerned, they were not a big a gyp as they appear: with the P.E.I. Currency Pound worth only 4/5th that of the Halifax, a proportional weight for such halfpennies would be about 105-grains and most weigh around that.

By the early 1860s, all of P.E.I.’s neighbours had gone decimal, making her pound cumbersome and out-of-date. There was a certain amount of agitation for change at this time but it was not until 1871 that she changed (Statutes of P.E.I., 34 Vict. cap. V, passed April 17, 1871, to be fully in place by February 1, 1872). For the purpose of converting debts and contracts, the rate to be used was $3.24 2/9 P.E.I. to the old Pound. This was the equivalent of putting the Island on the same standard as that of the U.S. and the Dominion of Canada.

P.E.I. cent, 1871 (bronze)


Gold and silver coin were no problem since U.S. gold and the silver of both Canada and New Brunswick could pass at par; British silver could pass at 24-cents per shilling and the gold sovereign at $4.86 2/3. Gold coin of the Latin Monetary Union (France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and Greece) could also pass at the rate of $3.80 per 20-“unit” (franc, lira or drachma) denomination. The Mexican and Spanish “silver dollars” continued to be received at face.

It was the copper that caused a problem since these old light “halfpennies” did not fit into the new dollar. Therefore, they were withdrawn, notice given by the Treasurer’s Office on January 10, 1872 that during the month of February, these coppers would be exchanged at the rate of sixteen new cents for “each Shilling, currency” – which is to say, for each 24 of these old tokens (3 old tokens for 2 new cents).

But here we are slightly ahead of ourselves. Knowing that the copper would be a problem, the government moved in mid-1871 to have a special bronze coinage struck for the Island to facilitate the changeover to decimal. Feelers were sent out as early as August 29 and bids received from both Heaton’s (The Mint, Birmingham) and James Watt & Co. within a day or so of September 20. The Heaton bid of £1,559.5s.0d to supply two million bronze cents of the same size and weight as the current British halfpenny was successful.

The Island had employed as its agent in England the cashier of the Bank of Prince Edward Island, William Cundall. The necessary funds were at his disposal and his instructions for design were left very much up to him, “.. only it is desirable that the Queen’s head should be on one face of the coin”. There is a tradition that Cundall may have “designed” the reverse, merely by drawing from memory the Great Seal of Prince Edward Island as authorized in 1769. There was an error: the original seal shows a single shrub sheltered by a large oak while on the new cent, the shrub became three saplings. Again (traditionally), Islanders are inclined to believe the three saplings represent the three counties of the Island. The reverse legend “Parva Sub Ingenti” translates as “The Small Beneath the Great”.

When Cundall arrived in England, he was informed the Royal Mint was too busy with domestic coinage to strike the cents and recommended he employ a private mint through tender – which he did. All the same, it was Leonard C. Wyon, Chief Engraver of the Royal Mint who cut the dies for the cent. Apparently, the designs he submitted for approval had only the reverse accepted; the Queen objected to the portrait of her he made for the obverse and we presume only a drawing was made. In any case, no pattern has since turned up. Wyon was probably surprised since he rarely had anything turned down and now time was of the essence, too short to start again from scratch. Therefore, he took an easy way out: the obverse die used to strike the copper-nickel halfpenny pieces for Jamaica since 1869 was paired with the “Oak Tree Sheltering Saplings” reverse, the set turned over to Heaton’s for execution. By 21 November, the cents were finished and ready for shipment; they arrived at the Bank of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown some time before the new year.

The first Dominion of Canada cent, 1876-H


On the face of it, the Province made a good profit on this coin, having received $20,000 of it for a cost of $8,823.31 (plus shipping). But despite the expectation the new cents would rapidly displace all the old tokens, that wasn’t entirely the case. During the February exchange period, only $6,001.25 was used for that purpose and the remainder of the cents proved to be very difficult to introduce into circulation; as late as New Years, 1878, nearly half ($9,100 worth) remained on hand. Finally, the remaining 380,000 on hand in 1880 were auctioned off at 90% face: 70,000 going to Montreal, 130,000 to New Brunswick, 10,000 to Nova Scotia and the rest sold locally. But for years they were entirely too numerous in circulation.

There was yet one more twist in the “Tree Cent” story. When the Dominion of Canada was finally in need of more cents in 1876 – fifteen years after the 1858/9 issue – their new large cent was increased in weight by also being struck on British halfpenny planchets (as were the New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island cents). The new Canadian cents also had a changed obverse, the previous laureated “young head” of Victoria giving way to that recently used on the Tree Cents – although the legend was changed as well.

Thus the Tree cents gradually passed from existence – but not without attaining a couple of firsts: they were the only authorized circulating Canadian coin with legends entirely in English and also the only Canadian coin to have been struck by Heaton’s lacking the usual “H”-mintmark.


Previously printed in the MICC Numismatic Journal Vol-02, Issue-08