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The History of Pawnbroking

Updated: Dec 17, 2022

The Principles

Before diving into the real depths of the cultural significance of the pawnbroking industry, let's start with the principles - how does pawnbroking work?

First of all, an item is taken to a pawnbroker. This same pawnbroker will then lend a certain amount of money to the owner of the item, and this will be kept by the pawnbroker for a particular length of time, usually 6-7 months. If the owner returns within the agreed time limit and pays back the money lent plus an agreed amount of interest, the item is returned to them. If the loan is not paid within the time, the pawned item will be offered for sale by the pawnbroker. Before any sale takes place, the owner of the goods will always be contacted via letter and sometimes other means of communication.


The Name 'Pawnbroking'

Looking into the history of the name pawnbroking itself is quite significant. The term “pawn” comes from the Latin word “pledge”. This in simple terms means that the items being pawned to the broker are called pledges or pawns. A broker arranges transactions between a buyer and seller, and thus a pawnbroker lends money against the items that have formed the pawn, arranging the transaction between the customer and the company.


The Beginnings of Pawnbroking

The first signs of real industry empowerment we can date back to 15th century Italy in which the Medici family dominated financially. The family was divided with one half approaching the role of bankers and the other half approaching the pawnbroking side of the finances. Taken along with the pawnbrokers was also half of the family crest, commonly recognised as the famous three gold balls associated within the pawnbroking industry still to this day.


British Context

Although the beginnings of pawnbroking may have started in Italy, it did not finish there. Many people from the industry came to England alongside the Normans and the Jewish community. With limited access to most professions, they had been pushed into unpopular occupations for example pawnbroking which was originally condemned by Christians due to an interest being charged on the loan.

Now the moment in history in which pawnbroking really began to thrive was the late 19th / early 20th Century in Britain. People were lending money on anything from cutlery to clothing. In fact, the famous nursery rhyme we are familiar with today named “Pop Goes the Weasel” is actually referencing pawning (“popping”) a coat (“weasel” - the rhyming slang for “weasel and stoat”) in order to get money to buy staple food produce.


Royal Links

Some facts about the industry that you may have not known are that royalty actually used this lending and loaning system themselves for their own benefits even though it was commonly deemed as “morally wrong” by the Christian community.

A major event in history was when the discovery of the Americas happened. This only occurred due to pawnbroking. Christopher Columbus’ voyage was funded by the pawning of Queen Isabella of Spain’s jewels.

As well as this, back in 1338, Edward III pawned his jewels to raise money for the war with France - also known as the ‘Hundred Years’ war.


Pawnbroking Progression

The unsettling image of pawnbroking has indefinitely changed over the past 30 years or so due to the 1980s credit boom and the recent recession. What was once a dingy back-alley shop that was kept under wraps with no real publicity has now become much more accepted in society where pawnshops are a recognised place on high streets. The taboo of the negative aspect of pawnbroking has now been diminished and is replaced with this incredible platform that has allowed for many to gain benefits from the service. Pawnbroking is not only used for personal needs but also quite often business needs in today’s society.


Publicity Takeover

It is even implemented into our culture today through the media and digital platforms with the use of websites and even making an appearance on the popular ITV soap ‘Coronation Street’ where the new shop on the street, ‘Barlow’s Buys’, is, in fact, a pawn shop.

As well as this, how pawnbroking works is now an element of cultural significance today as we associate ourselves with its impact on our daily lives through the media platform. Programmes such as ‘Posh Pawnbrokers’ and ‘Million Pound Pawn’ featured on the recognised channels ITV and Channel 4, have enabled people to easily stream and get an insight into the industry, allowing for more recognition by people worldwide.


Positive Influence

As mentioned earlier, ‘Million Pound Pawn’ is a TV programme which envelops the true world of pawnbroking and one significant moment in the series is when Fran Sawyer, a single mother, wishes to sell her earrings and watch in order to fund a life-changing operation for her disabled son, Alexander.

The moment that she realizes her pawned items are worth a lot more than she expected from her £17,000 estimate to a staggering £155,000 is a shocking moment for Fran, bringing her close to tears and the audience get to witness this ecstatic, emotional realisation.

When speaking about her son prior to the discovery of the amount, Fran stated that "It's been so tough for him. Now he's 16 I can get help for him. That help needs to be soon or I will lose him."

Pawnbroking in itself has been a majorly positive influence on not only Fran’s life but so many and the remarkable service can now be acknowledged by many for its support and help to families and businesses alike. Written by Shannon Donovan

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