“Raising Scepters”

Previous articles on this blog have discussed a common counterfeiting technique known by eighteenth century contemporaries as ‘Raising Scepters’. This is where my ignorance comes into play, as I have just mentioned the technique briefly without thinking that some readers may not actually know what I’m talking about. As an eighteenth century historian, I assume that everyone else knows the same as I do about the period, and that there is a high degree of popular understanding concerning methods of making one coin appear to be another. Therefore, I apologize profusely and hope to amend such grievances.

The term concerns the design of the coin itself. The Obverse of both shillings and guineas were more or the less the same, both baring the image of the ruling monarch at the time of minting.

Obverse of 1758 George II ShillingObverse of 1759 Guinea

Keen eyed readers will note that the images different slightly – George on the shilling is a lot grander, with his robes and ceremonial armour, while the guinea is a simple bust. This might have something to do with the value of the coin, the guinea may be worth more but the shilling is still important – thus presenting a more impressive monarch.

It is on the reverse of the coin that the more striking difference can be seen.

1758 Shilling, George II, EF ReverseReverse of 1715 George I Guinea

The striking difference is the scepters that perturb from the centre of the guinea. Raising Scepters is thus creating scepters on the reverse of the shilling and colouring over to be able to pass as a guinea – considering that a guinea piece in the 18th century was worth 21 shillings, this was quite a profitable – yet difficult – thing to achieve.

It would be a great artisan who would be given the task of engraving the likeness onto the coin. Or in some cases, the scepters are physically placed there (I am yet to discover who this method was achieved). This was a common crime in London – the Mint wrote in 1742 that it ‘was a great evil that had arrived in the city’. It become such that during the reign of George II the guinea’s design had to be altered – not unlike the issues I was worrying over in a previous blog post concerning the new pound coin…

“Honest Man, what makes you use me so, it is but a Farthing”

I am currently, as most PhD students at this stage in their academic career, in the process of building a database. The purpose of this endeavour is to locate thematic disturbances in the discourse of counterfeiting trials in the eighteenth century, to establish percentages of acquittals and death sentences and also to take note of the various skills that were used to take part in the crime. Admittedly, I have been partially side-tracked in the amount of Irish people that were involved (and subsequently hanged) which has led me to some bold conclusions, that have not went down well with my peers, or indeed audiences at various conferences and guest lectures. This has meant that I have not focused on skill enough, and to erroneously assume that the same skills were more or less used by all individuals. The database is a useful tool in this regard, as I could not have been more wrong.

Today I read, and re-read, an Old Bailey trial from 1745. It contained the words ‘they are vile wicked people; there is such a parcel of this Irish Gang about, that if this place was Diamonds they would swear it’. I’ve taken a note of this, and put it in my ‘big book of notes to publish an article proving coining was linked to Jacobitism and treason and prove all these established academics wrong’, but for now, let’s look at what the people in the trial were up to.

It’s hard to tell if the accused are Irish, the above sentence concerned a trial from two years previous. Methodologically speaking, it’s hard to tell if the accused are Irish because they were acquitted, and thus the Ordinary of Newgate did not record their life story – I’ve got my bets placed though, and should find out in my next visit to Kew… that is the Mint Solicitor was descriptive in his accounts…

John Graham, chief witness and former accomplice of the accused (Charles Flood and Charles Bargame) described how they would go about coining…(the coin being abused is a brass farthing of George II)

“…first we file the Britannia off, and take the Ribbon off, which hangs by the Side of the Neck on the Head Side, and alter the Head to make it look like a Six-pence, and then file them to the Size and Thickness of a Six-pence; after that we polish them with a piece of Leather to take off the Scratches and Roughness of the File; then we put them into a little Hand-vice, and put a bit of Leather between them and the Vice, to prevent it from marking them, and then bend them and whiten them over, so as to make them look like Silver, by rubbing them with Aqua Fortis, Cream of Tartar, and burnt Silver, made into a Sort of a paste. [This Witness proved the Experiment.]”[1]

It took me a while to understand just what they were doing. It took a google image search, which led to some confusion.

George II Copper Farthing

Take note of what George II is wearing in his portrait.

George II sixpence

Spot the difference…

The reverse of the coin was totally obliterated, and the obverse was altered to give the impression of a Sixpence. Now this might seem like a bit of a futile attempt at coining, and also a bit lazy. This technique, however, requires a few prerequisites if it is to succeed. The public, who these coins are being passed to, must be able to recognise the coin from the design of the obverse, while being duped into believing that the reverse had just faded over time.  

Thus, in order to escape the Old Bailey, Newgate and the Triple Tree at Tyburn, the contemporary public would have to be in the possession of just enough numismatic knowledge to recognise the obverse of a sixpence. According to the trial, the coiners were able to go about their business for some time, until a keeper at a public house was able to tell that it was a fake after rubbing it against the floor, to reveal the coin below the paste: “honest Man, what makes you use me so, it is but a Farthing”. It was more than likely the weight of the coin that gave the game away, as that is one of the more difficult aspects of coining to get right.

This trial opens up some interesting discussion, and of course some “chapter fodder” for the thesis. Nevertheless, the question remains – the people who accepted Flood and Bargame’s sixpences; did they recognise the appearance of ol’ George II as the appropriate bust, or did they just see silver and accept? If I was asked this at the start of my research, I would have went with the later. The more and more I dwell into this century and the public’s relationship with the coinage, I realise that they were a lot smarter than what I originally thought, the people who accepted the coins as authentic may have been duped, but they may have recognised the portrait – that’s more than I could do for our present coinage. The keeper at the public house would have had to have dealt with a lot of ‘Bad Money’, therefore more than likely able to spot a fake.  Nevertheless, completely obliterating the reverse is a new skill to add to the list, and probably another field to add to the databse…


[1] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 18 April 2014), December 1743, trial of Charles Flood Charles Bargame (t17431207-60).

Criminal Skill: The Counterfeiter’s Craft in the Long Eighteenth Century

The following is the text of a lecture I recently gave to the British Numismatic Society, 25th March 2014. This paper is essentially a summation of my research, detailing just a few of the themes I wish to investigate, including gender, labour, skill and the classification of coining as high treason. It’s a bit lengthy (6000 words!) so feel free to just skim it.

In the field of history, and especially social history, wherein the topic under discussion concerns people who have been long dead and left virtually no trace of their lives, it is extremely rare to present a lecture which is somewhat relevant and topical regarding recent political and economic developments. Some universities may say that it is their aim to bring history into the present for the general interest of the public; however, with the study of eighteenth century criminality, this is extremely difficult to achieve. Historians of crime have no great centenaries to look forward to and no celebratory anniversaries. How would it then be possible to compare today’s world, with that of the subjects of the Hanoverians? That being said, the recent announcement of a new pound coin, to be minted from 2017 onwards, with aim to combat counterfeiting, is not dissimilar to various periods throughout history – the new milled coinage of mid seventeenth century, the great re-coinage of William III, and the coin and currency reform of 1816. Did these advances achieve an end to counterfeiting and clipping? It is my contention that if the introduction of milled coinage worked, there would be no need for the great re-coinage, and likewise, if William III’s endeavour had been successful, there would be no need for the reform of the nineteenth century. The announcement of the new pound coin is reminiscent of the design alteration in George II’s gold to counter the practice of raising sceptres, and the coining gang convicted in May 2012 is similar to a mid-eighteenth century network who operated in the Seven Dials. Counterfeiters are still in operation today and authorities are still trying to find them – in the period under discussion, their methods differed and the punishments also.

Before the presentation of the context in which the trials are to be discussed, one methodological problem must be explained. The title of this paper is slightly misleading; ‘the counterfeiter’s craft in the eighteenth century’, as it implies that I will be discussing the skills that were needed to successfully counterfeit the coin. Unfortunately, the only records available to the historian are those that deal with criminal trials, meaning that the counterfeiters got caught. Those people who were able to produce their own coinage to such a standard, and were able to go about it in such a way that they did not get caught, did not leave any records. We only have information relating to people who either were not very good at their chosen crime, or who attempted to pass off, or utter, coins of such a low standard that they were immediately discovered. This is not to say that successful counterfeiters were not using the same techniques, or that it was the technique that led to the capture and convicting of the unsuccessful ones. If we look at some examples of their products, however, my point is made clear. 

The coinage of the early modern period was in a dire state by the seventeenth century, and actions were taken, after much economic and philosophical debate, to re-coin the silver. The re-coinage of the late 1690s aimed to replace the weak silver coinage in existence and to counter the crime of clipping – one of the primary causes of the re-coinage, alongside the amount of silver that needed to be transported to the Low Countries due to the Nine Years’ War. Clipping the misshapen hammer-struck silver was not a difficult task and could be carried out by anyone with the right tools, considering most were irregular in shape.[1] The crime of clipping was, according to Alan MacFarlene, trivial to the ‘common people’, and a process in which individuals that otherwise would not have become involved in crime, seen themselves in the realm of high treason.[2] Clipping and coining was hands-on labour to an impoverished people, resulting in profitable possibilities that benefited not just the individual, but the entire community; those in authority, on the other hand, viewed their actions as a direct attack on the stability and legitimacy of the state. Defacing the image of a monarch, and attacking what is legally described as ‘the King’s Currency’, had significant political connotations with severe outcomes – an individual found guilty of these crimes would be hanged, drawn and quartered if male, and strangled and burned if female.

The ‘Great Re-Coinage’ of 1696 did not include the gold currency; the guineas and half guineas in circulation throughout the early eighteenth century were close to seventy years old, and were thus heavily worn, underweight and of very low quality.[3] The authorities, both government and Mint, were primarily concerned in the production of new specie and the prosecution of crimes against the coin, as opposed to the maintenance of the standard of the circulating coin.[4] In addition to the low standard of gold coin, a heavy influx of Portuguese ‘moidores’ throughout the early eighteenth century led to the later becoming almost common currency, demonstrating the failure of the Mint to uphold the standard of gold in this period.[5]

In response to the actions of counterfeiters, the Royal Mint saw fit to employ their own solicitor in 1715 to be an extra legal presence at trials and to aid in the prosecution of individuals accused and to discover coining operations. The Mint solicitor was paid a yearly salary of £60, and was able to claim expenses for travelling and court costs; he would submit an account every six months in which he shall ‘invent nothing in those bills without receipts or other good vouchers’.[6] In the years succeeding the re-coinage, the duties that the Mint solicitor held were taken up by Sir Isaac Newton, the Warden of the Royal Mint from 1696-9. Newton unwittingly found himself at the forefront of many criminal proceedings for coining trials; therefore a permanent position such as this to carry out criminal proceedings on behalf of the Mint was created.[7]  The account bills produced by subsequent Mint solicitors throughout the period under discussion do not just record the expenses incurred; they give details of pre-trial preparations and meetings with witnesses and defendants, alongside the personal observations of the solicitor himself. Analysed alongside the Old Bailey Proceedings Online, the Mint solicitor’s account bills allow a coherent exploration of trials heard before the courts in London, and give insights into elite perceptions of individuals, or gangs, accused of counterfeiting or clipping the ‘current coin of this kingdom’. Authorities, government, treasury and mint, were keen to combat coining, it was, after all, high treason. A crime treated with utmost severity.  The punishment for which forms a focus of this paper, to hang, draw and quarter an individual for counterfeiting the coin should have acted as quite the determent. The statistics prove otherwise.

The actual legal status of coining as high treason will also be examined, especially in the middle of the century, during the threat of a Jacobite insurrection. It will be argued that a network of individuals who were native Irish and operating in the Seven Dials were treated with much more severity than their English counterparts due to this politically unstable context and the unfortunate nationality of the accused. Contemporary justifications for the crime’s classification and the punishments rewarded will be scrutinised alongside the relative harmlessness of the act to further add to this contention.

In some cases, the recorder of the Old Bailey goes into minute detail as to what skills the accused had at their disposal in order to carry out their crime. These skills are not dissimilar to contemporary occupations, and in some cases, individuals were able to pass off a few of the tools that were discovered in their homes as tools needed for their own legitimate work – for example, blanks could be passed off as buttons. It will be the links between contemporary occupations and coining that will form one of the areas that this paper will attempt to explore, alongside others. Old Bailey trials will be discussed in this context as a type of social history and to see how far those occupations could tempt individuals to a life of crime that could potentially see them hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason.

In a trial of 1692, for example, shears, melting pots and ‘other conveniences fit for clipping’ were found in the house of Rebecca Browne, Elizabeth Warner and Rathea Desborrow. They were indicted for coining and placed under high suspicion. Witnesses that were called for in their defence claimed that the individuals ‘had always been very industrious to live in the world’, and that one of them used the tools that were discovered in her trade of mantua manufacturing.[8] A mantua, an eighteenth century women’s garment, would have involved substantial labour and skill in silk-weaving. The shears may have been used in this regard, and the melting pots or may have been used in another’s line of work, nursing.  The alibi of their trade was convincing enough for the gentlemen of the jury, as they acquitted the women. Acquittal was a common result of coining trials, individuals would have to be discovered in the process of carrying out the crime for anything to definitive to happen. The mantra of the era, ‘rather to have ten guilty to escape than one innocent person suffer’, was steadfast in the minds of the judges and juries in the Old Bailey.[9] A trial of the following year is clear evidence of this.

Ann Jones, Alice Stebbing and Elizabeth Dymblebee were indicted in 1693; the evidence against whom was not as circumstantial as previous. In Jones’s house in Sutton Street, Westminster, a file, three pairs of shears, one thousand crucibles (more than likely an exaggeration), a silver plate, rubbing stones and a bag of clippings were found, alongside several false half-crowns. On the silver plate, the coat of arms was raised out – more than likely to be used as a mould or dye. Jones simply denied any knowledge of the items and all three were acquitted.[10]  It is interesting to note, however, that the individuals in both of these trials are female. Gendering the crime of coining leads to one specific conclusion, first argued by Nicolas Tosney, that there is a clear link between counterfeiting and women’s work. The mantua-maker from the previous trial, if she was in fact guilty of the crime, may have possessed transferable skills that would have aided her endeavour. To be quite precise with the shears in order to produce a fine cut – which at this point was unnecessary as not all silver was yet milled – was a task that involved patience and dexterity; her occupation may have aided her to do so.

Mantua manufacture is not the first thing that may spring to one’s mind in a discussion of occupational skills that would aid counterfeiting; the next example is slightly more suited. A 22 year old former goldsmith was indicted on the 3rd of July, 1695. Leo Norman, in much the same way as the previous cases, attempted to pass of the melting crucibles, files and shears that were found in his possession as instruments of his trade – he was not as successful. There was another instrument that was found in his possession, one that gave away his crime substantial – a rolling mill. Norman had manufactured this mill with two partners, who seemingly escaped prosecution.[11] The mill was the device that created perfectly round coins, in the place of the irregular in shape hammer-struck kind.

Clipping the coin was a crime that could have, and would have, been practiced by anyone with the right tools. The presence of a rolling mill demonstrates intent to counterfeit and ‘to deceive the King and the public’ on a large scale and aided the likelihood of a guilty verdict. It is almost professional, as the mill was not needed. This trial took place before the re-coinage, therefore the silver produced did not necessarily have to resemble authentic milled currency. Nevertheless, Norman’s transferrable skills as an apprenticed goldsmith would have aided in the groups endeavour. Weighing, assaying and other duties assigned to goldsmiths or not dissimilar to duties handed to apprentices at the Mint –he may also have been quite the skilled artisan and be able to produce the desired designs. When the two unknown individuals partnered with Leo Norman, they were more than likely already in the knowledge of his trade and his presence would advance their chosen career paths.

This seems to be a common practice – coiners locating people of skill to assist in their trade and letting them pay the price once caught.  In 1715, James Neale was executed at Tyburn. He had been raised as a watch-maker in Helmedon, near Oxford, and had a special interest in chemistry. When he relocated to London he found himself in poverty and was approached by two men who reckoned he could lend a hand in coining.[12] The use of chemistry is not difficult to determine – the mixing of melted base metals to either give the appearance of gold or silver and the desired weight, or the nearest possible. The skills involved in watch-making are extremely precise and would require quite a lot of patience – attributes that would not go unnoticed in coining.

So far this paper has been speculation – nothing has been presented that describes the actual skill that was needed to carry out the practice. The methodology implored only permits speculation, as the records of the Old Bailey and the Ordinary’s Accounts only give detail as to the occupations of the offender if it is part of the narrative leading to their appearance before the jury. We also only know the narrative of each offender – any past trades or apprenticeships – if they were found guilty and sentenced to death, as it is here that the Ordinary of Newgate Prison records their life story and any last dying words that they may wish to speak before the crowd at Tyburn. It is only through detailed examination of contemporary coins that we can determine what skills and methods that were used in their production. One such method can be found in one of the coins housed in the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum. To make one authentic coin, minted at the Tower, resemble a coin of much higher value, to make a shilling pass as a guinea, a process that was contemporarily dubbed ‘raising sceptres’.

Up until 1740, the reverse of a shilling and a guinea were almost identical – save for 4 sceptres reaching out from the centre of the crowned quartered shield, and of course the metal it was made from.  John Kent described the process as one that would require a skilled and artistic engraver, and not something that every individual would be able to complete – unlike clipping a hammer-struck half crown.[13] Nevertheless, the problem was an epidemic, so much so that the Royal Mint wrote to the treasury complaining about the issue in 1741, describing it as a ‘great evil’. This letter must have been part of a greater plan to warn authorities and the populace, as in the same year, an advertisement appeared in the Gentlemen’s Magazine, demonstrating to the populace – rather, the literate populace and those who would likely make up the readership of the Gentlemen’s Magazine – how to spot the difference between a shilling and a guinea by the King’s portrait on the obverse.

‘Whereas several evil dispos’d persons have practis’d the making of Shillings and Sixpences to resemble Guineas and Half-Guineas, by putting Sceptres upon the reverse and gilding them over to the great prejudice of his Majesty’s subjects – to prevent that evil practice and the Publick from being impos’d upon for the future, the above impressions are published, that all persons may know the difference between the Gold and Silver coins, which is the same in every King’s coin as in the above, viz the neck of the head on the guinea is without any robe or drapery on the shoulders – as to the gold coin of his present majesty there are no sceptres on them but the arms of Great Britain in a Shield…’[14]

To ‘raise sceptres on the reverse of shillings and gild them over in the likeness of Guineas’ became a treasonous offence in the 1780s, under the reign of George III. This is surprising given how much the Mint and the Mint Solicitor complained about the issue for the previous forty years. The counterfeiting laws had to be altered in the face of this epidemic, even after the design of the coin was changed forty years previously. Here it is possible to draw an interesting comparison between the eighteenth and the twenty first centuries. To counter this unique brand of coining, the mint changed the design of the coin and parliament added it to treasonous offences. The announcement of a new shape and design for the current pound coin is reminiscent of this to such an extent; it makes one wonder if any numismatists or social historians were consulted in the decision. If they were, the announcement of ‘a new pound coin’ would probably not have happened. Guineas from the reign of George I and II were still in circulation during the rest of the century – how many of those coins would have had their sceptres raised?

Another interesting thing about this process can be found through an examination of the statistics. While crawling through the Old Bailey Online in coining trials, we can find references to many false coins being found upon a person or in their lodging with intent to utter; many a melting pot or crucible; shears and other cutting instruments were commonplace in the offenders homes; instruments that were used to ‘make shillings in the likeness of guineas’ or any phrase of the kind, are seemingly not present. So far in this collaborative research, not one individual has been discovered who was accused of this crime. In the Mint Solicitor’s records, there’s one mention of an individual who ‘might be engraving designs to pass a coin as another’, but nothing comes from this. Using this methodology, the conclusion reached thus far is that although the crime was a ‘great evil’, and the authorities in the treasury had to be warned alongside the general public – individuals who were raising sceptres seemingly got away with it. One unnamed individual not operating in London, was ‘apprehended and charged with raising sceptres’ and interestingly selling his products for 8 Shillings per guinea – however it is unclear what became of the trial.[15] Raising sceptres on the reverse of shillings and sixpences was seemingly a fool proof method of coining. Going to any major effort, such as building a mill or, as the following example will demonstrate effectively starting from scratch, was a one way ticket to Tyburn.

If making one coin resemble another was a task requiring sophisticated knowledge and artistic skill, then creating a coin from raw materials must have been a challenge. An Old Bailey trial from 1718 records a detailed example of how a member of plebeian London was able to create such coins. Interestingly, the chief coiner was a woman named Abigail Newstead. The evidence against her describes how she coined –

‘She went into a closet, and took Plaster of Pallace, and mixing it with water created a paste, then made it into two square pieces in the form of a mould and then made a gutter in them; and putting a shilling into it, tied the two pieces together with a string and laid them at the fire to dry, that she then give her daughter a the same shilling to go to the pewterers to fetch tin and put it into a saucepan to melt it, poured into the mould and took it out, laying the coined money as she took it out won in the hearth, and in that manner did coin 15 Shillings. That afterwards she took a pair of scissors and cut off the jagged pieces round the edge and afterwards filed it with a file to make the graining, then boiled it in a pot of water and ashes and sent her daughter to beg a little salt, and then scoured it with salt and sand, and last of all took her clogs and rubbed the money thereon to dull it, by dirtying it, and then herself and the daughter would go out together at the Seven Dials and put it off’.[16]

Her location of the Seven Dials will come under examination later, but for now, let us deliberate upon the detail of how she went about her business. Newstead was extremely well trained in this endeavour of hers, she knew exactly what to do and when – according to the evidence against her. Newstead was found guilty, as the evidence against her was overwhelming. Fortunately for her she pleaded the belly and got a reprieve for pregnancy so therefore she did not have to suffer the fate of burning to death. Unfortunately for the social historian, the Ordinary of Newgate did not interview her and record her life story, and what trade she may have come from that would grant her this knowledge and skill to practice coining to this standard. The material that she was using would certainly result in much lighter coin, in both weight and appearance, however the use of a mould through plaster of palace and the extent she goes to give the coin the look of being worn out and passed through countless hands and pockets is, in this author’s opinion, ingenious. The methods may not have been up to contemporary Mint standards, however, there is one aspect of this woman’s operation that I find a lot more interesting than the manufacture of the actual coin.

First and foremost, as a social historian, the primary interest is people – community, groups and families. Abigail Newstead used her young fourteen year old daughter to venture into the community in search of the base materials for the finished product, substances for finishing the product to contemporary plebeian standards (i.e. worn down and not completely fine) and finally, to assist in passing out or uttering their product among the area.[17] Research into coining in the long eighteenth century can reveal a lot more than just the state of the coinage and the economy – it was seemingly a crime that the whole family could partake in. The location of the Newstead family is very interesting – St Giles in the Fields – an area that if walked around in this period, conversations that were overheard were more than likely as Gaelige – Irish.

So far, this collaborative research has uncovered from the Old Bailey and Mint Solicitor account bills, a network of counterfeiters that were operating in the Seven Dials who were born, and subsequently learnt their craft, in Ireland. As Abigail Newstead was basing her operation in the Seven Dials, and appears before the courts on a coining charge, I find it likely to suggest that she was off Irish decent, and may very well have had some influence over the gang soon to be discussed – operating later. Unfortunately, this remains conjecture. This operation was formed of various family members and was known individuals among the Irish community in the 1730s and 40s, and one employee of the Mint, John North, had a prominent role in their capture. Members of the network, or gang, appear before the Old Bailey from 1733-43. The limits imposed on this presentation do not allow to dwell on the narrative of the gang, a shame as it is quite interesting and a great piece of new social history (if I say so myself), but I will discuss two important factors that arise from the study. One is the skill that is involved – not in the manufacture, but in the distribution. The other aspect is the political and social context in which they were operating.

Thus far in this paper, the coins that were produced by the aforementioned individuals throughout this paper either sold their products, or passed them among the people of the markets. The Irish network was quite skilful in how they made profit and got rid of their counterfeit goods. In a manner that is not dissimilar to money laundering, family members of the network would take one counterfeit sixpence and purchase goods worth a half-penny. In doing so, they put distance between themselves and the incriminating evidence and made quite a substantial profit. It was one individual’s mistake to dupe an old acquaintance into purchasing a ‘half-penny worth of snuff’ with a bad six-pence. This lead to the man being accepted into the trade, but due to the threat of the authorities, informed on his old friend, which lead to him being brought to Tyburn on a sledge. To have the skill to produce the coin from either raw materials, or to make one coin resemble one of much higher value is all well and good – what use would it be if you did not know what to do with them next?

This is a major research question for the final thesis to answer, for now, it is possible to explain the two main methods that have cropped up far. The first, is effectively hoping that the shopkeeper does not check the weight of the coin or try to detect a forgery, and the other is to place the counterfeit in the middle of a stack of authentic coins. The first is more than likely the scenario, as in the latter, depending on the individual attempting to pass the coin, the more coins they had the more suspicion that would arise. If a poor young lad, covered in dirt and without shoes walked into a shop with a stack of coins, he would hardly be taken seriously – a constable would have been called for to discover from whom he had stolen the money – especially if he had asked for the goods with an Irish accent.

 Operating as a network and not just as an individual was a skill in itself. It was one of the methods that were used to almost ‘professionalise’ the crime, in much the same way as our earlier examples of building a mill. It was also an extremely dangerous crime to take part in, given the severe punishment if caught. It is at this juncture, that I will stray quite far away from the coins and numismatics, and discuss the political context in which they take place.

The final issue from these trials, and this paper, concerns the political context in which they take place and the legal classification of coining as high treason. There are a number of justifications for coining to be classed as such, as Malcolm Gaskill notes, ‘coinage was likened to the “blood of the nation”: it must continue to circulate to sustain life’.[18] The classification was the logical way for which the heinousness of the crime can be displayed to the public, yet the vital moral and dramatic elements of public executions were absent, as opposed to those of murderers.[19] As stated earlier, the blatant defacement of an image of a monarch was perceived as a direct attack on the authority and legitimacy of the state, alongside any negative economic implications that could be a potential result. It is here that this paper suggests that the defacement of an image of a monarch by an Irishman was taken with more severity due to popular Irish support for the looming threat of the Jacobite cause. Éamon Ó Ciaradh has argued that by 1739, the Irish diaspora were in clear support of the cause, and that the authorities abroad were aware of it.[20] The influence of Jacobite ideology in London during this period is quite significant; contemporaries perceived of this political threat and wrote a number of treatises warning the (literate) populace. Henry Fielding cautioned Londoners that, although the Jacobites in the city did not ‘draw their swords, it is well known how gloriously and openly they drew their corks in the Pretender’s favour’.[21] One such example is Joseph Payne. While he was drinking a toast to the Pretender in a London tavern, he was confronted by two soldiers – one of whom ‘did not want to hear my King abused’, and threatened to beat Payne’s brains out if he ‘did not hold his tongue’. Payne’s confident and drunken response was ‘God damn you, and your King too’, which landed him two months in prison.[22] Those individuals who drew their corks were made up of a various different parts of London life, however, there was a growing suspicion that the Irish population of London were in fact, closet Jacobites.[23] Ireland was, after all, where Jacobitism originally emerged in a military form after the War of the Three Kings. Trials of treasonous activity among the Irish during a period of emerging support for a potential political threat would have been treated with more sternness and caution. Some contemporaries were even ‘a good deal alarm’d at the number of Irish that have for some time resorted to this town’.[24] The growing resentment of the Irish born population residing in London is an important factor in these trials. Legislation and the criminal justice system was seemingly a tool to control and quell this troublesome population. The highest of treasonous crimes, rebellion, was something associated with Irish born individuals, and the landscape produced by a perceived revolt in the city of London enabled those at the top of the criminal justice system to achieve this control. The legal classification of coining as high treason, a classification awarded centuries before, was somewhat handy in allowing the authorities to achieve a number of goals and to remove any political threat from those in society. Those counterfeiting the coin in these trials may not have been actively involved in the Forty Five, authorities, however, were able to prevent any such involvement or any action or crime that may lend a hand to any rebellious attempt.

There is no clear and definitive link between counterfeiting the coin and the Jacobite rebellion – this is pure speculation, based on substantial methodological research. I merely see it not as a coincidence, that the people who were executed after the 1745 rebellion were executed in the same way as those found guilty for counterfeiting the coin – hanged, drawn and quartered. In the eyes of the law, they were committing the same crime.

Here, it is possible to create a link between the numismatics and social history – the conclusions reached here would not have been possible without either. Counterfeiting the coin was not a crime committed with political intent; it did however result in political connotations. The image of the ruling monarch on the obverse was the source of these connotations, alongside the importance that coinage held in contemporary economics. To the people, coins were a means of which goods could be bought and bartered for, and were somewhat difficult to come by. Even though it was high treason and the coiners would pay a heavy price if caught, they were, in some respects, providing a service that the eighteenth century Mint was not able to. In most cases however, the individuals were minting their coins for their own benefit, as in the case of the money launderers from the Seven Dials. The fact remains that for no matter the purpose of counterfeiting; they were attacking the state, and in the eyes of the law, had to be permanently removed. The coins that have been shown in the presentation today can serve as a humble reminder, that if the individual who manufactured it was caught, we know their fate. The coin demonstrates the skill that was needed to carry out the practice – contextualising demonstrates a substantial number of insights into state economics, plebeian lifestyle and labour and the harsh penalty awarded due to fears of potential insurrection.

In conclusion, this paper is not, as it would seem, just a narrative of dead people, and what they did centuries ago. The individuals that have been discussed have passed on their actions, albeit in a different way than what they might have expected. The crime of counterfeiting the coin is a crime that has existed for millennia, never mind centuries, and will continue for as long as the economy consists of coinage. When Chancellor Osborne announced in his budget that there would be a new pound coin to combat counterfeiting it may have sent waves of excitement through the public. ‘The pound coin has existed for over 30 years, and now they’re going to change it? It looks pretty though…’ These are just some of the thoughts that may have potentially been in the minds of people upon reading the news. The historian of coining, or to be more specific, this historian of coining, just rolled his eyes – this has been done in the past, it did not work then and it will more than likely not work now. The announcement does however make this paper and this collaborative research relevant to today’s social and political climate, and or that I am thankful. The eighteenth century was a different time than today in a lot of ways; it is nice to see that the government still thinks it can change everything with one slight change in appearance.

The legislation and punishments awarded were extremely harsh towards an otherwise harmless crime – there was no damage was inflicted upon the person so why should damage be inflicted upon the offender? Considering the amount of training that would have been involved to take part in the practice, the threat of Tyburn and the likelihood of a guilty verdict should have acted as a deterrent – surprisingly, the statistics of the Old Bailey alone are evidence enough that they did not. We must also acknowledge the ever looming ‘dark figure’ – the number of counterfeiters who got away with the crimes and were never caught. Contemporary circumstance seen people, who were raised in various trades, apply those skills into counterfeiting the coin – this alone must act as proof that counterfeiting was needed in order to supply the ‘blood of the community’ that would ‘continue to circulate in order to sustain life’ .  


[1] Alan MacFarlene, Justice and the Mare’s Ale: Law and Disorder in Seventeenth Century England (Oxford, 1981): 61.

[2] McFarlene, Justice and the Mare’s Ale:63.

[3] John Styles, ‘”Our Traitorous Money Makers”: The Yorkshire Coiners and the Law, 1760-83’, in John Brewer and John Styles (eds.), An Ungovernable People: The English and their Law in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (London, 1989): 174.

[4] Styles, ‘”Our Traitorous Money Makers”’: 175.

[5] Sir John Craig, The Mint: A History of the London Mint from AD287 to 1948 (Cambridge, 1953): 240.

[6] The National Archives (hereafter TNA) MINT 1/9, f16.

[7] J.H. Langbein., “The Prosecutorial Origins of Defence Counsel in the Eighteenth Century: The Appearance of Solicitors” (1999). Faculty Scholarship Series, paper 529, (http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/529): 326-7.

[8] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org) (hereafter OBPO) August, 1692, trial of Rebeckah Browne, Elizabeth Warner, Rathea Desborrow (t16920831-18).

[9] The National Archives (hereafter TNA) MINT 15/22 Observations and Remarks on the Laws Against Coiners f.3.

[10] OPBO Trial of Ann Jones, Alice Stebbing, Elizabeth Dymblebee, October 1693 (t16931012-10).

[11] OBPO Trial of Leo Norman, Susannah Smith, 1695 (t16950703-32).

[12] OBPO Trial of James Neale, John Barker, Elizabeth Barker, September 1714 (t17140908-30).

[13] John Kent Coinage and Currency of London p70.

[14] Gentlemen’s Magazine, (Vol. 11) 1741: 108

[15] Gentlemen’s Magazine (1748): 137

[16] OBPO Trial of Abigal Newstead, January 1718 (t17180110-34).

[17] OBPO (t17180110-34).

[18] Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities: 130.

[19] Ibid: 127-129.

[20] Éamon Ó Ciaradh, Ireland and the Jacobite Cause: A Fatal Attachment (Dublin, 2004): 322.

[21] Henry Fielding, A Dialogue Between a Gentleman of London, Agent for two Court Candidates, and an Honest Alderman of the Country Party, (London, 1747): 8.  

[22] TNA TS 20/131/38.

[23] Clive Boom, Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts (London, ????): ??

[24] See Nicolas Rogers, ‘Popular Disaffection in London During the Forty Five’, London Journal, Vol. 1 Issue 1 (1975): 8. 

‘A New Coin to Combat Counterfeiting’? It’s been done before…

It was announced in parliament last week that the Royal Mint is to begin minting a new pound coin – bimetallic and twelve sided – with the aim to put a stop to counterfeiting. The new coin is a welcome change to an already thirty year old coin, with which we end up frustrated at while in front of a ticket issuing or vending machine if they do not match up to the ideal weight. On the face of it, issuing a new coin does seem like a good idea. Although it does make me wonder if any numismatists or historians were consulted in the decision…

The New Pound Coin

The new pound coin, to be minted from 2017 onwards. The shape and size harks back to the Threepenny Bit from before decimalisation.


If historians were consulted, the people in charge of the decision would have been told that counterfeiting has been an issue since the emergence of coinage, and will continue to be an issue for as long as the foreseeable future. In a modern context of Britain, however, there a few similarities….

The result of clipping and counterfeiting the silver in the seventeenth century lead to a large-scale re-coinage. Every silver coin in the kingdom had to be melted down and re-coined to a higher standard… it was hoped that this would make the job of the forger quite difficult and put them off from their practice… it did not.

In the 1740’s, the design of the reverse of the gold guinea had to be changed completely, as it bared resemblance to that off the silver shilling – people would engrave the missing part of the design on the reverse of the shilling and gild it over with gold. 

Reverse of a Guinea

The sceptres reaching out from the centre would be engraved on the shilling to give the appearance of a Guinea.

Reverse of a Shilling, 1720

The reverse of the shilling, notice the absence of the sceptres reaching out from the centre.


A Guinea post1740

The new design on the Guinea after the problem became ‘epidemic’.

The new Guineas remained in circulation until 1816… alongside the Guineas from before the change in the design. 1816 saw another coin and currency reform – this was due to a lot of complicated issues; the impact of counterfeiters operating in the eighteenth century was certainly one of them. 

These are just a number of examples of how coins have changed, all in the space of just over 100 years. So will this new look, bimetallic, 12 sided pound coin stop and cease coiners operating today? The announcement three years before they begin minting may have just given them a head-start…

Making Money Go Further – Clipping

While today, the weekly wage or the monthly salary goes straight into a bank account, accessible by magic plastic cards and machines on the street – the early modern individual was given stacks of coins. The price these coins amounted to was deemed just enough for that person to live on. If, however, the wage was not satisfactory – or if the individual was just quite greedy – illegal methods were undertaken in order to make this one stack of coins worth more than their face value. That is, of course, they did not get caught.


Before the late seventeenth century, coins were ‘hammer-struck’. This meant that during the minting process, the blank coin was not completely circular, while the design was – resulting in quite misshapen pieces.

An example of a Scottish James VI silver coin. Notice the excess silver begging to be clipped off.

  These misshapen specie would be quite vulnerable to the practice of clipping – using shears or other instruments to remove the edges of the coin. The result would be a smaller (and often lighter) coin, and what look like fingernails; the clippings. These clippings would be collected then melted down and either sold as bullion to any bidding buyer, or (more likely) used as a raw ingredient in the counterfeiting process. 

A hoard of clippings, found in England, dating back 300 years. These clippings are from silver shillings.

As the seventeenth century wore on, the state of the silver coinage worsened – due to a shortage in the precious metal due to an international conflict, and widespread clipping. The state of the silver coinage was in such bad condition, that the decision was taken in 1696 to undertake the huge task of collecting all the silver in the kingdom, melting it down, and coining them again. This time, using new methods to produce evenly shaped coins, in the hope that clipping would cease. In 1816, a further currency reform was enacted. In between these two re-coinages, over 1000 people were brought in front of the Old Bailey court in London for crimes against the coinage – which deemed the 1696 experiment a failure. 

Clipping was the most common offence among the crimes against coinage. It was easy to do, all that was needed was a coin and some sharp shears. Among the trials, we can find examples of women clipping silver in the home while sitting down, and letting the clippings fall onto an apron between the knees. We see examples of children clipping, probably coerced by the parents. If clipping was so widespread, there must have been more reasons to do it other than just gaining the metal for the counterfeiting process. It was practised among the plebeian population – an easy crime to commit, an easy way of making coins worth little, into so much more.

An Introduction to Crime and Coins

Counterfeiting has been a threat to financial stability ever since the creation of coinage and continues to be a menace today. When we think of counterfeiting, we think of cheats – coins that won’t work in the vending machine or could pass undetected from hand to hand, only to be found out by one picky shop keep. Today, fake coins are but a minor inconvenience – false notes are more of a threat, or financial fraud. When we think of those people who go through the effort of counterfeiting our pound sterling – one might not see the point. They are out there, however, slaving over various instruments in order to produce their products. That being said, counterfeiters are still committing a crime, and are still being found out and sentenced in court; take for example this 12 year sentence handed down for a major counterfeiting operation: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2328665/Three-forgers-jailed-total-12-years-biggest-plot-flood-Britain-1-5million-fake-pound-coins.html

Twelve years is a lengthy time to spend in jail, but if these men were operating in the eighteenth century, they would have been hanged, drawn and quartered for committing high treason. If there was a woman in the gang, she would have been burned. By today’s standards, it seems a little extreme. Coins were of much more importance, however, as paper money was not as universal as it is today and of course there were no credit cards. Employers paid their workers in coins, and the workers spent those coins in taverns or the market place, where they would keep circulating.

This blog is the side project of current PhD research titled ‘Criminal Skill: Counterfeiting the Coin in Eighteenth Century Britain and Ireland’. Methods of counterfeiting throughout history, interesting trials and examples of counterfeit coins will be published here.