“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).


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