In 1812, the year that Sarah Slater began her life sentence, there were fifty cases before the Old Bailey for coining offences, ranging from making coins, down to selling them for less than their face value.1 Other years had higher numbers. The Yorkshire Coiners (1760s) were a gang that involved over 200 people directly and indirectly in counterfeiting.2
The Georgian era (1740-1830) seems to be known for its counterfeiting. But why this particular time? Why in such large quantities?
Part of the problem was the availability and value of silver and gold. Silver particularly was in short supply, which pushed up the price of bullion. This made the minting of silver coins unprofitable for the Mint as every coin struck represented a loss to the Crown. The weight of the coin meant it was worth more than its face value. Coin sizes could be reduced but this could only be taken so far. Gold coins were having similar problems. So the Mint stopped issuing currency. There was also the problem of coins being taken out of circulation and melted down to make objects or ingots.3
The melting down of existing coins and the non-issuing of new coins created a massive shortage. Foreign coins were over-stamped with the head of George III, but these didn't gain wide-acceptance. There was some subcontracting out of coin making, but not enough to solve the problem. As the government did nothing to meet demand, others stepped in to fill the gap.
|Spanish eight reale (Piece of Eight) over-stamped with head of George III, Image from Historic Royal Palaces Tower of London|
Coining (the specific counterfeiting of coins as opposed to notes) took a number of forms. Many old coins were still in circulation, becoming increasingly smooth as they passed from hand to hand. The simplest form was to create a smooth disc of the correct colour and size, and with appropriate aging, to mimic an old, worn coin. Coins of lower value could be altered to look like coins of higher value. For instance, gold plate a shilling to pass it as a guinea.4 With a bit more work, involving filing, re-engraving and colouring, farthings could be made to look like sixpences. Some also took brass gambling tokens and over-stamped them to look like guineas and half-guineas.
Another coining offence that was common in practice, but not as often prosecuted was clipping.5 The edges of coins were clipped or shaved and then sanded smooth, and filed to mimic a milled edge. So long as the head of the monarch was untouched and the coin still a good weight, the clipped coin could be still be accepted. The shavings were collected until there was sufficient to melt into coin blanks, or into an ingot (usually 1oz) which could be sold to a bank. The practice of clipping was detailed in the trial of Margaret Larney at the Old Bailey in 1758.6 Clipping was so widespread that counterfeiters clipped their own fakes in order to more easily pass them off as real.
|James I half-groat clipped, image from Mat25 Photobucket|
Coins were also made from cheaper metals. Sheets of base metal could be used to cut blanks, which were then struck with dies (using a machine press) and coloured. These varied in quality, although some were so good that they are considered to have been “inside jobs”, that is, made with official dies and the knowledge of mint officials or subcontractors. The sheets could be made of a number of metals. Farthings could be cut from brass instead of the more expensive bronze. Copper mixed with silver was popular as it felt right, was fairly hardy and could easily be treated to look like pure silver. Other metals were also used, and then “washed” with silver (silver-plating).
In the trial of Sarah Armstrong, Sarah Butler and Henry Isaacs at the Old Bailey in December, 1812, Mr. Caleb Bowell, assistant attorney at the Mint, outlined the means by which copper coins were coloured:
Aqua fortis is a particular ingredient, destroying the copper, and leaving the particles of silver which is mixed in the body of the metal, and bringing the particles of silver which are in the copper to the surface, and giving it that white colour; and after the colour of silver is given to the piece, it being too bright for circulation, the blacking ball, being a particular composition, is used to rub over it, to take off that brightness, which makes it appear as if it had been in circulation, and a flannel like this is often found in cases of this sort, to wipe off this blacking when it is used. The several things that have been described and produced are used in colouring metal, and they are sufficient to produce the colouring.7
During the 1820s, blank cutting and striking was replaced with casting in white metal.
The level of counterfeiting was finally addressed in 1816, when a re-coining was ordered. Coins were issued with a lower silver content and lighter weight, ensuring that their content did not exceed their face value. This enabled the Mint to produce more coins, thereby reducing the counterfeit market.
1Search of Old Bailey Online, “Royal offences>coining offences; January 1812 to December 1812”, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org, accessed 18 June, 2016
3Inglis Lucy, " 'Brass Money, Broken or Whole': The Counterfeiting Trade of Georgian London, Part I", Georgian London blog, 26 January, 2010, http://lucyinglis.com/georgian-london/brass-money-broken-or-whole-the-counterfeiting-trade-of-georgian-london-part-1/
4Oddie Gary, “500 Years of Counterfeit Coins”, Counterfeit, 18 no4 (200?) 8, http://www.counterfeitcoinclub.co.uk/500-years-of-counterfeit-coins/ accessed 17 June, 2016
5Rock Robert S., "Criminal Skill: The Counterfeiter's Craft in the Long Eighteenth Century", Coins, Crime and History: A Numismatic and Social History of Counterfeiting blog, 30 March, 2014, https://crimeandcoins.wordpress.com/2014/03/30/criminal-skill-the-counterfeiters-craft-in-the-long-eighteenth-century/
6Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2), January 1758, trial of Margaret, wife of Terence Larney (t17580113-32), accessed 18 June, 2016
7Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2), December 1812, trial of SARAH ARMSTRONG SARAH BUTLER HENRY ISAACS (t18121202-52)., accessed 18 June, 2016