The mischief arising from the counterfeiting the current coin of the realm reaches to every door. A poor man, cheated by a single base shilling often finds a loss, great as a forgery upon paper, to the wealthy merchant.
Coining, or uttering base money, is high-treason in the second degree. To rob all the people is to be a traitor to the state. Yet death is a severe punishment. A lawyer was of opinion that such a criminal should be condemned, as a useful hand, to work in the royal mint with irons to his legs.
The extensive circulation of counterfeit money, particularly of late years, is too obvious not to have attracted the notice of all ranks. It has become an enormous evil in the melancholy catalogue of crimes which the laws of the country are called upon to assist the police in suppressing. Its extent almost exceeds credibility; and the dexterity and ingenuity of these counterfeits have, after considerable practice, enabled them to finish the different kinds of base money, in so masterly a manner, that it has become extremely difficult for a common observer to distinguish their spurious manufacture from the worn-out silver of the mint. So systematic, indeed, has this nefarious traffic become of late, that the great dealers, who, in most instances, are the employers of the coiners, execute orders for the town and country, with the same regularity as manufacturers in fair branches of trade.
Scarcely a waggon or coach departs from the metropolis, which does not carry boxes and parcels of base coin to the camps, sea-ports, and manufacturing towns. In London, regular markets, in various public and private houses, are held by the principal dealers; where hawkers, pedlars, fraudulent bone-dealers, unlicensed lottery-office keepers, gamblers at fairs, itinerant Jews, Irish labourers, servants of toll-gatherers, and hackney-coach owners, fraudulent publicans, market-women, rabbit-sellers, fish-criers, barrow-women, and many who would not be suspected, are regularly supplied with counterfeit copper and silver, with the advantage of near 100L. per cent in their favour; and thus it happens, that through these various channels, the country is deluged with immense quantities of base money, which get into circulation; while an evident diminution of the mint coinage is apparent to every common observer.
Nor has the mischief been confined to the counterfeiting the coin of the realm. The avarice and ingenuity of man is constantly finding out new sources of fraud; insomuch that in London, and in Birmingham, and its neighbourhood, louis d'or, half Johannas, French half-crowns and shillings, as well as several coins of Flanders and Germany, and dollars of excellent workmanship, in exact imitation of the Spanish dollars issued from the Bank, in 1797, have been from time to time counterfeited; apparently without suspicion, that under the Act of the 14th Elizabeth (cap. 3) the offenders were guilty of misprision of high-treason.
These ingenious miscreants have also extended their iniquitous manufacture to the coins of India: and a coinage of the star pagoda of Arcot was established in London for years, by one person. These counterfeits, being made wholly of blanched copper, tempered in such a manner, as to exhibit, when stamped, the cracks in the edges, which are always to be found on the real pagoda, cost the maker only three-halfpence each, after being double gilt. When finished, they were generally sold to Jews at five shillings a dozen, who disposed of them afterwards at two shillings, three shillings and even five shillings each: and through this medium, they have been introduced by a variety of channels into India, where they were mixed with the real pagodas of the country, and passed at their full denominated value of eight shillings sterling.
The sequins of Turkey, another gold coin, worth about five or six shillings, have in like manner been counterfeited in London. Thus the national character is wounded, and the disgrace of the British name proclaimed in Asia, and even in the most distant nations of India. Nor can it be sufficiently lamented, that persons who consider themselves as ranking in superior stations of life, with some pretensions to honour and integrity, have suffered their avarice so far to get the better of their honesty, as to be concerned in this iniquitous traffic.
It has been recently discovered that there are at least a hundred and twenty persons in the metropolis and the country, employed principally in coining and selling base money! and this independent of the numerous horde of utterers, who chiefly support themselves by passing it at its full value.
It will scarcely be credited, that of criminals of this latter class, who have either been detected, prosecuted, or convicted, within the last seven years, there stand upon the register of the solicitor of the mint, more than six hundred and fifty names! And yet the mischief is not diminished. When the reader is informed, that two persons can finish from 200L. to 300L.(nominal value) in base silver, in six days; and that three people within the same period, will stamp the like amount in copper, and takes into the calculation the number of known coiners, the aggregate amount in the course of a year will be found to be immense.
On the circulation of Spanish dollars in 1804, a Jew was apprehended for uttering base ones, and also suspected of being the coiner thereof but there being no provision in the Act against counterfeiting this coin, though it had been called in before (1797), on that account the offender escaped with impunity.
So dexterous and skilful have coiners now become, that by mixing a certain proportion of pure gold with a compound of base metal, they can fabricate guineas that shall be full weight, and of such perfect workmanship, as to elude a discovery, except by persons of skill; while the intrinsic value does not exceed thirteen or fourteen shillings, and in some instances is not more than eight or nine, Of this coinage, considerable quantities were circulated some years since, bearing the impression of George II. and another coinage of counterfeit guineas of the year 1793, bearing the impression of his present Majesty, has been for some years in circulation, finished in a masterly manner, for nearly full weight, although the intrinsic value is not above eight shillings; half guineas are also in circulation, of the same coinage; and lately a good imitation of the seven shilling pieces. But as the fabrication of such coin requires a greater degree of skill and ingenuity than generally prevails, and also a greater capital than most coiners are able to command; it is to be hoped it has gone to no great extent, for amidst all the abuses which have prevailed of late years, it is unquestionably true, that the guineas and half guineas which have been counterfeited in a style to elude detection, have borne no proportion in point of extent, to the coinage of base silver. Of this latter there are five different kinds at present counterfeited, and which we shall proceed to enumerate.
The first of these are denominated flats, from the circumstance of this species of money being cut out of flatted plates, composed of a mixture of silver and blanched copper. The proportion of silver runs from one fourth to one third, and in some instances even to one-half: the metals are mixed by a chemical preparation, and afterwards rolled by flatting-mills into the thickness of shillings, half-crowns, or crowns, according to the desire of the parties who bring the copper and silver, which last is generally stolen plate. It is not known, that there are at present above one or two rolling-mills in London, although there are several in the country, where all the dealers and coiners of this species of base money resort, for the purpose of having these plates prepared; from which, when finished, blanks, or round pieces, are cut out, of the sizes of the money meant to he counterfeited.
The artisans who stamp or coin these blanks into base money, are seldom interested themselves. They generally work as mechanics for the large dealers, who employ a capital in the trade, and who furnish the plates, and pay about eight per cent for the coinage, being at the rate of one penny for each shilling, and two-pence halfpenny for each half-crown.
This operation consists first in turning the blanks in a lathe; then stamping them by means of a press, with dies with the exact impression of the coin intended to be imitated; they are afterwards rubbed with sandpaper and cork; then put in aqua fortis, to bring the silver to the surface; then rubbed with common salt; then with cream of tartar; then warmed in a shovel, or similar machine, before the fire; and last of all rubbed with blacking, to give the money the appearance of having been in circulation.
All these operations are so quickly performed, that two persons (a man and his wife for instance) can completely finish to the nominal amount of fifty pounds in shillings and half crowns in two days, by which they will earn each two guineas a day.
A shilling of this species, which exhibits nearly the appearance of what has been usually called a Birmingham shilling, is intrinsically worth from two pence to four pence; and crowns and half-crowns are in the same proportion. The quantity made of this sort of counterfeit coinage is very considerable; it requires less ingenuity than any of the other methods of coinage, though at the same time it is the most expensive, and of course the least profitable to the dealer; who for the most part disposes of it to the utterers, vulgarly called smashers, at from twenty-eight to forty shillings for a guinea, according to the quality; while these smashers generally manage to utter it again to the full import value.
The second species of counterfeit silver money passes among the dealers by the denomination of plated goods; from the circumstances of the shillings and half-crowns being made of copper of a reduced size, and afterwards plated with silver, so extended as to form a rim round the edge. This coin is afterwards stamped with dies, so as to resemble the real coin; and from the circumstance of the surface being pure silver, is not easily discovered, except by ringing the money on the table; but as this species of base money requires a knowledge of plating, as well as a great deal of ingenuity, it is of course confined to few hands. It is, however, extremely profitable to those who carried it on, as it can generally be uttered without detection, at its full import value.
The third species of base silver money is called plain goods and is totally confined to shillings. These are made of copper blanks turned in a lathe, of the exact size of a Birmingham shilling, afterwards silvered over by a particular operation used in colouring metal buttons; they are then rubbed over with cream of tartar and blacking, after which, they are fit for circulation. These shillings do not cost the makers above five halfpenny each; they are sold very low to the smashers or utterers, who pass them where they can, at the full nominal value; and then when the silver wears off, which is very soon the case, they are sold to the Jews, as bad shillings, who generally re-sell them at a small profit to customers, by whom they are re-coloured, and thus soon brought again into circulation. The profit is immense, owing to the trifling value of the materials; but the circulation, on account of the danger of discovery, it is to be hoped, is not yet very extensive. It is, however, to be remarked, that it is a species of coinage not of a long standing.
The fourth class of counterfeit silver money is known by the name of castings, or cast goods. This species of work requires great skill and ingenuity, and is therefore confined to few hands; for none but excellent artists can attempt it, with any prospect of great success.
The process is to melt blanched copper, and to cast it in moulds, having the impression, and being of the size of a crown, a half-crown, a shilling, or a sixpence, as the case may be; after being removed from the moulds, the money thus formed is cleaned off, and afterwards neatly silvered over by an operation similar to that which takes place in the manufacture of buttons.
The counterfeit money made in imitation of shillings by this process, is generally cast so as to have a crooked appearance; and the deception is so admirable, that although intrinsically not worth one halfpenny, by exhibiting the appearance of a thick crooked shilling, they enter into circulation without suspicion, and are seldom refused while the surface exhibits no part of the copper; and even after this the itinerant Jews will purchase them at three-pence each, though six times their intrinsic value, well knowing that they can again he recoloured at the expense of half a farthing, so as to pass without difficulty for their nominal value of twelve pence. A vast number of the sixpences now in circulation are of this species of coinage.
The profit in every view, whether to the original maker, or to the subsequent purchasers, after having lost their colour, is immense.
In fabricating cast money, the workmen are always more secure than where presses and dies are used; because upon the least alarm, and before any officer of justice can have admission, the counterfeits are thrown into the crucible; the moulds are destroyed; and nothing is to be found that can convict, or even criminate, the offender; on this account the present makers of cast money have reigned long, and were they careful and frugal, they might have become extremely rich; but prudence rarely falls to the lot of men who live by acts of criminality.
The fifth and last species of base coin made in imitation of the silver money of the realm is called figs, or fig things. It is a very inferior sort of counterfeit money, of which composition, however, a great part of the sixpences now in circulation are made. The proportion of silver is not, generally speaking, of the value of one farthing in half a crown; although there are certainly some exceptions, as counterfeit sixpences have been lately discovered, some with a mixture, and some wholly silver; but even these did not yield the maker less than from fifty to eighty per cent while the profit on the former is no less than from five hundred to one thousand per cent and sometimes more.
It is impossible to estimate the amount of this base money which has entered into the circulation of the country during the last twenty years; but it must be very great, since one of the principal coiners of stamped money, who some time since left off business, and made some important discoveries, acknowledged to the author, that he had coined to the extent of two hundred thousand pounds sterling in counterfeit half-crowns, and other base silver money, in a period of seven years. This is the less surprising, as two persons can stamp and finish to the amount of from 200L. to 300L. a week.
Of the copper money made in imitation of the current coin of the realm, there are many different sorts sold at various prices, according to the size and weight; but in general they may be divided into two sorts, namely, the stamped and the plain halfpence, of both which kind immense quantities have been made in London: and also in Birmingham, Wedgbury, Bilston, and Wolverhampton, &c.
The plain halfpence are generally made at Birmingham; and from their thickness afford a wonderful deception. They are sold, however, by the coiners, to the large dealers, at about a farthing each, or 100 per cent. profit to the tale or aggregate number. These dealers are not the utterers, but sell them again by retail in pieces, or five shilling papers, at the rate of from 28s. to 31s. for a guinea; not only to the smashers, but also to persons in different trades, as well in the metropolis as in the country towns, who pass them in the course of their business at the full import value.
Farthings are also made in considerable quantities, chiefly in London, but so very thin, that the profit upon this specie of coinage is much greater than on the halfpence, though these counterfeits are not now, as formerly made of base metal. The copper of which they are made is generally pure. The advantage lies in the weight alone, where the coiners, sellers, and utterers, do not obtain less than 200 per cent. A well-known coiner has been said to finish from sixty to eighty pounds sterling a week. Of halfpence, two or three persons can stamp and finish to the nominal amount of at least two hundred pounds in six days.
A species of counterfeit halfpence made wholly of lead has been circulated in considerable quantities, coloured in such a manner, as even to deceive the best judges. They are generally of the reign of George II and have the exact appearance of old mint halfpence.
The same kind of counterfeit penny-pieces are also in circulation; and as six or twelve penny pieces are often taken in a lump, the leaden ones, on account of their exact size and similitude, are seldom or never noticed. The colouring, however, is very apt to wear off at the edges.
But those are not the only criminal devices to which the coiners and dealers, as well as the utterers of base money, have had recourse, for answering their iniquitous purposes.
Previous to the Act of the 37th George III cap. 126, counterfeit French crowns, half-crowns, and shillings, of excellent workmanship, were introduced with a view to elude the punishment of the then deficient laws relative to foreign coin.
Fraudulent die sinkers are to be found both in the metropolis and in Birmingham, who are excellent artists; able and willing to copy the exact similitude of any coin, from the British guinea to the sequin of Turkey, or to the star pagoda of Arcot. The delinquents have therefore every opportunity and assistance they can wish for; while their accurate knowledge of the deficiency of the laws (particularly relative to British coin), and where the point of danger lies, joined to the extreme difficulty of detection, operates as a great encouragement to this species of treason, felony, and fraud; and affords the most forcible reason why these pests of society still continued to afflict the honest part of the community.
When it is considered that there are seldom less than between forty and fifty coinages or private mints, almost constantly employed in London and in different country towns, in stamping and fabricating base silver and copper money, the evil may justly be said to have arrived at an enormous height. It is indeed true, that these people have been a good deal interrupted and embarrassed, from time to time, by detections and convictions; but while the laws are so inapplicable to the new tricks and devices they have resorted to, these convictions are only a drop in the bucket: while such encouragements are held out, the execution of one rogue only makes room for another to take up his customers; and indeed as the offence of selling is only a misdemeanour, it is no unusual thing for the wife and family of a culprit, or convicted seller of base money, to carry on the business, and to support him luxuriously in Newgate, until the expiration of the year and a day's imprisonment, which is generally the punishment inflicted for this species of offence.
It has not been an unusual thing for several of these dealers to hold a kind of market, every morning, where from forty to fifty of the German Jew boys are regularly supplied with counterfeit halfpence, which they dispose of in the course of the day in different streets and lanes of the metropolis, for bad shillings, at about threepence each. Care is always taken that the person who cries bad shillings shall have a companion near him, who carries the halfpence, and takes charge of the purchased shillings (which are not cut) so as to elude the detection of the officers of the police, in the event of being searched.
The bad shillings thus purchased, are received in payment by the employers of the boys, for the bad halfpence supplied by them, at the rate of four shillings a dozen; and are generally resold to smashers, at a profit of two shillings a dozen; who speedily re-colour them, and introduce them again into circulation, at their full nominal value.
These boys will generally clear from five to seven shillings a day by this fraudulent business, which they almost uniformly spend, during the evening, in riot and debauchery; returning penniless in the morning to their old trade.
These dealers are also assisted by fruit women, who are always ready to give change to ladies (particularly when no gentleman is in company,) when perhaps not one shilling in the change is good; and should the purchaser of the fruit object to any, abusive words ensue. -- An instance of this happened not long ago in Cranbourn Alley. Rabbit and fowl hawkers are likewise very dexterous in passing bad money: they call in at shops, and propose bargains of fowls, apparently fine looking, but generally old; when they receive payment, they have a mode of changing the silver, and telling the purchaser that he has given a bad shilling, or half-a-crown, producing accordingly a most notorious base one: by their peremptory, and afterwards abusive manner, they force the master or mistress of the house (for who would have a mob about their door?) to give them good money for their counterfeit. A person of this description has imposed lately upon some very respectable people in Chelsea, but was fortunately stopped in his career.
Thus it is that the frauds upon the public multiply beyond all possible conception, while the tradesman, who, unwarily at least if not improperly, sells his counterfeit shillings to Jew boys at threepence each, little suspects, that it is for the purpose of being returned upon him again at the rate of twelve-pence; or three hundred per cent profit to the purchasers and utterers.
An opinion prevails, founded on information obtained through the medium of the most intelligent of these coiners and dealers, that of the counterfeit money now in circulation, not above one third part is of the species of flats or composition money, which has been mentioned as the most intrinsically valuable of counterfeit silver; and contains from one-fourth to one-third silver: the remainder being blanched copper. The other two-thirds of the counterfeit money being cast or washed, and intrinsically worth little or nothing, the imposition is obvious. Taking the whole upon an average, the amount of the injury may be fairly calculated at within 10 per cent of a total loss upon the mass of the base silver now in circulation; which, if a conclusion may be drawn from what passes under the review of any person who has occasion to receive silver in exchange, must considerably exceed one million sterling! To this we have the miserable prospect of an accession every year, until sonic effectual steps shall be taken to remedy the evil.
Of the copper coinage, the quantity of counterfeits at one time in circulation might be truly said to equal three-fourth parts of the whole, and nothing is more certain than that a very great proportion of the actual counterfeits passed as mint halfpence, from their size and appearance, although they yielded the coiners a vast profit.
Even at present the state both of the silver and copper coinage of this kingdom (the copper pence only excepted) deserves very particular attention, for at no time can any person minutely examine either the one coin or the other, which may come into his possession, without finding a considerable portion counterfeit.