Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Counterfeiters and Clippers

Sir Issac Newton

During the reigns of James I (1603-1625) and Charles I (1625-1649) coins were hammer struck rather than milled. Prior to 1662, these silver coins had been ‘clipped’ around the edges, reducing their weight so they were no longer a viable tender, especially abroad.

These machine struck silver coins produced by the Royal Mint in the Tower of London were thought to be protected from clipping by an engraved, decorated and milled edge. However forged dye stamps were made to get round this and by 1696 forged coins constituted 10% of the nation’s currency.

Another threat to the currency was that its value as silver bullion in Paris and Amsterdam was greater than the face value in London, thus vast quantities of coins were melted and shipped abroad. On the creation of the Bank of England, this situation triggered William Lowndes of the treasury to ask Isaac Newton for help.

One of the most famous coin forgers and clippers of the late 17th century was William Chaloner. Also a confidence trickster, swindler, charlatan and sham plotter, his career in scamming and counterfeiting took him from poverty in Warwickshire to great wealth, and a house in Knightsbridge. Apprenticed by his parents to a nail maker in Birmingham, a town notorious for coining, he became skilled in the production of ‘Birmingham Groats’. At this time groats (worth 4 pennies) were in short supply, so the forged version constituted a significant proportion of the national coinage.

His "trick" for recovering stolen property was "to steal it in the first place". As a result, he made his first appearance in the public record in 1690, as a suspect in a burglary case. But the "tongue-pudding" and the knack for playing two sides against each other were established as hallmarks of his criminal enterprises.

Challoner was part of one of the many coining gangs that existed. He was taught the subtle techniques of moulding 'milled edges' and counterfeiting coins by Patrick Coffey, a goldsmith. Thomas Taylor, a master engraver and printer made the dyes. In 1691 Chaloner produced French Pistoles worth about 17 shillings each, using an alloy of silver. Then he produced English guineas that were gilded by Patrick Coffey and Chaloner's own brother-in-law Joseph Gravener. The chain was completed by Thomas Holloway and his wife who passed the coins to petty crooks for circulation.

Chaloner’s next scheme was to forge the mint's "machine-struck" coins, outside the (legal) boundary of London, and where the noise of machines would not be suspicious. To this end he recruited Thomas Holloway, bought a house in Egham, Surrey and set-up coining and hot moulding machines, and began production.

He employed John Peers, a metal and moulding specialist, but on the 18th May 1697 Peers appeared before magistrates on an unrelated charge, and denounced Chaloner's Egham operation as part of his plea. Newton heard about this by accident three months later so arrested Peers for questioning and the recruited him as an agent.

In December 1694 Chaloner made an attempt to become an overseer at the Royal Mint , by issuing pamphlets describing "solutions"' to currency problems such as restrict/licence access to coining tools; coinage should be struck with an impression deeper than coiners' tools or presses would allow; use a deep groove along the edge; extend the treason law; and adjust the silver value.

This attracted the interest of Charles Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough, Earl of Monmouth ex-Lord of the Treasury, and ex-king's confidant, who had fallen out of favour with William III. Mordant wanted an opportunity attack Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1695 Mordant arranged for Chaloner (still an active counterfeiter!) to address the Privy Council about corrupt practices. This caused the Royal Mint to instigate its own investigations, which thus thwarted Chaloner's ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ ambitions as they discovered evidence that incriminated him.

Thrown into Newgate in January 1696, Chaloner petitioned Charles Montagu, Chancellor of the Exchequer, with details of a conspiracy at the Royal Mint. Released from Newgate, he went on to testify to the Lord Justices in Whitehall about the crimes of the "moneyers" within the Mint. He claimed that they coined false guineas, struck debased blanks sent in from outside, and sent out stamps for coining (he boasted privately to have benefited from both), and regularly produced underweight coin. He named other coiners, Thomas Carter, John Abbot, and Patrick Coffee, including his own alias, "Chandler".

In 1693 he was tempted by Government rewards to act as an "agent provocateur", providing information about Jacobite activities, plots and printing presses.

By January 1699 Sir Isaac Newton was devoted to a complete investigation of Chaloner, using a network of spies and informants, and took many statements from his old contacts. The trial was held at the Old Bailey on 3 March, the Judge was Sir Salathiel Lovell, who had a reputation as a "hanging judge". Chaloner faced two indictments for treason—coining French pistoles in 1692, and coining crowns and half-crowns in 1698.

Whilst awaiting trial, Chaloner pretended to go mad, but in court he resorted to insulting all parties and claiming they were committing perjury to save their own necks. The jury needed only a few minutes to reach a guilty verdict.

Challoner was executed at Tyburn on 16th March 1699.

L to R Charles II Half Guinea, Charles II Crown and James II Crown