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Sam Plank update 34: May 2021

Coining and clipping: counterfeiting before the banknote

Without giving too much away, one of the major concerns in the plot of “Plank 7” is counterfeiting.  Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, counterfeiting of the currency was basically “coining” (making fake coins) or “clipping” (snipping bits off coins).  By the time we meet Sam Plank, counterfeiting has taken a new turn into the production of false banknotes and other paper instruments.  Criminals are always quick to see the potential of any new development – look at all the crypto-fraudsters today.  But coining and clipping continued to be popular crimes - not least because they could be done at home by women.

Interestingly, when you look at the Old Bailey proceedings online (in which I can, and often do, lose many happy hours), you might be tempted to look for counterfeiting in the section on deception, or damage to property, or even theft.  But it is in fact categorised with the “offences against the king/queen”, alongside tax offences and treason.  This is because counterfeiting was considered to be a crime committed not against a specific individual, but against society at large – personified by the monarch.  There are actually five counterfeiting offences: coining; possessing moulds for the manufacture of coins; manufacturing counterfeit paper money, banknotes or bills of exchange; filing, milling, colouring or “diminishing” – i.e. clipping – coins’ and possessing counterfeit money or putting it in into circulation (known as “uttering”).  There is one further refinement, if you will pardon the pun: counterfeiting gold or silver coins was considered a form of treason.
Coins were originally hand-hammered – which took ages and much skill – but since 1662 all English coins have been milled (produced by machine).  It’s a bit tricky to find a definitive list, but as far as I can tell, the coins in circulation in London in the 1820s would have been (in ascending order of value): third farthing; half farthing; farthing; halfpenny; penny; twopence; threepence; groat; sixpence; shilling; half crown; crown; half sovereign; sovereign (what we would now call a pound); two pounds; and five pounds.  As manufacturing processes were quite new, it was not usual to receive a coin which was not perfectly round and was generally a bit rough-looking – so cutting or filing a small amount off the coin would probably go unnoticed.  The cut-off pieces would then be melted into a bar and sold, or used to make counterfeit coins.  Widely practised among the poor, clipping was an easy crime to commit, and a means of making coins worth very little go a little further.  Coin clipping is why many coins have the rim of the coin marked with stripes, text or some other pattern that would be destroyed if the coin were clipped – legend has it that this was the smart idea of Isaac Newton, who was appointed Master of the Mint in 1699.
Perhaps the most famous of the clippers were the Hartley family of West Yorkshire.  They filed the edges of gold coins and return the clipped coins to circulation, using the gold collected from several coins to cast blanks and stamp new coins using skilfully made dies.  These new coins, usually Portuguese Moidores or Spanish Pistoles, were then put into circulation and as a result the Hartleys made a healthy profit.  The two men in charge of the family gang were “King” David Hartley and Isaac Hartley, known as the “Duke of Edinburgh”.  “King” David was hanged at York Tyburn in 1770.
An example of clipped coins
A hoard of 500 silver clippings was unearthed in the Forest of Dean by metal detectorist Gavin Warren in November 2015 – the earliest clippings date from the 1560s and the latest from 1645 and they became known as the "Toenail Hoard"
The new Mint, on Tower Hill, was opened in 1812 - this is the one that Sam would have known (image design by G Stockdale, etching by T L Busby)
A gold sovereign struck in 1829 - the year in which "Plank 7" is set
The gravestone of "King" David Hartley, the master clipper
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