The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton


12    Mother Haycock & Coining Families


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.



‘Coining’ consists mainly of making counterfeit coins and ‘clipping’ or filing metal from the edges of silver coins (or, less often, gold coins) for re-use, a practice going back to medieval times. During the seventeenth century, an acute shortage of small change stimulated an explosion in coining. This was generally beneficial to commercial trade, and aroused little hostility in the community. Coining and counterfeiting were not sins recognized by the Bible, and unlike murder, theft, adultery and other acknowledged crimes, they had no ostensible victims. However, the claim by some modern historians that coiners were fully approved of by ordinary people is countered by the fact that coiners operated in utmost secrecy, to avoid being known as coiners to the rest of their community. Their lodgings had secret hiding places and were furnished with chairs with false bottoms, and they frequently moved to new premises because the pubs and shops in their local neighbourhood could accept only a certain number of false coins before their suspicion would be aroused. Very few coiners, unlike some other types of criminals, became popular folk heroes, although the Yorkshire coiner Thomas Lightowller became famous on the Continent in the mid-eighteenth century, and counterfeit coins manufactured by one executed coiner were sold as souvenirs.

            Whether or not tradespeople were actually indifferent to coining, they lacked sufficient incentive to mount prosecutions, which were usually undertaken by the Crown. Clipping, the most common form of coining, had no practical effect on the value of the currency used in most day-to-day transactions: as long as enough of the face of the coin was left so that a shilling could still be recognized as a shilling, it functioned perfectly well as an acceptable token of exchange. Even bankers treated coins as a symbolic unit of exchange and were not over-scrupulous about their inherent value. Joseph Wood, who was sentenced to death for coining in 1757, together with his associate Jemima Wilcox regularly presented counterfeit gold coins to the value of 100 pounds to the bank in exchange for five 20l. bank notes. The Court asked the bank’s cashier James Blackburn how these transactions could have happened so frequently without them being detected sooner:

Question. Are bankers as careful, at looking at their money, as the bank of England are?
Blackburn. We are not quite so, because they will not take them at such a weight; but we could not possibly weigh or object to every piece, but if we see any piece remarkably light we object to it.
Q. What do you call remarkably?
Blackburn. A 36s. piece to want 2s. or 2s. 6d. or a guinea to want more than 18d.
Q. Supposing a guinea should want 18d. would you take it?
Blackburn. We should take it of a customer, but of a stranger we should not.

After exchanging the bad coins for banknotes, Wood and Wilcox would then return to the bank to exchange the banknotes for good coins, coins being easier to use in day-to-day transactions and not so difficult to trace as banknotes (which commonly bore signatures of both the giver and the receiver). They often asked to be given ‘Ports’ (Portuguese moidores) rather than English guineas, because their edges were easier to clip than the edges of guineas, which since 1745 had the words placed close to the rims to make filing difficult. When enough gold clipped from the edges of these good coins accumulated, it could be melted down into gold ingots, which they would sell to brokers. The clipped coin in due course would be returned to the bank in exchange for banknotes, and so on – giving added meaning to the phrase ‘the circulation of money’. It was only after a head officer at the bank noticed the increase of ‘diminished guineas’ taken in by the bank over a period of two or three years, that Wilcox’s transactions were monitored and officers of the Mint assisted in the investigations. Wood worked with a timber merchant in Birmingham, through whom more than 10,000 was transferred via bills of exchange, but the Mint did not pursue their investigations beyond the issue of clipping.

            Despite some authorities’ apparent indifference to coining, my impression from eighteenth-century trial records is that people at the bottom of the trading scale such as itinerant tradespeople did in fact feel cheated by coiners, perhaps because the lowest-quality coins were passed to them. Obvious fakes lost their exchange value: a coin that broke in half when you threw it on the counter to ‘ring’ it, wasn’t much use in maintaining a continuing chain of trade. Shopkeepers who were cheated once too often, took greater care to examine coins carefully, especially guineas or moidores, and would return bad coins and cancel the sale. They might also threaten to report the coiner to a constable, but seldom did so. Ordinary labouring people felt especially aggrieved by coiners who made counterfeit shillings, which was often the largest unit in which wages were paid. A man could work hard all day for one shilling, and if he received a bad one that a shopkeeper or landlord subsequently turned down as being not worth a farthing, it went hard on his wife and children. Convicted coiners were frequently abused by the populace on their way to execution. Not only did the people fail to show any sympathy with coiners, they even approved of female coiners being sentenced to be burnt at the stake. Barbara Spencer, the first woman to be strangled and burnt for coining, in July 1721, while she stood at the stake ‘was very desirous of praying, and complained of the dirt and stones thrown by the mob behind her, which prevented her thinking sedately on futurity. One time she was beat quite down by them.’

            Clipping was so common that some counterfeiters even filed the edges of the coins newly minted by themselves to make them look more realistic. People caught in the act often defended themselves by protesting that they were causing ‘no harm’. Although claims that they didn’t know it was a crime were probably disingenuous, it is likely that few of them realized that coining and counterfeiting were classified as High Treason. Coins bore the image of the King and interfering with this was seen as an attack on His Majesty. Men convicted of coining were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, though in actual practice the Executioner usually refrained from disembowelling and quartering them. The condemned were often transported to Tyburn not in a cart with wheels, but on a sledge dragged along the ground, by as many as five horses, sometimes decorated with ribbons; they sat in the sledge facing backwards, an extra indignity. As ‘traitors’, their bodies could not be reclaimed for burial by their families. For example, the coiner John Dodd was hanged at Pennenden Heath near Maidstone in September 1748 and his body was then buried beneath the gallows, whereas the bodies of a smuggler and a murderer hanged with him on the same day were taken away by friends for decent interment.

            Though women convicted of coining and counterfeiting were sentenced to be burnt at the stake, the Executioner almost always strangled women before burning them. Defoe thought ‘it is but reasonable’ for women coiners to be strangled before being burnt, but he felt that murderers and traitors should be burnt alive (Street-Robberies, Consider’d, 1728). Women played a significant role in coining, and were regularly burnt at the stake throughout the eighteenth century. By the 1780s the practice was for them to be hanged first, and then their bodies would be chained to a stake and burnt. The last woman to be burnt for coining was Catherine Murphy, who in March 1789 was hanged while she was attached to the stake and then the faggots were piled up beneath her body and lit. The penalty of burning was abolished from 1790 and replaced just by hanging. (As the century progressed, all convicted felons including coiners were increasingly reprieved and transported rather than executed.)

            Many coiners, especially counterfeiters, were craftsmen skilled in metalworking: blacksmiths, locksmiths, goldsmiths, clockmakers, buttonmakers, who all had the necessary tools and knowledge of the metal trade. James Sleep, who was prosecuted in 1758 for counterfeiting gold Portuguese moidores, was a jeweller. In addition to his skill, the business also required investment in weights and scales, moulds and crucibles, copper and silver and other metals. Three other men took out shares in Sleep’s counterfeiting business, and the profits were distributed to each of them according to the proportion of money each had contributed towards capital expenses. The famous Yorkshire coiner Thomas Denton, hanged at Newgate on 1 July 1789, was a mechanical genius at making automatons, which he exhibited in London. From these speaking and writing figures, and exquisite mathematical instruments, he went on to acquire the art of plating coach harnesses, and from there it was a short step to counterfeiting. His shillings were so skilfully made that the Court couldn’t determine if they were false, and they finally convicted him for having coining tools in his possession.

            The knowledge required to make base six-pences was fairly easily acquired, and the skill was no greater than that required by a seamstress, who might more lucratively spend her evenings filing coins. Prisoners in gaol often passed their time clipping coins. It was a capitalist enterprise only in so far as capital was required for the moulds and stamps and metal necessary for any large-scale operation, but the manufacture of six-pence pieces or even half-crowns required only a chalk mould, a pewter tankard, and a small crucible. The metal could be melted in the bowl of a clay pipe, then carefully poured from the stem of the pipe into the mould. The most frequent evidence against a coiner was the possession of moulds and clay pipes containing metal residues. You could buy counterfeit coins from the men who cried ‘any old iron’ in the streets, as well as the metal necessary for making them. The counterfeiting of small-value coins was sometimes treated as a misdemeanour rather than a capital felony. At Hicks’s Hall in April 1751 a group of three men and three women were convicted of coining halfpence – which could not have produced much income – and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in Newgate.

            There were some well organized gangs, especially during the late seventeenth century. In 1684 Thomas Higham turned King’s evidence against thirty-five accomplices trading in Derbyshire, Staffordshire, and a kind of factory in ‘a retired house in the country’ in Yorkshire in 1682 gave employment to a network of 140 coiners throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire. Other large organized networks, mainly in the northern counties, have been documented. More typical, however, was the Wiltshire gang described in the London Gazette for 17–24 February 1704 as consisting of a clothier, a blacksmith, a grocer, two yeoman and a ‘cheese jobber’. The English Post for 5–8 December 1701 reported that ‘On Friday morning 7 coiners, one of them a French woman, were seized in Eagle and Child-Court near Shoe-lane; The same night 5 other of the same trade were seized near Tuttle-street, and there was found in their custody a vast number of counterfeit pieces of money. A great many have been seized in St. Martins and St. Giles’s.’ In 1732 a gang was arrested at a safe house for coiners in Cardiff. During the last decade of the seventeenth century a mandatory reward of 40 was offered by the Government to encourage informers, and this, coupled with the burgeoning newspaper trade which widely advertised supplemental bounties and descriptions of the malefactors from the beginning of the eighteenth century, was largely effective in breaking up organized gangs of any appreciable size. But gangs still operated throughout the eighteenth century. On 31 March 1774 Sir John Fielding sent five well-armed constables to apprehend a company of coiners in a house on Fish Street Hill. Eight men resisted, until one was shot in the head. They were discovered because the night before they had sent a little girl out to get some beer, and gave her some forged halfpence to pay for it; when the landlord observed to her that the coins were warm, she innocently replied ‘that her daddy had just made them’.

            A more typical example of an eighteenth-century counterfeiter would be Robert Harpham, who was hanged at Tyburn on 24 May 1725. He had been a carpenter, and had been declared bankrupt. For some eighteen months he had rented a cellar in William Fordham’s house in St Paul’s Churchyard, where he put up a set of coining implements, ‘an iron press, two dies for Guineas, and others for Moidores, and for six-stiver and eight-stiver pieces; a cutting tool for making the blanks, and an edging tool for milling the edges of the money’. He did not lodge there, just used it for his work, in which he was assisted by Fordham, who appeared as evidence against him. His rent was paid as a share of the counterfeit money. His implements were subsequently moved to four different locations, eventually to Mrs Millicent Russel’s cellar in Paradise Row, by Hanover Square, where they were discovered. At first he told her he made buttons, but she saw the resultant coins and she was let into his secret trade – as, allegedly, was a Mr Hornby, Clerk of the Works at the Admiralty, who once dined with them and was then invited down into the cellar to examine the tools. A large network of people supplied Harpham with charcoal and copper and brass and other metals and made various repairs and amendments to his blocks, though they all claimed they did not know what these tools or metals were used for. One of his apparent accomplices, Thomas Broome, was indicted on two similar counts, but acquitted as no one appeared to testify against him. Another accomplice John Cooper, alias Blind Cooper, was convicted of the misdemeanour ‘in uttering several false and counterfeit Guineas, well knowing the same to be false and counterfeit’ and fined 100l. and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. The proprietor of a tavern explained how Blind Cooper passed off the bad money: ‘The prisoner being (or pretending to be) blind, fumbled the Guineas over a pretty while out of one hand into t’other, and then began to ring ’em, and one of them not sounding well, he desired me to change it. I look’d on it, and told him I was sure he never had it of me, for all that I gave him were old Guineas, but this was a new shining one, and dated 1724.’ Cooper and his wife, alias Elizabeth Reeve, of St Dunstan in the West, had been indicted previously for counterfeiting, in October 1721, using the same con trick, aided by a boy who pretended to lead the ‘blind’ man, but they were acquitted for lack of witnesses to appear against them. Harpham was also briefly mentioned during the course of that earlier trial, but Cooper claimed that the gold he got for him was for gilding clock cases. At the 1725 trial a metal founder, acting as an expert witness, estimated by the amount of metal used that Harpham must have minted some 8,000 Guineas during his short career. There were nine members in the gang.

            Coiners often had a longer career than footpads or pickpockets or highwaymen. John Oakes had been coining for fourteen years before he was prosecuted in 1745. His partner of the last six years, William Smith, helped him pass off the money by travelling around the country. They visited Newcastle, Peterborough, Worcester, Bristol and Basingstoke, putting off bad money and receiving good money in change. Oakes was nevertheless a poor man, who worked in the building trade as a painter, and the jury wasn’t convinced of his guilt, so they acquitted him. In 1746 Susannah Jones made a voluntary confession, saying that she and Jane Wilson had been coining for ten or twelve years. They used to go about the streets with a hand-basket to buy small things in the market, using the bad coins they cast together, and receiving good money in change. However, Jane Wilson was acquitted because during the trial it became clear that Susannah Jones was the long-time coiner, who had turned King’s evidence solely to escape being charged, and that she had seduced Jane Wilson into helping her put off bad money for only the past three months. The Court declared that it wished that the prosecution were the other way around: that Susannah Jones should have been prosecuted, and that Jane Wilson should have been admitted in evidence against her. In August 1748 Edward Hull was committed to New Prison for uttering a large quantity of counterfeit halfpence. When his wife was also taken up, she made a discovery against David Wright and his wife Mary and their associate Anne Forster for coining and counterfeiting. The tools of their trade were found in their lodgings in Vinegar Yard, Drury Lane, and it transpired that this group of two families had carried on the practice of coining for the past twenty years. The General Advertiser commented: ‘’Tis surprizing people are not more vigilant in detecting frauds of this sort, as there never was more counterfeit money than at present.’ It might be more accurate to say that people were vigilant, but did not think it worth their while to make a fuss over very small amounts of money. For example, the Morning Chronicle for 20 January 1773 observed that ‘It is a common thing for the orange women in the playhouses to take a shilling or sixpence, under pretence of getting change, and then return with bad money, and insist it is the same; by which means they circulate a large quantity of base coin; which the public submit to, rather than stand a contest with such viragoes.’

            Most of the coiners during the eighteenth century were individuals who merely clipped coins, and who participated in a coining underground only in so far as they dealt regularly with certain brokers (often pawnbrokers). For example, Margaret Larney would sit in her room in Drury Lane filing the edges of one gold guinea at a time, using a flat broad file and a small three-cornered file, the only tools necessary for her trade. She would sell these filings to Abraham Jacob, a broker known more commonly as Abraham the Jew, who paid her 3l. an ounce. A shilling’s worth of filings could be clipped from one guinea, and she would use the diminished guinea to buy goods in shops, taking good silver in change. She would take these goods to pawnshops to sell, and she would also bring her silver coins to the pawnbrokers and get them changed for gold guineas – which she would then file and begin the process anew. She would also borrow money from her relatives and friends in Ireland, ‘telling them she could get them better bread than to go to hard labour’. Her husband worked sometimes as a day-labourer, sometimes as a hatter, as her takings were not sufficient to keep them both in luxury. She was sentenced to death in 1758, but pleaded her belly. Her friend Alice Davis (also sentenced to death), sold caps in the streets and engaged in exactly the same coining racket. She was more of a professional, using a goldsmith’s scale to measure her filings before selling them to Abraham the Jew. She seems to have taught another woman how to do the same. Presumably Abraham the Jew was at the centre of a wide network of similarly-engaged coiners.

            Counterfeiting was mostly a small-time cottage industry, usually a family affair. The entire household worked together, sometimes with neighbouring households. Sometimes coining households were concentrated in a single neighbourhood, where they knew one another and sometimes worked together. The production often centred on a husband and wife team, or parent and child, rather than involving gangs. For example, on 30 January 1788 officers broke into a garret in Golden Lane, Shoreditch, and arrested a mother, a father, and three sons, in the act of counterfeiting shillings and sixpences, and confiscated bottles of aqua-fortis, sand-paper, cork, a polishing-board and other finishing implements. The size of the criminal network for coining did not often extend beyond two families, linked by marriage or kinship. Edward and Deborah Lloyd, man and wife, made counterfeit shillings from copper, pewter, tin and lead, with the help of Joanna Wood, whose brother, son and daughter may also have been involved. Their income was achieved by proffering one false shilling for a pint of ale and receiving ten pence halfpenny in change. They used a single mould and could make twenty-four shillings a day, which they hid in a chair with a false bottom. This had been their sole business for more than twenty-five years. Mrs Wood had been frequently apprehended for ‘putting off’ or ‘uttering’ bad money, and John North, Solicitor to the Mint, finally persuaded her to turn evidence against the Lloyds – who were sentenced to death in 1745. North had known about the Lloyds for several years, but had not been able to prosecute because they were a tightly knit, small group and would not turn King’s evidence against one another – until a dispute between the two women arose when North began sleeping with Joanna, causing a breakdown in solidarity.


A Network of Coining Famlies


Women were as actively engaged in this crime as men – perhaps even more so – and a typical pattern involved a mother and daughter, perhaps with their maidservant to help in the distribution. In December 1733 Elizabeth Wright and her daughter Mary Wright and her son John Knight, were indicted on several accounts of possessing chalk-moulds for impressing six-pence pieces. A search of their premises turned up bad shillings in a box, and a few bad half-crowns, plus metal and a crucible. While the mother cast the coins, her daughter ‘cut off the tails with a pair of scissars, scraped the edges round with a knife, and then filed them’ and rubbed the edges smooth with a flannel. The coins could be coloured to look old by jumbling them about in wheat, meal, or crumbled Cheshire cheese. Their accomplice Ann St Laurence, who had earlier been indicted for uttering bad money, appeared in evidence against them. She had helped to ‘put off’ the bad money by using it to buy such things as gingerbread and nuts from an old woman at Cheapside: ‘We used to buy smallcoal, tape, thread, or any odd trifle to get change.’ John Knight was acquitted, but the two women were convicted. They were burnt at the stake.

            They were assisted in passing the bad money by Elizabeth or Betty Tracey. She said that ‘six-pences went off best at publick-houses in town’, but that half crowns were easier to pass in the country, ‘for the country people were not so sharp as those in London’. She once made 6 profit by buying necklaces and other peddler’s wares and selling them on a trip around Oxford and Banbury, 70 miles outside London, always returning bad money as change.

            This family of coiners was connected to another coining family, John Brown and his wife Margaret, who had been convicted for coining the previous October. Ann St Laurence was Margaret Brown’s sister, and Betty Tracey was also having an affair with John Brown. The person who did the filing for the Browns was Catherine Bougle, Betty Tracey’s sister. John and Margaret Brown were condemned to death, but as Margaret was found to be with child, she was transported rather than burnt at the stake. Catherine Bougle, also condemned, observed ‘It is a pity that any body should be hang’d for their ingenuity.’ Ann St Laurence had been indicted with the Brown family, for whom she worked as a nurse as well as helped putting off bad coins, but she saved her skin by appearing as evidence against the two Tracey sisters and the Wright family. This two-family circle of coiners comprised two other women, probably both servants, one of whom appeared as evidence and one of whom evaded capture.

            Margaret Brown introduced Ann St Laurence to a third coining family, Mary Haycock and her daughter Ann Haycock, who in July 1734 were indicted for high treason for possessing moulds for coining, and for counterfeiting. The evidence in this case was not Ann St Laurence, but their landlady Ann Russel. Mr Haycock was in Newgate, but the mother (who had been acquitted for putting off bad money) and daughter had recently been released after a five-week stay (she continued to bring her husband dinner in prison every night). They took lodgings with Ann Russel, all sharing a single room with a fourth woman, first in Drury Lane, then in Baldwin’s Gardens, up two pairs of stairs, this time with a small closet adjoining. Late at night Mother Haycock would get up and carry a candle to the closet, where she would stay for several hours before creeping back to the bed she shared with the landlady. One night the landlady heard her blowing the fire and got up to investigate. ‘There was an instrument full of whiting, which was a mold, that lay upon the hearth; she put some metal into two tobacco-pipes, and put them into the fire, and when the metal was melted, she took the mold in one hand, and the pipe in another, and teem’d (pour’d) the metal into the mold, and afterwards open’d it, and took out a six-pence, and put it into her pocket apron, and so she did several times.’ The little girl sometimes rubbed the six-pences with whiting, and her apron had little holes burnt into it from the hot newly minted six-pences thrown to her. Mother Haycock claimed that the charges were sworn against her for the sake of the reward. She had been in Newgate for five weeks, where she got gaol distemper; she had six children. The jury acquitted the daughter but sentenced the mother to death. The Tracey–Brown–Haycock ring is one of the largest networks of coining families that has come to light, though even larger non-family-based networks existed.

            Although many coiners were individual entrepreneurs, very large networks could nevertheless spread outwards from a small core. In August 1772 a woman who lived in a court in Holborn was arrested for ‘putting off’ a counterfeit halfpence in Fleet Market. Within a couple of days the man she cohabited with was also taken into custody and committed to the Wood Street Compter. When the constables searched their lodgings they found dies, melting pots, presses and other implements for making halfpence, shillings, and sixpence pieces, and about 70l. worth of bad shillings. Shortly afterwards, a young woman who helped to put off their counterfeit money was arrested, and turned King’s evidence, though two other people in the core group escaped. Further searches turned up nearly fifty letters from a network of people spread across the country (signing only their initials), requesting the counterfeiters to send better quality coins with a higher proportion of gold or silver, because they were having difficulty putting them off. The authorities also found numerous pawnbrokers’ tickets, which suggested that their method was to use bad money to buy goods and then to pawn these goods for good money – an early form of money laundering. Another method of laundering, revealed in the Gentleman’s Magazine in May 1769, was for sharpers to use counterfeit Moidores (Portugal pieces) and 36-shilling pieces to place high bets on the races at Epsom Course – if you lost the bet, you lost only false money, while any winnings were in good money.

            The contemporary portrayal of coiners as cheats, rogues, sharpers and thieves is broadly accurate. The craftsmen such as locksmiths who made coining tools also made instruments for breaking into houses. The pewter tankard that was transformed into new six-pences was usually stolen. Robert Blake, who kept a fencing school at the Temple Muse, Whitefriars, received silver plate stolen by servants to the gentlemen who frequented his school; he melted down the plate and converted it into counterfeit shillings, which a network of four or five people passed off for him before he was sentenced to death in February 1729. However, most people in the trade were neither gentlemen nor the respectable working class, but people who were in and out of Newgate or Bridewell on repeated occasions for the ‘uttering’ or distributing of bad money (rather than its actual manufacture), which was a misdemeanour punished with whipping, branding, fines or short spells in gaol. Ann St Laurence was characterized by those she accused as ‘a wild woman’, thief and whore. Will Maw, hanged for robbery in October 1711, made his living by receiving stolen goods and ‘was addicted to coining’. Thomas Sharp, a ‘tumbler’ or specialist in robbing waggons, who was hanged in September 1704, aged 29, for shooting a watchman, supported himself for a while by coining, and learned how to make ‘black dogs’ or shillings made of pewter, and ‘George Plateroon’ or thinly silver plated copper coins. After several of his coining gang were apprehended and sent to the gallows, he went on to picking pockets (for which he was later sent to New Prison). Jane Housden was convicted of coining but pardoned, but was later apprehended on the same charge. On the day that she was to be tried, just as she was brought to the bar of the Old Bailey, her boyfriend William Johnson called to see her, but the head turnkey said he couldn’t speak to her, whereupon Johnson, with the encouragement of Jane Housden, drew a pistol and shot him. Rather than proceeding with the trial for coining, the judges decided to try them immediately for murder; and since the whole Court had witnessed the act, the jury found no difficulty in convicting them. They were hanged in September 1714 – at least Jane Housden escaped being burnt at the stake as a coiner. Barbara Spencer, who was burnt at the stake at Tyburn on 5 July 1721 for counterfeiting, used to go regularly to watch the executions at Tyburn. She denied coining, insisting that she had been imprisoned in Newgate but twice, and only once in the Compter. She made counterfeit shillings with another woman accomplice who became the evidence against her, even though that accomplice was the one who originally taught her the art while in prison. Her mother, who ran an alehouse in Cripplegate, was executed some time previously for some other crime. As we have seen in earlier chapters, crime seemed to run in the family.


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