I have found over the years that coin collectors often collect other things. Some pursue items unrelated to their numismatic interests, while others pursue tangentially related items. In my case, my side collections fall more in line with the latter rather than the former. Often this takes shape in the form of numismatic references published in the mid to late 18th century, with the occasional spattering dating back to the 17th century. These books often make for nice shelf decoration with their weathered leather spines in addition to being full of contemporary knowledge and interesting engravings. Lately, this area of collecting has expanded to include other ephemera such as contemporary newspapers, which brings me to the current journal topic.
Before I became entirely enamored with the Soho Mint, I spent a good deal of time building a collection of earlier English copper that I used to tell the story of the small change shortage that plagued England for centuries. This custom set entitled "Social elitism: As told by the history of English copper 1694-1807" won the most creative custom set award in 2019. I only mention this because that set tells the larger scope of the story that I plan to introduce here. Before showing off my new find, let me first set the context.
England had witnessed a shortage of small change since the 1300s. Across several centuries "attempts" were made to fix the issue, but it was never fully resolved. In part, this was due to the reliance on silver, which necessitated increasingly smaller coins for the lower denominations as the price of raw material continued to rise. Although the idea to use copper in place of silver for the lower denomination coins had been considered as early as Elizabeth I's reign, it wouldn't be until 1672 under Charles II that we would see the first regal copper coin for England. Eventually, counterfeiters realized that a healthy profit could be made by melting down regal coppers and producing their own lightweight "coinage" from the raw material. This became an expansive issue in England that was only made worse with the introduction of tin coinage. Counterfeiting would continue almost unchecked throughout the reigns of William and Mary, William III, and George I. Lackluster distribution of regal copper by George II’s predecessors left the outskirts of England with an almost non-existent supply of copper, while large cities such as London were under siege by lightweight counterfeits made from the melted regal coppers that never circulated out the city.
In short, the state of small change in England was a mess, and the initial response was to produce new regal copper to drive out the counterfeits. Production was authorized on July 21st, 1729, and signed into law by Queen Caroline in the King's absence. In theory, this approach might have worked, but as before, the output of regal copper was insufficient to meet the public's needs. Instead of fixing the problem, the new regal coinage made it worse. As in prior years, the process was simple. Counterfeiters would melt down regal coppers and use the raw material to cast lightweight forgeries. The difference in the weight would yield a handsome profit to the counterfeiter. Eventually, the scheme escalated, and regal copper was melted down, the metal diluted to a less pure state, and the forgeries were created from the less pure metal. This allowed a twofold profit for the counterfeiter because the less pure copper mixture allowed them to produce more underweight forgeries. This newfound profit instigated an explosion in counterfeiting activity.
In response to the growing issue, George II issued "An Act for the more effectual preventing the counterfeiting of the current Coin of This Kingdom, and the uttering or paying of false or counterfeit Coin" on September 29th, 1742. The majority of the act concerns silver and gold coinage, but my primary interest is the new provisions related to the copper coinage. I have done my best to include scans of the original document when convenient. At times the area of interest is split between pages and it would be troublesome to properly format the pictures in a pleasing way for the reader. The excerpt below is a great example of this type of occurrence, and as such, I have resorted to simply quoting the text here.
Here is one of the more interesting parts, as it relates to copper and silver coinage:
"shall file, or any ways alter, wash, or color any of the brass monies called Halfpennies or Farthings, or add to or alter the impression, or any part of the impression of either side of an Halfpenny or Farthing, with intent to make an Halfpenny resemble or look like, or pass for a lawful Shilling, or with the Intent to make a Farthing resemble or look like, or pass for a lawful Sixpence"
From this excerpt, it appears that a clear threat against the silver coinage existed in that copper coinage was altered to pass as either a Shilling or a Sixpence. This presents a new facet of the counterfeiting operation as it pertains to the copper coinage that I was unaware of and further highlights the prevalence of the issue. This point is further highlighted in the section discussing the uttering of false or counterfeit money.
"And whereas the uttering of false money, knowing it to be false, is a Crime frequently committed all over the Kingdom, and the offenders therein are not deterred by reason that is only a misdemeanor, and the punishment often but small, although there be great reason to believe, the common utters of such false money are either themselves the coiners, or in confederacy with the coiners thereof"
It is very interesting to note the writers openly suggest that those who commonly utter counterfeit money are also likely at best in cahoots with the counterfeiters. This further suggests that the crime had developed into a multifaceted operation, a notable maturation from prior counterfeiting operations. The document discusses the appropriate punishments for both offenses (i.e., counterfeiting/altering, or uttering counterfeit money). Given the focus is on silver and not copper coinage, I have not detailed it here.
Before moving on, it is also noteworthy that the first provided excerpt of the document refers to the halfpennies and farthings as "brass" instead of copper. This error is later corrected in the document. It is not until the 6th paragraph that copper coinage provisions are revisited, and it is short-lived. Here is the whole excerpt:
"And whereas the coining or counterfeiting any of the copper money of this kingdom is only a misdemeanor, and the punishment often very small; be it hereby further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that if any person whatsoever, shall, after the said twenty ninth day of September, make, coin, or counterfeit any brass or copper money, commonly called a Halfpeny, or a Farthing, such person offending therein, and his, her, and their aiders, abettors, and procurers being thereof convicted, shall suffer two years imprisonment, and find sureties for his or her good behavior for two years more, to be computed from the end of the said first two years."
From this, it is clear that the counterfeiting of copper coinage remains a misdemeanor, but unlike before, the punishments are much more severe. The new law provisioned a two-year prison sentence to those found guilty of counterfeiting copper coinage and further escalated the punishment by requiring the convicted to secure sureties for their crime-free behavior for two years after release. This last part is notable because the convicted were required to find someone willing to financially vouch for their good behavior. If the convicted were to violate the surety terms, the backer would lose whatever surety was required. In other words, it would be very quick to burn bridges with allies if found guilty, released, and subsequently convicted again. Of course, this provision is minimal in comparison to the next.
The remaining portion of the document details a marked increase in the reward provided to those who apprehend offenders of any of the offenses mentioned above. For offenses related to silver or gold coinage, the reward was £40 per conviction, whereas they were only entitled to £10 for convictions related to copper coinage. To my knowledge, this is the most aggressive approach to counter the falsification of copper coinage taken by any monarch at the time. To make matters more interesting, the act further provisioned pardons under certain circumstances.
"And be it hereby further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, that whoever being out of prison, shall, after the said twenty ninth day of September, commit any of the offenses aforesaid and shall afterwards discover two or more persons, who shall, after the time aforesaid, have committed any of the said offenses, so as such two or more persons shall be thereof convicted, such discoverer shall have, and is hereby intitled to His Majesty's most gracious pardon for such his or her offenses."
In other words, if a previously convicted individual were to provide information that directly resulted in the conviction of at least two others, their charges would be dropped, and a royal pardon would be issued. This pardon would allow the convicted turned informant to avoid the surety provision and wipe their slate clean, which would be vital to avoiding harsher punishments for subsequent convictions. As you can imagine, the language used opened many legal loopholes that were fully taken advantage of.
Although the new law made the punishments more severe, it seems as though the impact was not as significant as intended. Peck (1964) notes that the law was not written concerning pieces that had noticeable differences to the regal issues. For instance, if the forgery had numerous spelling errors or slight alterations of the bust and did not have a nearly exact similarity to the regal issue, the prosecution was made much harder and often resulted in a minimal punishment. This is why so many non-regal pieces have slightly different legends and design details compared to the regal issues. This idea took off, and by 1751, counterfeiters were advancing to the use of hand presses to produce their forgeries. This allowed them to produce more pieces at a faster rate yielding even more profit. This quickly became a more sophisticated operation with one location melting the regal issues, one location diluting the copper, another producing the blanks, and yet another striking the forgeries. A final agent would be involved in distributing the counterfeits to the market. This fragmented process made apprehending the criminals very difficult. This is also when we see an expansion in invasion type coinage, specifically to the colonies, as the same counterfeiting laws did not protect them.
This new document is tangible proof of the widespread issue and only adds to my enjoyment of the history surrounding England's copper coinage. Although it predates my main focus, the Soho Mint, it helps set the historical context that resulted in its success. Without the crown's dramatic failure to issue sufficient copper coinage, the failure of parliament to protect it against counterfeiting, and the court's failure to fully prosecute the guilty parties, the history of the Soho Mint might have been very different.
So what are some of the other things that you collect? Are they related to your numismatic pursuits? What got you interested in your “side collection”?