1797 twopence – Genuine Example
Matthew Boulton's Soho Mint was able to rapidly produce high-quality copper coinage that would stand the test of time and ultimately meet the needs of the general. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to refute the accomplishments of the Soho Mint. Still, some may wonder if his coinage was immune to the counterfeiting that had plagued England for centuries. To address this, we must first revisit the pence and twopence pieces of 1797. Despite the lack of edge lettering, the new pence and twopence pieces did have some features that would deter counterfeiting. For one, the coins were well made and noticeably more massive than any other circulating regal piece. Their expansiveness allowed for the possibility of wide raised rims that contained the incuse legend. The large raised rims would help protect the primary devices from excessive wear, and the incuse legend assured it would survive long after the raised rims wore down. All of this is to say that for counterfeits to pass, they would have to be of much higher quality, which would likely translate into less profit for the counterfeiters. Although not the intent of Boulton, there was another factor that protected at least the twopence pieces. As it turns out, the general public was not very fond of them (Selgin, 2011). They were enormous and heavy which made them too bulky to carry around in any quantity. Because of this, they tended to build up in storekeeper's drawers, but the storekeepers had no real way of exchanging them for paper money or silver. All of these factors made them unpopular and therefore were less susceptible to counterfeiting. However, I cannot say the same for modern counterfeiters, as these pieces seem to be a favorite target. Pictured below is a modern counterfeit of the type that is rather convincing upon initial inspection and conforms to the standard weight, diameter, thickness, and overall design as an original. Still, there are subtle differences in design that distinguish it as a counterfeit when comparing it to a genuine example from my collection (i.e., the one pictured with the black background). I have listed each coin's basic specifications and included the same information for genuine examples in parentheses. See if you can spot the markers that distinguish this "1797 twopence" as a fake!
1797 "twopence" – Modern Counterfeit
Weight: 55.80 grams (56.69 grams)
Diameter: 41 mm (40.64 mm)
Thickness: 5 mm (5 mm)
Edge: Plain (Plain)
The Pennies were also rather large and heavy (i.e., 36 mm and weighed an ounce), but they were better received than their larger counterparts and circulated in excess of the next 65 years (Dyer, 1996). This made for an ideal target for counterfeiters. The large raised rims, incuse legend, and high quality did not prove sufficient to curb counterfeiting (Ruding, 1799; Ruding, 1819; Doty, 1998; Selgin, 2003). Individuals could collect genuine examples, melt them down, and make lightweight pieces. The excess copper from this process would yield substantial profit. Although this never became a widespread problem, it contradicted Boulton's claim that his coins were far too high quality to be counterfeited, and he had a vested interest in curbing the issue. Most notably, he wished to secure future contracts to strike regal English copper, and this counterfeit issue could prove a considerable hindrance. Boulton was so concerned that he announced a 100 guinea payment for actionable information about the counterfeiters (Doty, 1998). As detailed by numerous sources, this led to a man named William Phillips to come forward with information about three counterfeiting outfits located in none other than Birmingham (Dickerson, 1936; Peck, 1964; Selgin, 2011). Boulton acted on this information, which eventually led to numerous arrests.
Although some of the earlier pieces were low-quality casts that were easily identified, the counterfeits became quite sophisticated as time went on. As noted by Clay and Tungate (2009) and further substantiated by Selgin (2011), the shallow designs proved to be much easier to reproduce than Boulton thought. Soon counterfeiters were engraving dies and striking pieces that were close replications of the actual coins despite the use of hand-operated presses. For those of you interested, Dickerson (1936) gives a full unabridged replication of the letter Boulton sent to the Lords of the Committee on Coin, which details the simultaneous raid on three separate counterfeiting facilities. However, so far, the focus of the counterfeits discussed were products created from fake dies. Peck (1964) notes that some counterfeits were produced using genuine dies that were stolen from the Soho Mint. He makes this argument based on the die diagnostics of the pieces he observed. I have complete confidence in his conclusions; however, I have had no luck finding additional information on this topic. He even mentions that the origin of these struck counterfeits using genuine dies remains a mystery.
1797 “pence” - Contemporary Counterfeit Pence NGC VF-20
Weight: 18.91 grams (28.34 grams)
Diameter: 34.4 mm (35.8 mm)
Thickness: 2 mm (3-3.5 mm)
Edge: Plain (Plain)
An odd discrepancy to this point comes from Doty (1998), who points out that the working dies for the pence and twopence pieces were destroyed under the supervision of a Royal Mint official on July 26th, 1799. Of course, this does not preclude the possibility the dies were stolen before being destroyed, or that perhaps by "destroyed", he means that the dies were defaced. This would certainly explain the large gash across the reverse of the contemporary counterfeit pictured above, which was struck using genuine Soho dies (i.e., P-1110). Peck (1964) mentions that the pieces were struck on a light planchet that was roughly 1 mm thinner than usual (i.e., 2 mm instead of 3 mm) and weighed substantially less (i.e., about 19 grams compared to a full ounce). The weight alone is enough to give these coins away; however, the next biggest clue can be found within the legends which run into the rims. The struck pieces using the genuine Soho dies (i.e., Peck-1110) are rather good, and I imagine these readily passed as currency at the time. To take this one step further, I would not be surprised if these fooled some collectors who assumed they were well-circulated genuine examples.
The information provided above is well documented by multiple modern publications and numerous contemporary sources. However, the information presented from this point forward is something that I am still working to disentangle. That said, if you have any relevant information, please let me know!
Since the production of the 1797 and 1799 coinage, the price of copper had risen dramatically. It appears the rising cost of copper had created a sense of concern among The House of Commons that the now heavy copper coinage of 1797 and 1799 would be largely exploited. They go so far as to state their concern for the melting of copper coin put in circulation in 1797 and 1799 in the indenture dated March 26th, 1805, which provided Boulton the green light to produce the 1806 coinage. I can imagine their fears were confirmed with reports of large quantities of pence and twopence pieces being collected with the intent to melt them down. One such report was detailed in The Times on April 13th, 1805, in which eight casks of these coins weighing over 2000 pounds were seized by police (Peck, 1964). It stands to reason that the House of Commons was concerned that England's state of copper coinage would once again slip into disarray if left unchecked. The natural solution was to dissuade rampant melting and subsequent reintroduction of lightweight counterfeits with a fresh supply of regal copper coinage of the proper weight. It appears, however, that this might have also had unintended consequences. The steep rise in copper prices necessitated the reduction in weight of the proceeding English copper struck at the Soho Mint in 1806 and 1807, which now provided a different source of profit for counterfeiters. They could now produce their renditions of the new regal coinage using the heavy twopence and pence pieces as a supply of raw material. To make matters even better, they could closely adhere to the standard weight of the new pieces, and the general public would likely be none the wiser, all the while generating a handsome profit for themselves. Production of the new regal coinage did not officially start until March 20th, 1806, with farthings taking precedence over pence and halfpence. Accordingly, Doty (1998) reports that by March 31st, 4,833,768 farthings were delivered and 19,355,480 pence closely followed that in May, and 87,893,526 halfpence by the end of June. Production of farthings, halfpence, and pence continued into 1807, yielding an additional 1,075,200 farthings, 41,394,384 halfpence, and 11,290,168 pence. The mass production seemingly overwhelmed distribution efforts. In fact, it appears that the distribution of the third English contract was not complete until 1809 (Doty, 1998). Once production had stopped, a total of 165,842,526 new copper coins had been released into circulation, leading to a glut in copper coinage. The new security features of the 1806/1807 coinage likely made it increasingly difficult to produce convincing counterfeits. Passing their counterfeit wares was also likely made much more difficult once a healthy supply of the genuine article was available for comparison. Nonetheless, several of these counterfeits have survived for modern collectors.
Any documentation regarding other contemporary counterfeits of Soho English copper beyond those of the 1797 coinage is nearly non-existent. I have several books on counterfeit English copper coinage, only one of which mentions a Soho piece. In his 2015 publication entitled "Counterfeit Georgian Copper Coins", Richard Coleman only lists one contemporary counterfeit of an 1806 halfpence (CH-1806B-1; page 82). He notes that this piece appears to be die struck and in good form. He also provides scant commentary of design details that distinguish it as a counterfeit. I have in my collection a contemporary counterfeit 1806 halfpence (pictured below) that appears to differ from the one pictured in his book, suggesting that more than one variety exists. It stands to reason that others also exist, but the lack of auction appearances paired with next to little documentation makes it nearly impossible to form any solid conclusions. If only the counterfeiters kept such meticulous records as Matthew Boulton.
1806 “halfpence” - Contemporary Counterfeit (with edge included in the picture)
Weight: 8.7 grams (9.45 grams)
Diameter: 27.18 mm (29 mm)
Thickness: 2 mm (2-2.5 mm)
Edge: Partially engrailed but very shallow (deeply engrailed)
Likewise, it appears that contemporary counterfeit 1807 halfpence also exist. I have one such piece in my collection that seems undocumented in any reference that I have found to date. A more crudely executed and moderately circulated example came up for auction earlier this year, suggesting that others likely also exist. Although somewhat unrelated, it is worth noting that the counterfeit sold for more than a graded MS-64 genuine example would likely have fetched at the time. The piece pictured below has a plain edge, numerous design, and basic specification discrepancies, distinguishing it as a circulated contemporary counterfeit.
1807 “halfpence” - Contemporary Counterfeit
Weight: 6.42grams (9.45 grams)
Diameter: 27.93 mm (29 mm)
Thickness: 1.43 mm (2-2.5mm)
Edge: Plain (deeply engrailed)
I recently acquired a counterfeit 1806 penny, the first of which that I have come across. It is interesting to note that no mention of contemporary counterfeit pence pieces is made in any reference beyond the counterfeit 1797 pieces. In this instance, the coin closely adheres to the standard specifications, but the plain edge and numerous design discrepancies help identify this piece as a circulated contemporary counterfeit. Also, like the 1806 halfpence, this piece has a color more consistent with what one would expect from a piece struck in brass.
1806 "penny" – Contemporary Counterfeit
Weight: 18.60 grams (18.89 grams)
Diameter: 34 mm (34 mm)
Thickness: 4 mm (3 mm)
Edge: Plain (deeply engrailed)
Despite Boulton's claims, his coinage was not immune to counterfeiting, but this does little to detract from his undeniable legacy. Before his involvement, the counterfeiting issue was so prevalent that a Royal Mint report from 1787 estimates that 92% of circulating copper was counterfeit (Peck, 1964). Although I do not have an estimated number to report, I would hazard to guess that this number was substantially lower and remained so after Boulton flooded the country with high-quality copper coinage. In my humble opinion, the Soho Mint products are some of the most exciting pieces that portray a story of rapid advancements in the art and science of minting. This era of profound development played a critical role in curbing mass counterfeiting and established a legacy that can still be felt some two centuries later in our modern coinage.
Although not nearly as eye-appealing as the genuine articles, contemporary counterfeits are an integral part of the story that provides a different lens to view the historical context that gave rise to their existence. In this instance, they provide a unique glimpse into the effectiveness of Matthew Boulton's Soho Mint against a crime that plagued England for well over five centuries. Without their existence, one might falsely conclude that Boulton's coinage was immune to the very issue it set out to correct.
Please feel free to share any contemporary counterfeits in your collection, even if they are from a different country, era, or metal!