In the late 17th and early 18th centuries there was a national money crisis. Coins were in very short supply and were often defective (clipped or counterfeit) as an outcome of the monopoly of the Mint and its incompetence. Silver was frequently exported as the price for it in gold was better on the continent. Following a period in which as much as 10% of coins was counterfeit, there had been a successfully implemented Royal Mint recoinage operation in 1696, masterminded by Isaac Newton. This, however, failed to address (by devaluation) the problem of the draining abroad of the silver coinage. By 1717 this disappearance meant that in effect a gold, rather than silver, standard became the basis of British currency. Cash shortage meant that clipping or counterfeiting continued to be sanctioned by a large part of the populace as necessary evils, as they kept business going. Copper coinage was easily counterfeited from sheet metal and until 1771 was merely a misdemeanour in law. But greater knowledge, skill and suitable equipment such as crucibles, moulds and dies were needed to produce silver and gold counterfeits by mixing base metals, or chemically washing or plating lower denomination coins or base metal imitations. Counterfeiting gold or silver coinage was a capital offence - treason, by reason of the theft of the Monarch’s likeness. Despite this, by the 1760s, the recession in the woollen industry in parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire after the Seven Years War meant that coins were being produced, but in simpler ways - from clippings of existing coins (often guineas or half-guineas) or being overstamped to turn them into the more valuable gold Portuguese moidores then circulating in England. This was known as the ‘yellow trade’.
The story of the Halifax coiners is well known. In the late 1760s a gang of counterfeiters, otherwise eking out a bare living on remote farms or working in mills or quarries, clipped or filed gold coins, accumulated the clippings and melted them down to produce new coins. Clipping meant that the original but diminished coins remained in circulation at face value, with the addition of the new ones. The population locally connived at, and participated in, what was going on, regarding the business as a legitimate one from which all benefited. Skilled craftsmen produced the metal dies and local publicans passed the counterfeits into circulation. However, the difficulty experienced by large manufacturers in trading elsewhere in the country with diminished coinage led to the coiners’ activities being investigated by an excise officer who was eventually murdered. Rewards were offered to informers and eventually a list of 80 counterfeiters was compiled. Arrests of many took place and the ringleader was hanged at Tyburn in York in 1770, and others later suffered the same fate.
But in the early 1770s Ribblesdale also had a group of coiners who clearly had not learned the lesson from Calderdale. Their coins, however, were not made as the result of clipping; they were made of base metal. Back in 1756 a Lancashire man named Thomas Lightowller, a highly-skilled metal-worker, was clever enough to be acquitted of high treason against the evidence at Lancaster Assizes, he having managed a well-organised and widespread coining operation involving a number of associates. They used mixed or base metals to produce the gold and silver counterfeits. Unlike coin clipping, the manufacture of base metal coins primarily benefited, by deception, those directly involved, and the practice was therefore frequently not so acceptable to the wider local population. In fact, a correspondent to the Leeds Intelligencer in 1769 wrote: ‘As for the little, rascally pettyfoggers, who vend for gold what is only base metal, washed or plated, they deserve hanging, and no tradesman of honour will have any concern with them; and if they are not stopped, they will actually bring an evil report upon the country, and ruin the honest dealer.’
The Ribblesdale protagonists were two men in the metal-working trade, William Buck of Settle, whitesmith and his cousin and assistant Michael Buck of Dent, a blacksmith, together with Anthony Eglin of Horton, husbandman and James Hill of Litton, a cooper. Early in July 1773 P.W. Overend, a Justice of the Peace for the West Riding, had been busy in Settle examining these four, following information received, as a result of which they were committed on 7th July 1773 for trial at York Assizes. JPs in those days could issue warrants as part of the process of initiating prosecution. Overend had also been gathering information from witnesses on oath - they were Richard Lambert of Lawkland, yeoman, Thomas Jackson of Austwick, husbandman, William Oldfield of Settle, innkeeper and Robert Taylor of Giggleswick, blacksmith and innkeeper. A complex story emerged that illustrates not only the men’s amazing grasp of mental arithmetic, but the difficulties lawyers and judiciary must have had in disentangling the web of evidence within such depositions. For the benefit of younger readers a guinea is 21 shillings, or £1.05p in today’s currency. A clear head will be required by younger and older readers alike to make sense of what follows!
Just after Christmas 1771 Anthony Eglin, William Buck and James Hill met at Robert Taylor’s inn in Giggleswick. Buck produced a counterfeit guinea made from base metal and said that he could let Eglin and Hill have some at 15s each, to which they agreed. Eglin took the coin and gave Buck a genuine ½ guinea towards the 15s. Eglin subsequently received a total of 15 counterfeit guineas in addition to 9 paid for a cow, of true value £6 10s which William Buck bought from him. For the cow Eglin gave Buck 5s change after calculating the counterfeits at the agreed 15s each. (£6 10s = 130s; 9 counterfeit guineas @ 15s = 135s). Buck asked Eglin to ‘pass’ counterfeits for him. Eglin ‘passed’ the 9 counterfeits paid for the cow and about 6 of the remaining 15.
Just before Kendal Fair (8th November) 1772 Eglin saw William Buck deliver 3 counterfeits to James Hill at Joseph Bell the Elder’s inn in Settle. Eglin had later heard Hill say he had paid out one or two of the counterfeits, but one paid in Hawes for meal had been returned. A man called William Metcalf of Inman Lodge, Horton, (possibly a relative of Eglin’s as the Horton Parish Register records Eglin’s marriage to Rachel Metcalf in 1767) suspected what was going on and Eglin told him he could have counterfeits at 15s each. Eglin was at Joseph Bell the Younger’s inn in Settle when Metcalf sold a cow to William Buck for 3 counterfeit guineas, afterwards receiving 4 or 5 more at the sign of the Buck in Settle.
According to Eglin, just after Christmas 1772 Michael Buck, accompanied by William Buck, went to Eglin’s house at Horton and agreed to buy a gelding from him of value 6 genuine guineas proposing to pay with 9 counterfeits, the first 3 of which he could collect at Settle in two weeks’ time. They all duly met at William Oldfield’s inn and 5 counterfeit guineas were paid over - 3 for the gelding, and 2 to ‘pass’ for which Eglin would get 15s each when he had done so. The remaining 6 counterfeit guineas due for the gelding were later paid to Eglin in Horton when Michael Buck collected the animal. Michael Buck’s version of events differed in that the final payment was one guinea, i.e. he was saying the total was 6 genuine guineas as agreed. Eglin said he never ‘passed’ the extra 2 counterfeits or got paid for doing so.
Just before Easter 1773 Eglin heard in Settle that William Metcalf had been taken into custody on suspicion of diminishing guineas, and it was therefore dangerous to ‘pass’ any more. He had 3 in his pocket and he returned them to William Buck. When he got home he ‘bruised’ the remaining 6 counterfeits that he had, and ‘threw them in the Water’ - possibly the river. He sold another cow to William Buck for 6 guineas - good money, Buck’s version being that he had paid with 5½ guineas plus a 3s scythe in payment ‘except for a trifle retained as a gift again’.
But why did Anthony Eglin agree to pass counterfeit coins? The answer lay in the sworn statements given by Thomas Jackson and Richard Lambert. Eglin was in debt. He had given a promissory note to Jackson as long ago as June 1767 for £20. In October or November 1772 Jackson sold a mare for £9 to Eglin, the money to be paid the following February. Being pressed for payment, Eglin went to Jackson’s house and offered him 5 new-looking guineas, but Jackson refused them, ‘finding they did not ring or sound well, and being all alike and also of a pale colour’. Eglin said they were good but nevertheless took them back. Shortly before Easter, Jackson went to Eglin’s house at 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning, and found Eglin and his wife sitting in front of the fire. Eglin was stooping down in front of the fire with one guinea held in a pair of tongs over a burning coal, and another in his other hand. When Jackson asked him what he was doing, he seemed frightened and said he was trying to raise the colour of the guinea as it was too pale to pass. He said they had come from Buck and Jackson told him to return them, Eglin’s wife pleading with her husband ‘never to be concerned in the like offence again’. The guineas looked to Jackson like the ones he had been offered before, but Eglin said they were all he had and understood Jackson would not take them. Jackson saw in Eglin’s house various incriminating ‘yellow trade’ items - a piece of wood with a nick in it, scissors, and an iron file or rasp. Asked about these Eglin said they belonged to William Metcalf. When Jackson insisted on his money, threatening to say what he had seen, Eglin’s wife started to cry and promised the money as soon as they had sold two beasts at Settle Fair. Jackson met Eglin there but he did not pay. The money was then promised for Bentham Fair on the Saturday following but Jackson did not see him there. Going two days later to Eglin’s house to demand his money, Jackson was told Eglin had paid 5 or 6 guineas to Richard Lambert so could only give him 2 guineas, which he took, as they looked good. He also took home with him a cow worth £7 10s. So he reckoned Eglin still owed him upwards of £17.
Richard Lambert agreed that around February 1773 Eglin had paid him back 5 guineas against a sum of money lent to him previously. However Lambert then lent one of these to John Camm, and afterwards suspecting the other four to be counterfeit, went to Mr Birkbeck of Settle to check them: Birkbeck agreed they were not good. So Lambert asked for the guinea back from Camm, but it was too late - Camm said it was ‘paid away’ and could not be got back. Lambert told Eglin they were no good and Eglin asked for them back, but Lambert told him (untruthfully) that Mr Birkbeck still had them, because Lambert wanted his money from Eglin before he gave him back the counterfeits.
Lambert gave his sworn information to Overend on 2nd July, produced the coins as evidence, swore them to be the ones received from Eglin and so the whole matter came to light. Eglin was committed on the oath of Lambert, but the Bucks and Hill were committed on Eglin’s oath - he was obviously trying to off-load blame on them.
The York Summer Assizes opened on Saturday, 24th July 1773 before Mr Justice Gould and Mr Justice Blackstone, and the Bucks, Eglin and Hill, after submitting petitions to be brought to trial or be set at liberty pursuant to the Habeas Corpus Act 1679, were charged with uttering counterfeit guineas. The continuing debasement of the coinage, despite the recent severe Assize sentences, can be illustrated by the fact that there were two other men also on trial for diminishing gold coin, and a third for having in his custody a large quantity of clippings. In addition, the Leeds Mercury reported the same week that four men from the Halifax area were on their way to York charged with diminishing the coin.
Tampering with gold and silver coinage was high treason and a capital offence, but juries which were composed of ordinary farmers or tradespeople who were suffering the inadequate coinage often found counterfeiters not guilty, against all the evidence to the contrary. Reliable evidence was also often hard to obtain. Some cases only proceeded if Crown law officers were sure of a guilty verdict - and even so, many of these cases failed. So it is not such a surprise as might be thought, that Eglin was found not guilty of knowingly uttering four counterfeit guineas at the parish of Giggleswick, 26th January last (which would be those that Lambert had produced). All four of the Ribblesdale coiners were discharged. In any event, the authorities were just at this time bowing to the inevitable, and following a bill pushed rapidly through Parliament in June and July 1773, another recoinage commenced on 23rd August 1773. Progressively over the next four years all worn or debased coins were withdrawn (the holders receiving bullion value only), melted down and recoined, until only those deficient in value by less than 2d remained. Gold coins were thereafter generally weighed before use. Thomas Pennant, writing in 1801 about his visit to Settle in 1773, noted that ‘numbers of coiners and filers lived about the place, at this time entirely out of work, by reason of the recent salutary law respecting the weight of gold’. It would indeed have to be a very clever coiner to make a base metal guinea to pass the weighing test.
AcknowledgementsCoin pictures courtesy mcsearch.info (St James Auctions Ltd.)
George III golden guinea 1771 courtesy mcsearch.info (St. James Auctions Ltd)