A talk by Stephen Minitt

Have you ever been in possession of a counterfeit coin?

The answer is almost certainly “Yes”.

Ever since there have been coins there have been forgers, from the earliest days of coinage to the present. The risks were great but so were the rewards.

Romans striking coinsThere is much early evidence of counterfeit coins in Somerset during the Roman period. The Shapwick hoard, unearthed in 1998, contained 9,238 coins from the period 31BC – 224AD. Of these 25 were forgeries – 0.3%. Many were of excellent quality only recognizable by the peeling off of the silver plating .

Three miles west in the Chilton Polden area a great many moulds used by forgers have been unearthed indicating a thriving trade in counterfeiting.

In 274 came a reform of the coinage, in which the production of higher value coins left a shortage of smaller ones, the basic need for the average person. So the production of smaller coins for exchange became almost an essential for buying and selling, with probably as many copies as real.

With the advent of the Anglo-Saxons, coinage regained its importance and became very tightly controlled. The mint at Langport is thought to be the earliest in Somerset with the name of the moneyer appearing on the reverse of the coin. The coinage was replaced periodically, but forgers were always adapting. Mints appeared all over the UK during the 11th century many of these in Somerset.

Always the forger seemed able to adapt to the current need. As the coins became more sophisticated so did the counterfeiters. With the advent of the milled coins it became more difficult. Using gold, silver and copper, new coins were issued in the reign of George 3rd in an attempt to beat the forgers. Counterfeits actually appeared on the following day.

Distributing forged coins became risky. Forgers passed their coins on to distributers. Many cunning methods of distribution were used.

‘Ringing the changes’ was an 18th C phrase meaning changing bad money for good.

Penalties for convicted forgers were severe, as it was seen to be undermining the state. In Anglo-Saxon times it was a common punishment to have a hand chopped off and nailed above the mint.

Other punishments through the centuries included boiling in oil, and being burnt at the stake.

In 1786 a Phoebe Harris was condemned for counterfeiting shillings: she was condemned to death by hanging from a stake until she was hopefully dead, following which her body was burned. This attracted an estimated crowd of 20,000. Following this the Member of Parliament Sir Benjamin Hammett (after whom Hammett Street is named) fought successfully to change the law after which forgers were just hung!

So, back to the question of whether you have any counterfeit coins in your possession. It is estimated that 3% of all £1 coins in circulation are forgeries. Have you ever wondered why the car park machines like some coins and not others?

And it was with this question that Steve ended a truly fascinating talk.

Report by Ann Pugh