Wednesday, April 13, 2011

the mayhew files: forgers

 Recently my boyfriend gave me a copy of a book I've been eager to read since he read it nearly five years ago- Mayhew's London.  The book is an abridged version of London Labour and the London Poor, a compilation of newspaper articles for the Morning Chronicle written by Henry Mayhew about the various types of lower class peoples who populated the city of London in the mid-19th century.

Mayhew is notable as a co-founder and editor of the satirical Punch magazine.  For London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew took to the streets and interviewed everyone he could- beggars, prostitutes, thieves, labourers, and many others to reveal the lives of the "dregs" of society.  It's considered to be an excellent first-hand social history of the lower classes during the Victorian era.

The book first caught Scott's interest five years ago, when I was first beginning to edit my Victorian historical fiction novel.  One of my major problems with the editing process was my lack of knowledge about the Victorian criminal underworld.  He read up on the various criminal classes described in detail in Mayhew's book and then would send me emails with the Cliff Notes version of each type of criminal profession and what they did.

Since Mayhew's London is next on my queue, I think it is only appropriate to post Scott's notes on the criminal classes of Victorian London.  For the next several weeks Scott will be "guest blogging," so to speak, on Henry Mayhew and his London.

This week we'll open up with Mayhew's take on forgers.


Forgery is the act of making an official document false in some way.  There are a number of types of forgery.  Sometimes it involves creating a new document from scratch.  Other times it entails altering existing details on the document.  Sometimes it involves paper documents and at other times metal ones.  We’ll talk about the metal ones first.

Coining has probably been going on since electrolysis was first invented.  It provided a fairly reasonable return on one’s investment, at least in the day when money was not only backed up with valuable metals but was made from it. The criminal made his wares this way:

He would first scour the coin that was to be copied clean.  This was essential so that the coin would create an accurate mold from which to make the copies. 

He would then make a plaster of Paris mold of the coin by pouring the plaster into a container of some sort, putting the coin in and then pouring more plaster over the top.  The mold was cut in half and the coin (or, more likely, coins) were removed.

A mixture of metals were then poured into the plaster, but it had to be dry.  If it was not dry the water would be heated up to gas and cause the mold to explode.  Once the metal hardened and cooled the mold was pulled apart.  The coins were then deburred, which is the process of removing mold lines and pieces of the mold channel from the coin.

The coin was then electro-plated with silver to make it look like the entire coin was made from that material.  Finally the criminal rubbed a mixture of lampblack and oil on the coin so that it looks like it has been in circulation.

Coiners came from all kinds of different types of working poor.  Generally the work was done by two or more people.  It was possible to do it alone but not so easy.  Ofttimes they would also have a crow (Victorian slang for "lookout") on the lookout for police.

When police did know of the whereabouts of a coiner they generally rushed the place as quickly as possible to prevent the coiners from destroying the evidence.  They would knock open the door with a sledgehammer.  Once discovered the coiners would break the mold and throw the coins into the molten metal pot.  Sometimes the coiners would throw the molten metal and the acids used in electro-plating at the police to slow them down while they either destroyed more evidence or made their escape.

The coiners rarely used their own coin, preferring to sell them to intermediaries who then sold them along to others.  This method prevented the person using the coin as currency from actually knowing the coiner.  The coiner generally received only 1d (abbreviation for "penny") for each shilling he sold.

Apparently one detective in the 50s and 60s was pretty Johnny-on-the-spot when it came to detecting coiners and had all manner of adventures apprehending them.  Most of these escapades involve the coiners going to desperate lengths to evade capture.  Sometimes the coiners beat the poor detective with iron bars, other times they jumped out of windows onto police below. One of the coiners even got a sentence of 30 years transportation for being such a pain in the tush.

Forgeries of paper documents falls into five general categories: 
  • bank notes
  • cheques
  • acceptances
  • wills 
  • other documents.
Bank notes were usually forged by highly skilled individuals, making it difficult for for the layman to detect the forgery without close inspection.  Although most bank officials detected the counterfeit right away, sometimes the notes passed from regional banks to the hub of the City before being discovered as fakes.

Usually the notes forged were Bank of England notes as some of the provincial bank notes were harder to forge, having different colours on the paper and other such difficulties.  Usually the notes forged were for £5 or £10.

To use these forged notes the criminal, usually not the same person who made them, would go to a outlying village or town and pass them off in the morning to a tradesman or to people at fairs or hotels at night.  This usually gave the felon the longest time possible to get away before those people went to the bank and discovered the forgery.

Forged cheques were usually made from existing cheques.  The forgery is often just forging the signature or changing something in the payment category, such as making an eight into and eighty by the addition of a y and the 8 in the number section to match with the addition of a 0.

Cheques were usually forged by clerks at banks.  It was rare for common criminals to forge cheques as they had little access to cheques to begin with.  Sometimes a robber would steal a cheque book and may make use of it, but the chances of being discovered were not usually worth the risk. 

An acceptance was similar to a cheque except that a person would be drawing the money from a third person as the guarantor.  For example, if you wanted to borrow money from me, using your parents as the guarantor, you would give me a slip with a signature from your parents that would allow me to lend you the money and they would pay me back if you did not.

The advantages for the common criminal in this are enormous--not necessarily in straight up theft but in access to money that they can use to make more money.  For example, if you know that you can make £20 with an investment of £10 but you don’t have £10, you can get an acceptance forge it in my name, get the £10, make the £20 and then pay back the £10 before anyone knows it is missing.  If you pay the £10 back in time I would never even be informed of the debt.

Business men would take advantage of this system, as would bank clerks with gambling problems.

If a common criminal got a hold of a book of acceptances he usually did not worry too much about meeting the payback deadline and then it was free money for as long as it would last.

Wills were forged for obvious reasons.  Mayhew recommended that if someone you knew dies and you did not get anything from their will,, you should pay the shilling to have the will inspected in court.  Sometimes I think Mayhew is a little paranoid, but I guess you know what Nietzsche said (Note: I have no idea what Nietzsche said. Does anyone else?)

Bills of sale as well as other documents were also forged.  When someone wanted to steal something and had a receipt they might alter the document so that it listed fewer goods than what were received.  Then they would abscond with the goods hidden about their person.

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