The Illicit Labour of Coining

Anna Field, King’s College London

 

Oh why did I for riches crave,

So hastily the same to have,

Had I the tripe trade only known,

And left the coyning trade alone

From Mr. Moor the Tripe-man’s Sorrowful Lamentation (London, 1695), EBBA ID 22123

 

John Moor, a tripe-seller from Hounslow, was executed at the height of the prosecution wave against clippers and counterfeiters that swept English cities in the 1690s. A combination of economic crisis, changes to the Treason Trials Act, and an ill-timed recoinage of all silver currency at the end of the seventeenth century meant that hundreds of people were hauled before the Old Bailey court charged with treason in attempting to deface or reproduce coins for profit. Public discourse on coiners painted them as shady (male) characters with professional knowledge and vast networks across counties. This specific brand of offender seemingly endangered the lives and wellbeing of others with their well-oiled plots to deceive the nation.

Yet such public perceptions of coiners were based on a small number of infamous examples. In fact, legal records show that most coiners undertook their criminal activities in small groups aided by family, friends, and neighbours. Coining is an excellent example of how such a serious crime could be integrated into daily life and with it, one’s social, emotional, and economic relationships. Furthermore, the tools and processes involved in coining (files, knives, crucibles, chemicals, metalwork) could be disguised as legitimate work, a far more insidious and realistic danger to ordinary people than groups of gangsters.

Work was intrinsic to everyday life in early modern Britain. As Alex Shepard has argued, while the physical action of work was important in terms of generating resources and income, contemporaries also ascribed it with a sense of morality – this was the concept of labour. In trials for coining and the associated ballad literature, the idea that labour was either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – that it depended on the perceived honesty of occupational identity or by laying claim to characteristics such as industriousness – was a central narrative theme in both mitigating and incriminating testimony.

Gender provided nuance to these languages of labour. Almost half of all those tried at the Old Bailey for coining offences between 1674 and 1750 were women, and testimonies paint a picture of intelligence and leadership: not only did they teach others the ‘art’ of coining, they also worked out novel ways to distribute or ‘pass off’ doctored coins. In terms of exculpatory language, women were more likely to refer to their ‘painstaking’ labours to reflect an honest character, while men loudly proclaimed that their tools were for legitimate trades as jewellers, farriers, or watchmakers.

In pre-trial documents and printed literature, coinage offences were therefore not only conceptualised as dishonest forms of work but also played into common discourses related to the morality of labour. As the ballad shows, a penitent John Moor character laments his own downward spiral from legitimate to treasonous ‘trades’, reflecting both the blurred boundaries and easy transition between normal work and illegal acts for early modern people.

 

Read more in the Cultural & Social History article

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About the author: Dr Anna Field is currently a Lecturer (Education) in Early Modern British History at King’s College London. She received her PhD from Cardiff University in 2018, after undertaking her BA and MA degrees there and winning the Royal Historical Society/History Today prize in 2014. She specialises in the history of crime, emotion, and intimacy in early modern England and Wales. Her AHRC-funded doctoral research considered how the early modern criminal record reveals everyday experiences and social contexts of intimacy. Anna also has a keen interest in community outreach, having co-ordinated a successful engagement programme of workshops for secondary schools in History, Archaeology, and Religious studies during 2017-18.

She is the author of ‘Coining Offences in England and Wales, c. 1675–1750: The Practical and the Personal’, Cultural & Social History, vol. 15, no. 2 (2018), pp. 177-196.

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