Was Boulton’s Soho Mint immune to counterfeiting?

Discussion in 'World Coins' started by Coinsandmedals, Apr 7, 2020.

  1. Coinsandmedals

    Coinsandmedals Well-Known Member

    For those of you unfamiliar with Matthew Boulton and the Soho Mint, I will attempt to provide a very brief introduction here; however, more information can be found within my custom registry set (Link here). Put simply, Matthew Boulton and his Soho mint are credited with being the first facility to successfully apply the power of steam to the art and science of minting coins (Doty, 1998; Peck, 1964; Selgin, 2011). Before this, most mints, including the Tower Mint, utilized hand-operated presses to produce coinage. This was a time consuming, expensive, and at times dangerous operation. Taking into account the time, energy, and potential risk involved with striking coins using this method, the Royal Mint concluded that it was not economical to produce the much needed low domination currency. Instead, the Royal Mint focused on striking coins in gold and silver (Brooke, 1932; Doty, 1998). The production of copper coinage was nearly at a standstill until 1770, even still production only lasted five years and was seized in 1775.

    This sporadic and often inadequate production paired with the raging need for wage-based compensation for laborers effectively lead to a copper coinage crisis. This crisis was marked by a shortage of regal copper coinage, the rampant expansion of counterfeiting, and the eventual introduction of commercial tokens. The topic of this post, however, is concerned with counterfeiting, and I will address the introduction of commercial tokens in another post at a later time. During the reign of George III, counterfeiting was even more prevalent than before, and these coins were melted down in large numbers and remade for circulation in Scotland. The Scottish at this point had never seen a regal piece with the portrait of the new king and were likely not to question the authenticity of the counterfeit pieces. Peck (1964) notes that although a new law was enacted on June 24th, 1771, making counterfeiting of regal copper a felony, the counterfeiting business was extraordinarily profitable and turned into an extensive operation. Much like the reign of George II, this was a multifaceted operation with many working parts, which made it nearly impossible to shut down. The counterfeiting was so extensive that Peck (1964) notes a mint report from 1787 estimated that only 8% of the copper in circulation had any resemblance to the regal copper produced at the Tower mint. This led the Mint to propose doubling the weight of both the halfpence and the farthing, but this proposal was never approved. Below is an example of a typical non-regal Halfpenny from my collection.
    1775 non regal white.jpg
    Throughout this struggle, Matthew Boulton was quickly becoming a manufacturing giant, and as his business increased, so did his need for low denomination currency to pay his workers. By all accounts, Boulton was a very ambitious man and went full steam ahead on anything he set his mind to (Doty, 1998; Selgin, 2011; Fisk & Hist, 1966). With the mounting pressure to pay his workers and his unyielding ambition, it is not surprising that Boulton would seek out the possibility to solve the copper crisis of the country he so adored. Although I hold Boulton in high esteem, I will remain objective and also point out that Boulton had other more selfish reasons for this pursuit. For one, the counterfeiting operation was centralized near his Soho manufactory. Birmingham had gained a bad reputation over the years and came to be known as “Brummagem” (Selgin, 2011). Given Boulton’s close association with Birmingham, it makes sense that he would want to restore the reputation of the town and, in turn, boost his reputation. Furthermore, minting regal coinage for his country would solidify his legacy and only serve to bolster his other enterprises. To this extent, he could strengthen his reputation as a true gentleman, a manufacturer, and a patriot that came to the aid of his country in its time of need.

    The question that probably comes to mind is how Boulton would be able to produce a copper coinage for England that would suffice the public need, curb counterfeiting and do so in an efficient and timely manner. His answer to this question was the application of steam power to the minting process. This would allow coins to be struck at a quicker rate while also holding the quality of the strike consistent. Furthermore, through a business relationship (albeit a bleak one) with Jean Pierre Droz, Boulton proposed a method of manufacturing that would produce a perfectly round coin of constant weight and thickness with edge lettering to dissuade further counterfeiting (Peck, 1964; Doty, 1998, Selgin, 2011). In the process of lobbying the Lords of the Committee on Coin, Boulton boasted that these security features would make it nearly impossible to counterfeit his coins, and this naturally became a major selling point for him. By all accounts, he took great pride in this claim.

    These adaptations would be a viable solution in theory but not so much in practice. The issue is that the edge lettering was a new and challenging process that relied almost entirely upon Droz, who was unreliable and ultimately turned out to be a giant disappointment for Boulton. By the time Boulton received a contract to produce regal copper coinage for England on March 3rd, 1797, Droz was far removed, and no significant progress had been made on the edge lettering apparatus (Doty, 1998). To further complicate matters, the contract was to strike Pence and Two Pence pieces and not Halfpennies with which the edge lettering was initially applied. The Pence and Twopence pieces were huge, weighing an ounce and two ounces respectively, and nearly wrecked the Soho Mint to produce. Despite the difficulties, Boulton managed to stay faithful to the terms of his contract and fulfilled it in full within the allotted time. It is my opinion that this would not have been possible had Boulton tried to add the edge lettering to the coins. I suspect this would have placed extra stress on an already struggling system resulting in inevitable catastrophe.

    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 were noticeably larger than any other circulating regal piece at the time. Their expansiveness allowed for the possibility of wide raised rims which 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 too would have to be much higher quality, and this 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 are enormous and heavy (i.e., 41 mm and 2 ounces), and needless to say, they were 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. Below is an example of a proof 1797 Penny struck from repolished current dies (I realize now that I need to take new pictures with different lighting).

    1797 proof (2).jpg

    The Pennies were also rather large and heavy (i.e., 36 mm and an ounce), but they were better received than their larger counterparts. This made for an ideal target for counterfeiters. As it turns out, the large raised rims, incuse legend, and high quality did not prove sufficient enough to curb counterfeiting. 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 was nonetheless a direct contradiction to Boulton’s claim, 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. 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 leads to numerous arrests, including that of William Phillips, who was also involved in the counterfeiting operation.

    Although some of the earlier pieces were poor quality casts that were easily identified, as time went on, the counterfeits became quite sophisticated. 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 their dies that were close replications of the actual products 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, and I have full 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. An odd discrepancy to this point comes from Doty (1998), who points out on page 319 that the working dies for the Pence and Two Pence 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. I have no answers to this problem, but I plan to continue digging. 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. As noted, the genuine coins were designed to prevent this from happening.

    1797 counter.jpg

    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. An example of one of these pieces from my collection is pictured above. To take this one step further, I also would not be surprised if these fooled some collectors who assumed they were well-circulated genuine examples.
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  3. Paul M.

    Paul M. Well-Known Member

    Great post! I don’t have much to add, except that genuine a 1797 1d and 2d have been on my list for some time. (I love big bronze and I cannot lie....) Now, you’ve got me wanting to look at some of the contemporary counterfeits of these. ;)
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  4. TuckHard

    TuckHard Well-Known Member

    Very informative write-up! I knew that the British had stuggled with counterfeiting but had no idea that led to these coins. The ccf copies are really cool to see, thank you for sharing them. Here is my penny, quite worn but I think it adds to it.

    1797 CE 1 Penny George III Cartwheel Combined.jpg
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  5. Coinsandmedals

    Coinsandmedals Well-Known Member

    @Paul M. I have found the 1D pieces to be reasonably priced (especially the 10 leaves variety). The 2D pieces are hit and miss, but finding a nice example with strong luster and clean rims usually drives the price up. Should you run across any counterfeits, please feel free to add them to this thread!

    Thank you @TuckHard! Out of curiosity, have you weighed your example and checked the thickness of the flan? I know it is well circulated, but it still could prove to be interesting.
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  6. The Eidolon

    The Eidolon Well-Known Member

    At one point I read "Good Money: Birmingham Button Makers, the Royal Mint, and the Beginnings of Modern Coinage, 1775-1821" (Selgin and Goodhart). It had a lot of interesting details about Bolton and the technology of steam powered coinage and how that affected counterfeiting. I don't remember if he had any details on that specific series of counterfeits though. My impression was that the claims about steam power being especially resistant to counterfeiting compared to coins made on a screw press were overblown.
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  7. Robidoux Pass

    Robidoux Pass Active Member

    @Coinsandmedals. Very interesting and well-presented article. I've been collecting these coppers for many years -- and my favorite pieces are the Two Pence coins. I see them as one fascinating hunk of copper. Because of their size and weight, it's difficult to find them without rim bumps; but I have found several.

    Thanks for sharing.
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  8. Coinsandmedals

    Coinsandmedals Well-Known Member

    The Selgin (2011) reference I have cited throughout this post is the 4th edition of the same book; however, my copy makes no mention of Goodhart. I wonder if there are differences between the numerous editions.

    His book is an excellent read and paints a realistic picture of the Soho Mint. The 4th edition only mentions the counterfeits made from false dies. In so far as I remember, he makes no mention of the stolen dies. Beyond the note made by Peck and a few scattered footnotes in other publications, I have had no luck finding additional information on the topic.

    I think the fact that people were able to produce very plausible counterfeits with a hand-operated press confirms your point. It was overblown. The example illustrated in Clay and Tungate (2009) is a strong testament to the quality of the pieces made from fake dies. Boulton likely realized this, and that triggered his additional security features in subsequent contracts (e.g., convex dies and obliquely grained edges).
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2020
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  9. TuckHard

    TuckHard Well-Known Member

    No I haven't but I'll have to take note of it next time I have it out of its holder. I'd love for it to be a contemporary counterfeit!
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