Coining and clipping
Coin clipping is the practice of cutting small pieces from coins.
Coins were once made of pure gold and silver, and through everyday use were subject to wear.
It was not usual to receive a coin which was not perfectly round. So cutting or filing a small amount off the coin would probably go unnoticed. The cut-off pieces would then be melted into a bar and sold to a goldsmith, or used to make counterfeit coins.
Throughout history many illegal activities, usually carrying severe penalties, have not been regarded as crimes by the common people. Whole communities would be engaged in smuggling, or stealing cargoes washed ashore after a shipwreck (wrecking), and of course coining and clipping.
A family business.
Historians have found examples in court records of women clipping silver in the home while sitting down, and letting the clippings fall onto an apron between their knees. There are cases of children put to clipping. Widely practised among the poor, it was an easy crime to commit, and a means of making coins worth very little go a little further.
What made clipping even easier was that before the late seventeenth century, coins were ‘hammer-struck’. This meant that during the minting process, the blank coin was not completely circular, while the design was, resulting in quite misshapen pieces to start with. Who’d notice a bit more? Furthermore, in the 17th century, coins of the realm were real silver or gold. These metals, although precious, were also soft, and regular handling meant chips and knocks were normal. It was rare to handle a perfectly round coin, which offered the perfect cover for people cutting or ‘clipping’ some of the valuable metal away.
So widespread was the practice that in 1692, the authorities had information on and arrest warrants for 300 clippers in the London area alone!
Sweating and plugging
In the process of sweating, coins were placed in a bag and shaken. The bits of metal that had worn off the coins were recovered from the bottom of the bag. Sweating tended to wear the coin in a more natural way than clipping, and so was harder to detect.
If the coin was large, a hole could be punched out of the middle, and the face of the coin hammered to close up the hole. Or the coin could be sawn in half, and a plug of metal extracted from the interior. After filling the hole with a cheaper metal, the two halves would be welded back together again. These became plugged coins, hence the phrase, “not worth a plugged nickel”
The act of clipping was a serious criminal offence as it undermined the currency of the country. It was such a problem that in Britain clipping was regarded as high treason and punishable by death.
46% of those tried at the Old Bailey for coining offences in this period were women and it is argued that this figure is demonstrative of an unusually high level of female participation in what could be a skilled crime.
Burned at the stake
Until 1790, women convicted of High Treason and Petty Treason were burned at the stake. In those days this covered a number of offences including coining. Coining covered several individual offences relating only to gold and silver coins, e.g. clipping coins to provide coin metal for forgeries, colouring coins to make them appear of higher value, making counterfeit coins and having the equipment to do any of the above. Coining was considered treasonable because it directly affected the State and confidence in the currency.
Phoebe Harris was found guilty of coining and was the first woman burnt at Newgate, as distinct from Tyburn or Smithfield, and her execution was carried out just after 8.00 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday the 21st of June 1786. Two more women were to suffer Phoebe’s fate. These were Margaret Sullivan on the 25th of June 1788 and Christian Murphy on the 18th of March 1789, both for coining.
However, the threat of hanging did not put off the criminals, for clipping could be profitable and, at its simplest, the only tools required were a file, some shears or strong scissors and a melting pot.
Coin clipping is why many coins have the rim of the coin marked with stripes (milling or reeding), text (engraving) or some other pattern that would be destroyed if the coin were clipped. This practice is attributed to Isaac Newton, who was appointed Master of the Mint in 1699.
King David Hartley
Perhaps the most notorious exponents of the practice of clipping were the Hartley Family.
This particular gang of Yorkshire Coiners are perhaps more accurately referred to as the Cragg Vale or Turvin Coiners due to the location of their base, just off the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire
The Cragg Vale Coiners clipped filed the edges of gold coins and return the clipped coins to circulation. The Coiners used the gold collected from several coins to cast blanks and stamp new coins using skilfully made dies. These new coins, usually Portuguese Moidores or Spanish Pistoles, were then put into circulation and as a result the Coiners made a healthy profit.
“King” David Hartley and Isaac Hartley, known as the “Duke of Edinburgh” as well as other family members were commonly known by their ‘royal’ titles, given to them by the members of the gang as a reflection of their status at the head of the Cragg Vale Coiners gang.
King David was hanged at York Tyburn in 1770 for his part in leading the Cragg Vale Coiners, though the only charges he actually faced were for clipping a Guinea with another man.
Plenty of material on the Cragg Vale Coiners particularly by a direct descendent of the ‘King’, Steven Hartley. YorkshireCoiners.com.
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers is a marvellous fictional account of the desperate rise and fall of the coining gang in the 1760s.
From his remote moorland home David Hartley assembles a gang of weavers and land workers to embark upon a criminal enterprise that will capsize the economy and become the biggest fraud in British history. They are the Cragg Vale Coiners and their business is clipping – the forging of coins, a treasonous offence punishable by death.
Hundreds of 16th Century coin clippings have been discovered in a Gloucestershire field.
The 500 silver clippings, dubbed the Toenail Hoard, were unearthed by Gavin Warren using a metal detector in the Forest of Dean.
Shaved from the edges of coins dating back to 1560, the precious metal would have been melted down and sold.
Finds liaison officer Kurt Adams said: “Forty to 60 clippings is normal – one of this size is very, very rare.”
Mr Warren – who unearthed the Yorkley Roman coin hoard in 2012 – said he was testing out a “beginner’s metal detector” in a field, when he made the discovery.
“It was about four inches down, all in a big ball – we thought it was pieces of fencing until I spotted the words James I and Elizabeth I,” he said.
“There were about 500 clippings – like pig tails – ranging from half crowns right down to pennies, all silver.”
With hanging literally too good for those caught clipping the edges off silver coins in the 17th Century, Mr Warren said whoever buried the hoard had been risking their life.
“For women the punishment was being burnt at the stake, for a bloke it was being hung, drawn and quartered,” he said.
“It would have been a lot to have been caught with.”
“The earliest clippings date from the reign of Elizabeth I, so 1560s to 1570s, and the latest from 1645,” he said. BBC News
Naughty money University of Cambridge
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers