Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Coins, Clipping, and Condemnation

by Grace Elliot

“Elizabeth Hare, lately condemned for high treason in clipping his Majesty’s coin, was according to her sentence, burnt alive in Bunhill Field”.

Diary of Narcissus Luttrell October 30th, 1683
Look deeper into this one sentence and a whole microcosm of the 17th century is brought to life. We could look at the life of Elizabeth Hare and the maidservant who condemned her mistress or discover how Bunhill Field got its name. But instead, let’s look at the crime for which Elizabeth Hare is condemned: Clipping coins.

Coin Clipping

In the 17th century, coins of the realm were real silver or gold. These metals, although precious, are 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.

Examples of clipped coins

‘Clipping’ was the simple act of using sharp pincers to clip away metal from the edge of a coin, which was then doctored to make the loss less obvious. Then the clippings, once melted down, were formed back into new coins, with a considerable profit to clipper.

But defacing coin of the realm was an act of treason. The penalties were harsh: Men were hung, drawn, and quartered (a traitor’s death), whilst women – like Elizabeth Hare – were burnt alive. Not that these punishments did much to deter this extremely profitable trade.

The numbers of people involved in clipping seem extraordinary, especially given the punishment. In 1692, the authorities had information about 300 clippers in London alone, and arrest warrants issued.

A hanging taking place outside Newgate Gaol

Earlier that century an informant, Gregory the butcher, estimated there were 100 people involved in a clipping gang which brought in £6,000 a month. [* As a general guide, in the 17th century, one penny was worth £1 four centuries later. This sum is therefore equivalent to around £600,000 or $920,000, a tidy sum each month even when split between 100 people.]

To prove a point, in 1696 a tripe man, John Moore, imprisoned in Newgate Goal accused of being a clipper tried to buy a pardon for £6,000 - a huge amount of money for a humble tripe man to possess! Then there were the three clippers arrested in St James’ Street, London, with £400 on their persons. When times were hard, it seemed the risk was worth it.

Conditions within Newgate Gaol were harsh

Indeed, coin clipping seems very much a way of life – even when in prison. The debasement of currency and smelting of new coins went on even within the confines of Newgate Goal. Three prisoners were caught in the act and equipment confiscated included a sophisticated stamp bearing the likeness of James I, which was used to imprint on the new coin.

And finally, some of those accused of clipping continued to thumb their noses at authority in a most blatant manner.  Some prisoners struck a token inscribed on one side with “Belonging to the cellar on the Master’s side, 1692” [The Master’s side being the better half of Newgate Prison] with a picture of Newgate struck on the other side.

Sweet irony indeed.

[*] Money and Exchange Rates in 1632 – Francis Turner


Grace Elliot is a veterinarian,
freelance writer, and author of historical romance.
Visit her blog: Fall in Love with History
for a healthy blend of history and...cats.

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