In 1869 when Jerome Caminada was a newly-fledged police constable, he experienced the sophisticated business of forging coins for the first time. The shopkeepers in Manchester had lodged complaints about the passing of ‘base’ coins through their tills and PC Caminada was instructed to shadow the prime suspects: ‘Brocky Dave’, a notorious criminal and his companion, a well-known coiner, ‘Raggey Burke’.
One Saturday evening, Caminada spotted Dave carrying a box under his arm, from which protruded a number of wires. His suspicions aroused, he followed the felon to a house in Deansgate and then hid behind a handcart to watch the proceedings. Before long, Dave’s accomplice, Burke, left the premises and when he stopped under a street lamp to examine something from his pocket, Caminada arrested him. A later search of his pockets at the police station yielded 19 base half-crowns. Armed with information about the coining industry, Caminada set out to visit a ‘battery’ for the first time.
Removing his boots, Caminada crept down the stairs of the alleged coin mint in his stockinged feet. Brocky Dave and another dubious character, Scotch Jimmy were working at a table. The room was filled with moulds, tools, plaster of Paris and several bottles of acid: all used in the manufacture of fake coins. Caminada raided the premises and apprehended both men.
Forgery was commonplace in the 19th century, with the regular creation of fake testimonials. bogus references and forged certificates. The manufacture of coins, bank notes, cheques and bills were the work of a small number of highly-skilled individuals, who were often blacksmiths or printers. The master forger, the ‘shofulman’, was at the centre of a complex network of intermediaries that operated throughout the Victorian underworld. Traditionally fake coins, usually silver – gold counterfeiting was rare – were cut out of metal plates or ‘flats’, made from a mixture of silver and blanched copper. The stamped coins were then treated with nitric acid to create a convincing silvery surface. Another, cruder method, was to use pewter lifted from alehouses.
By the mid-19th century, new methods had been developed using moulds and electronic plating. The moulds were created by pressing both faces of a genuine coin into wet plaster and then fitting the two halves together leaving tiny channels from pouring in the molten metal. It was then attached to a negative lead from a galvanic battery in a cyanide solution, in which was immersed a piece of silver attached to the positive lead. This would give the coin a thick coating of silver, which would then be treated with oil and lamp-black to tone down the brightness. When the master forger had completed his work, the coins were distributed by agents to be passed into circulation by ‘smashers'; usually casual thieves or pickpockets.
It is unlikely that Brocky Dave, Raggey Burke and Scotch Jimmy were quite so skilled at base coining. Burke and Jimmy received 7 years’ penal servitude and Dave fourteen. As Detective Caminada commented later:
This was the severest blow that the coining fraternity in this quarter received for many years.
You can read more about how the ‘smashers’ distributed the false coins in The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada, now available on eBook.