Newton and the Counterfeiter

Jonathan Rée writes:

The economic consequences of William’s war form the background to the curious story of a counterfeiter and his nemesis that Thomas Levenson tells in his racy new book. Finance was not, in those days, a very abstruse mystery, and economics was not yet an abstract science: the crisis of the 1690s turned not on the metaphysical niceties of credit but on the quantity and quality of the country’s silver coins. William had been dealt a difficult hand. The national stock of sixpences, shillings, half-crowns and crowns fell into two groups, the old and the new, each with a total face value of around ten million pounds. The old coins, dating from before 1662, had been made by brawny ‘master moneyers’ in the Mint workshops at the Tower of London, chopping slices from a silver rod and striking an image on both sides using a hammer and die. Apart from being easy to counterfeit, these hammered coins had become seriously degraded, partly through ordinary use (many were more than a century old) and partly through deliberate tampering: the manufacturing process left a fringe beyond the imprint of the die, and anyone with clippers or a file could shave a little silver off a hammered coin. By the 1690s, most old coins had lost about a third of their original substance.

(LRB 20 January 2011)

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