Thinking allowed — 01 June 2010

50 notes It started as a promising day, the sun was shining, we had a new Government and yes, I had earned enough to warrant a trip to the bank. I proffered my deposit, the cashier smiled and said good morning, and then her eyes alighted upon a £50 note of mine. In a nanosecond a money checker detection pen appeared and like a censor from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office she had drawn a line across the note.

“It’s a forgery, I’m afraid, and I can’t give it back, but I can if you wish, give you a receipt”. Great, £50 down.

Rapidly striding off to WH Smiths, and taking the cashier’s advice to purchase for myself said detector pen, my mood darkened. In an effort to cheer myself up and repair my dented ego, I did a bit of research on counterfeiting and also to confirm that I wasn’t the only London cabbie to get caught.

As a large city London has vast sums of cash changing hands each day, and this makes the Capital a perfect place to distribute this worthless junk. This was recognised in the Middle Ages and they used some rather novel methods to deter offenders.

Clipping was a popular past time in this period, where small clips were taken from the edge of a coin and using them to mint a counterfeit. Coin clipping is why many coins have the rim of the coin marked with stripes, text or some other pattern that would be destroyed if the coin were clipped, a safeguard attributed to Isaac Newton, after being appointed Master of the Mint.

Unlike today the threat to England’s economy from counterfeiting and ultimately the country’s security was appreciated by Parliament and offenders had a multiple choice of punishments, ranging to having one’s ears removed to hanging.

The Treason Act 1415 was an Act of the Parliament of England which made clipping coins high treason and punishable by death. (It was already treason to counterfeit coins.) The Act was repealed by the Treason Act 1553, and then revived again in 1562. The Act originally only protected English coins, but was later extended in 1575 to cover foreign coins “current” within England. The Coin Act 1575 also abolished (for coin clipping only) the penalties of corruption of blood and forfeiture of goods and lands (see what I mean by multiply punishments).

In modern times fraudsters have now a range of aids to perfect their craft making detection harder, so there is far more counterfeit currency in circulation. Remarkably last year the total amount of fake £1 coins hit 37.5 million, the highest sum since the coin was introduced in 1983, and a rise of 26 per cent since 2007, when 30 million were found to be fakes. Even more remarkable is that convicted forgers these days retain their ears, and only serve the shortest of sentences.

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(2) Readers Comments

  1. How annoying to lose £50 like that.

    Once when I was working in the bookshop, a customer proffered what was obviously a dodgy £50 note. I called the duty manager but she was happy with it, to my surprise. Next day we were told we had taken a dud… But I at least, unlike you, did not suffer the loss in my own pocket.

    I wonder whether forgers will start issuing notes with an imitation detector pen stripe across them to make it look as if the note has already been tested and found genuine…

    These days it would hardly be worth anyone’s while to clip coins as the metal they’re made of is so debased. I remember how staggered I was to find that certain “copper” coins could be picked up with a magnet. How long before the first plastic coins are issued…?

    • You won’t be surprised that I check every note now before banking it

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