Whilst excellent research has been published on the forgery of notes in early nineteenth century Britain (particularly by Randall McGowen), the broader culture of counterfeiting, and specifically coining, has not been well served. For the early modern period and the eighteenth century the work of historians like Malcolm Gaskill, John Styles and Nicholas Tosney has provided a much fuller picture. Nevertheless, coiners made up a significant minority of those who were prosecuted in the Old Bailey courtroom during the nineteenth century. From the mid-nineteenth century in particular a sizeable number of people were being prosecuted for offences related to coining. However, most of these prosecutions were not for coining at all but for the ‘uttering of false coin’. Typically these trials involved people like seventeen-year-old Henry Miller, who was accused of using a bad shilling to buy a quarter ounce of tobacco from the shop of John Howorth on a Thursday night in November 1839. Mr. John Field, the Solicitor of the Mint, confirmed that the shilling was counterfeit.
Uttering had been subject to some problems of definition. Some forms of uttering had been made a felony by an Act of 1742 (15 Geo. 11. C. 28). A person caught for the third time trying to pass counterfeit currency could be found guilty of a felony; a person caught trying to pass off bad currency with further currency in their possession, caught for a second time could be found guilty of felony. Moreover, as in case of Henry Miller, some uttering cases were prosecuted as misdemeanours. Because of this it is very difficult to get a true picture of the real level of prosecution of uttering and coining across the period. Cursory investigations of eighteenth century Sessions Papers on the www.londonlives.org website suggest that cases involving both the production of coin and the uttering of counterfeit coin were dealt with at the Sessions of the Peace, and whilst a number of these cases would have been remanded for trial at the Old Bailey, many were not. So one of the questions that my continuing research in this area has to consider is why some cases go to the Old Bailey and others do not?
In the case of actual counterfeiting, it seems more clear-cut why these cases were prosecuted at the high court. For example, the prosecution of Henry Brown, Elizabeth Jones and Emma Brown in August 1844 reveals some characteristic circumstances of such cases. Police forced open the house in Milton Street, St. Luke’s, and found Henry Brown in possession of a mould. According to the evidence of G Division officer William Penny, ‘I found a pair of pliers, a pair of scissors, a hammer, a knife, and three gets, one of which was quite hot…’. According to Eric Partridge’s dictionary, a ‘Get’ is a substance, sometimes a metal, used in the process of producing the counterfeit coin. The domestic ‘organisation’ in this case (Brown and Jones were common-law husband and wife; Emma Brown was aged sixteen and either a daughter or a niece, although Penny noted, ‘she called him a great many different names’) was not untypical and fits patterns described by Gaskill and Tosney for the early modern period.
Also characteristic of a number of the prosecutions involving the making of counterfeits was the activity and involvement of the police. In the case of the Browns, William Penny may have been the officer who initially gave evidence at court; but, at least in the version of the trial that was published, another G division officer named James Brannan was described as dispensing ‘hands-on’ justice. According to Penny, ‘Brannan seized him by the throat’. According to Brannan, ‘I seized the male prisoner by the neck directly I went in…I held him so a considerable time….Jones came with both her hands before his chin, and said, “Spit them out, my dear, the b—-policeman will choke you”’.
James Brannan would give evidence in many counterfeiting and uttering prosecutions at the Old Bailey between the 1830s and the 1870s. I originally came across him when studying OBO statistical searches for a paper that I gave at the Histories of Crime in the Digital Age Conference held at the IHR in 2011. That paper (which will be published in a forthcoming collection edited by Meg Arnot and Helen Rogers) looked at the patterns of coining and uttering prosecutions at the Old Bailey by using combined keyword and statistical searches. I then used similar methodologies to systematically track Brannan’s activity, as well various other ‘agents’ of the Mint and Metropolitan Police. I do have some reservations about this approach and questions remain.
How prominent was Brannan? Arguably, the specificity of the search function distorts our view of the path of particular individuals. Their ‘activities’ may look significant to us, but how significant are they really given the huge numbers of individuals who appear as defendants, victims, and witnesses? Press accounts of Brannan would suggest that his role as the enforcer of the Mint, was significant. However, searches of the British Library Nineteenth Century Newspapers Online are also subject to potential contextual skewing. Searches at the National Archives turned up few traces of Brannan in the Mint records. Though perhaps this is not surprising given that Brannan worked ‘on the ground’; and in the ‘front-line’. Ongoing searches of the MEPO and HO records may be more fruitful. Thankfully, I have found some traces of Brannan in other contemporary sources (such as the Blue Books; and in Mayhew) which are fairly convincing in suggesting that he was the Mint’s ‘go-to’ man in these types of cases. Magistrate/Police Court records would reveal a fuller picture of Brannan’s activity. Unfortunately few of these survive for the period in which Brannan was active. Other Sessions records might be more profitable in tracing Brannan’s progress as an officer for the Mint.
Brannan had been active with the Metropolitan Police since its early years, and had been employed as a detective for the Mint from 1856. The surveillance and capture of counterfeiting operations seems to have been a particular specialism, presumably leading to his close association with the Mint which dates from as early as 1837. Thus even before his ‘retirement’ and ‘direct’ employment by the Mint in 1856, Brannan was a notable presence in counterfeiting cases. He frequently used violence to affect an arrest and his reputation seems to have preceded him. For example, in the trial of John Ashford and Mary Ann Davis in March 1847, questioned about his pay from the Mint, Brannan answered, ‘I very frequently go on expeditions to break into rooms’. In 1854, during the trial of Thomas Morris, Elizabeth Jackson and James Riley, one witness (described as a ‘searcher’ at Bow Street Station’) claimed that Jackson had said ‘“I wished I had strangled the b-r”– I said, “Who do you mean?” she said, “Brannan”’.
Brannan’s activities demonstrate that there was a concerted attempt to proactively ‘police’ coining by the metropolitan police and the Mint in the Victorian period. Some of this activity is likely to be related to the development of the role of the Inspector of the Mint (or Inspector of Coin). In the earlier nineteenth century, this role was taken by Caleb Edward Powell and John Field. Both men appeared giving evidence in many coining cases at the Old Bailey between the 1790s and 1840s. They were succeeded by William Webster, who appeared on behalf of the Mint from 1849. His son, William John Webster, assisted him from 1869, and then also worked as a Mint Inspector at least until 1910. These trials, of course, include uttering of coin, and clearly demonstrate changing prosecution strategies rather than any specific rise in illegality. Nevertheless the Old Bailey does provide us with a window into these strategies and into the process of detection of counterfeiters.
Perhaps most interesting is the practice of surveillance, employed particularly by Brannan. Surveillance activity seems to have picked up considerably after the mid-century, and cases were found in the Old Bailey Online by combining searches for ‘plain-clothed’ (and similar phrases) and for ‘observation’. Brannan both watched houses but also observed suspicious individuals. In the trial of James Williams, in July 1870, Brannan noted how ‘in consequence of information, I directed officers to go to Long Acre and keep a certain house under observation’. In an earlier trial of June 1859, involving a family of three (William Gillard, William Gillard Jnr, and Emily Gillard) prosecuted for having counterfeit coins intheir possession, Brannan gave evidence about one of the defendants that, ‘I have had him under observation nearly a year and a half’. Brannan’s last Old Bailey cases, as far as I can detect, were in the spring of 1873. The sudden death of ‘Inspector Brennan’ was reported in the press on Tuesday 16thSeptember 1873, where he was described as ‘one of the oldest officers in the police force’ (The Morning Post; The Pall Mall Gazette).
Brannan’s story tells us a great deal about the practices of policing in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Whilst the trial material has to be read with a critical eye, the way in which Brannan presents his evidence, his tendency towards pomposity, his ‘knowledge’ and familiarity with the world of counterfeiting, reveal something of policing on the ground in the Victorian period. Moreover the overlapping networks of contacts between Brannan, his son James Brannan Jnr (also a metropolitan police officer), other police officers and the Mint Inspectors of Coin also provide insight into how police worked in the period.
The changing nature of policing ‘on the ground’ is something that has been considered by a number of historians. For example, Joanne Klein has looked at the ‘Daily Lives’ of policemen walking the beat in early twentieth century Manchester and Birmingham (2010). Yet forms of police detection, undercover work and surveillance have only recently started to be investigated (Jackson; Shpayer Makov). Hopefully the longer study that I am writing about Brannan’s career will be a contribution to this knowledge.