Friday, July 28, 2017

Making Money: The Fatal Coin

In The Fatal Coin, Bow Street Runner Dan Foster encounters a ruthless gang of highwaymen and counterfeiters operating out of Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, England. In the course of his investigation, he comes across the work of Birmingham industrialist Matthew Boulton, who manufactured copper coins for the British mint. Here I take a look at some of the history behind the story…

Matthew Boulton (1728–1809)

Matthew Boulton, entrepreneur, manufacturer, engineer and scientist, was born in Birmingham. He made his money in what was known as the “toy trade”, which included the manufacture of goods in silver and gold such as snuff boxes and inkstands, and steel goods such as buckles, cork screws and candle snuffers. At his works in Soho, Birmingham, Boulton produced buttons, silver plate and ormolu. Many of of these goods were exported to France. He worked with James Watt on the development of the steam engine, financing the work as well as working on the design, and opened a steam engine factory. He also invested in canals, a shrewd move as they formed a ready market for his steam engines.   

A pair of perfume burners by Matthew Boulton (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Matthew Boulton was a member of the Lunar Society, so-called because they held their meetings on the night of the full moon. Members included Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood and James Watt. They often met at Boulton’s home, Soho House, to share their interest in science, engineering and industry. Topics they discussed included steam engine design, metallurgy, astronomy and chemistry.

Dan Foster and Matthew Boulton

Boulton set up his mint at Soho in 1788 and used it to mint the tokens which many employers used as payment for their workers as a way of circumventing the shortage of official copper coins. Dan receives such tokens in his wages when he is working as a labourer on Squire Douglas’s canal. These tokens were often unpopular with workers as they could only be spent locally, sometimes in shops and taverns owned by their employer.

Boulton’s mint also produced medals for both military and civilian groups. It produced the well-known 1805 Trafalgar medal which Boulton made and distributed to battle veterans at his own expense. By 1798 he was using the world’s first steam-powered, automated presses and had introduced new die-making techniques. He supplied copper coins to the government and also coins for Russia, Denmark, North America, India (for the East India Company), Sumatra and elsewhere. The production of copper coins fitted well with his interest in Cornish mines, where the copper was sourced, as he supplied steam engines to them. He also sold presses and blanks to America.

In 1797 Boulton was commissioned by the British government to produce the “Cartwheel pennies” and two pence pieces, and in 1799 produced halfpennies and farthings. Boulton claimed these coins could not be counterfeited. Unfortunately, the forgers knew better and were producing their own versions of the new coins within weeks. Boulton offered a one hundred pound reward to anyone who was instrumental in the conviction of forgers.

In 1797 the British government attempted to deal with the shortage of silver coins by countermarking the Bank of England’s stock of Spanish silver dollars with the head of George III and putting them in circulation. Forgers were soon buying up coins and applying false countermarks. The government took the same step in 1804, and Boulton suggested that his steam presses would be more effective against forgery by obliterating the old design as well as applying the new. 

The Bank of England (British Library on Flickr)

In The Fatal Coin Dan, working undercover, invents a background story for himself, claiming he had worked at Boulton’s Soho works. He also bases his scheme to snare the villains on Boulton’s involvement with overmarking foreign coin by offering the highwaymen information about a fictitious consignment of overmarked Portuguese coin. Portuguese gold coins known as “Joes” were actually in circulation in Britain. 

William Booth: A Forger Meets a Bad End

Gangs like the one Dan encounters in The Fatal Coin might very well combine forging coins and bank notes. The house in which Dan is imprisoned, with its secret passages, hidden doors and trap doors, was suggested by the story of William Booth of Birmingham. In 1799 Booth, a farmer who was also a talented engraver, turned a lonely farmhouse into a hideaway with trap doors, bricked-up doorways, and rooms that could be accessed only by rope ladders. Here he ran a cottage industry employing servants and family members to manufacture notes and coins. 

A George III sovereign (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In 1812 one of the servants was arrested for using forged bank notes, and is presumed to have turned police informer. Seven mounted dragoons and ten special constables were sent to arrest Booth. There was a chase through the house, with Booth disappearing down trap doors and up rope ladders before they succeeded in catching him. Booth, who had previously been tried for murdering his brother but acquitted for lack of evidence, was hanged at Stafford on 15 August 1812. Many of his workers were transported.   

According to one story, Booth’s hanging was botched. The first drop failed and he had to be hanged again. The tale has inspired a folk song, Twice Tried, Twice Hung, Twice Buried. You can read the lyrics here

Matthew Boulton’s factory has gone, but Soho House is now a museum.

Images from the British Library on Flickr and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in the public domain. 


The Fatal Coin, a novella, available as ebook
Published by SBooks

Amazon UK and Amazon Com
Only 99p/$1.28

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Carry him off in a patent coffin: body snatching in the eighteenth century

Occasionally Dan turned the pages of his newspaper. Someone was advertising a new design of coffin, secure enough to keep out body snatchers. Good luck with that, he thought.

The Butcher’s Block: A Dan Foster Mystery

I recently spent an afternoon in Frenchay, near Bristol, visiting the Frenchay Unitarian Chapel. The Chapel dates from the seventeenth century and has several interesting features. These include a door said to have been specially designed to allow women wearing crinolines under their skirts to enter the building, and a weathervane which is thought to commemorate the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1759.  

Frenchay Unitarian Chapel
I’d gone in search of something more prosaic: the Body Snatchers' Stone. In the forthcoming Dan Foster Mystery, The Butcher’s Block, Dan is drawn into the grisly world of body snatching, which quickly leads him into a much bigger and more dangerous criminal conspiracy. Body snatching was a common crime in the eighteenth century, as the demand for human bodies for medical training increased. Teaching hospitals and private medical schools were prepared to pay for cadavers for dissection by their students, and no questions asked about where the bodies came from.

The bodies were disinterred from graveyards, especially the graves of poor people who could not afford good-quality coffins and might in addition be buried in shallow mass graves. These were often left open until they were full, making them easy for grave robbers to access. Workhouses were another source of corpses. There were even cases where body snatchers broke into houses and took a body before it had been buried. Grave-robbing gangs might have an elaborate system of spies who kept their ears open for news of a recent death, or hung around graveyards to watch funerals. They might bribe sextons and night watchmen to gain access to the graves. The corpses of poor patients who died in hospital might also end up on the dissection slab, whether or not they had willed it or their relatives consented to it.

The Graveyard, Frenchay Unitarian Chapel
Body snatching was a crime that filled most people with horror. In Bristol in 1761 a collier’s son was dissected in the Infirmary. When his father opened the coffin and discovered that his son’s head was missing he went to the surgeon’s home and threatened him until the head was restored. In Carlisle friends of a man who had been hanged and dissected shot one of the doctors involved. In Cambridge in 1830 two arrested body snatchers were attacked by a furious mob while being escorted to prison.

Those who could afford it took steps to protect their corpses. Patent coffins, such as the ones Dan reads about, were available to those who had the money. They might be lined with lead and boast a system of locks and bars designed to baffle the would-be grave robber, or have no external hinges or screws. Some were wrapped in chains or iron bands, or consisted of double or triple shells around a lead interior.

Cheaper ploys included covering the body in quick lime to hasten decay and render it unusable. Many graveyards hired night watchmen to guard the burial grounds. In The Butcher’s Block Dan sees such a watchman dozing in his sentry box at a church in Southwark.

The mort safe was a Scottish invention. It consisted of an iron cage which was placed around the freshly occupied grave and left for several weeks. By then the corpse would have decayed beyond the point at which it was useful to the surgeons, and the cage would be removed and hired out to another grave. Another popular method in Scotland was to lock corpses in stone burial vaults and bury them after some weeks had passed. Elsewhere, cruder methods included placing mantraps in graveyards. One man even put a mine in his daughter’s grave.

Is this the Body Snatchers' Stone?
 Another deterrent was a body snatcher’s stone, a great stone slab which was winched into place on top of a fresh grave and left for several weeks. The Body Snatchers' Stone in Frenchay is such a device. I had read a description of it: a pennant stone slab with no markings, so I went to see if could find it. I did find a stone slab marked only with lines that did not look as if they had ever been lettering. Is this the Body Snatchers’ Stone? If not, where is it? If anyone can tell me, I’d love to hear from you! 

Close up of the stone
Incidentally, the title of this piece is taken from Southey’s poem The Surgeon’s Warning. A surgeon who has dissected many stolen cadavers begs his friends to make sure that when he is buried, grave robbers cannot steal his corpse for the same treatment. He directs that he is to be interred in a patent coffin lined with lead and soldered shut, and he leaves money to pay for night watchmen who will be paid an extra reward if they shoot a “resurrection man”, as grave robbers were known. Read the poem to find out if his elaborate precautions save him from the poetic justice he so richly deserves!

The next Dan Foster Mystery, The Butcher’s Block, will be published in June (paperback and ebook).

And look out for the Dan Foster ebook novella, The Fatal Coin, which will be published in May. 

Source: British Library Free Images on Flickr

Friday, April 28, 2017

Silver Sound 28 April 2017: Books, Books and More Books

“I do believe that something very magical can happen when you read a good book.” 
J K Rowling

Today’s show was inspired by World Book Night which was on 23 April 2017. World Book Night is a national celebration of reading and books. Books are given out throughout the UK with a focus on reaching those who don’t regularly read.

Our guests were Helen Hart, Publishing Director of Silverwood Books in Bristol which offers assisted publishing services for self published authors who wish to publish to a professional standard. Helen has also recently set up the SBooks imprint, which commissions short fiction from authors.

Also in the studio was Vicky Hough of the Reader Engagement Team, Bristol Libraries. Vicky told us about all the amazing things Bristol Libraries are doing to help people to get the most out of reading. These include a Harry Potter night, and the Summer Reading Challenge for children, who are encouraged to read and review six books over the holiday.

18th Century Reading Technology - a Reading Chair
A recent initiative is the shared reading projects run by the charitable social enterprise The Reader, which aims to bring groups of people together for weekly reading groups. Groups will be set up in libraries across Bristol, particularly Southmead, Filwood, and St Pauls or Hillfields Libraries. Reading groups are a great way to socialise with other people – and reading is good for your mental health and well being too! Volunteers are sought to help run the groups. To find out more follow the link below.

We considered questions such as: why read? What are the benefits of reading? And with so many other forms of entertainment and information to choose from – TV, internet, radio – why choose books?

We also talked about books that had changed our lives or had a huge influence on us – Vicky mentioned Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending and Helen The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters, which she is currently reading. We also made a confession about our “great unread” books – the books you’ve always been meaning to read but never have. Mine is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – no matter how many times I’ve tried I cannot get past the first few chapters. You can find out how our studio guests answered and listen to the show again at  

We were, as usual, joined by George Moss, who told us about a scheme he was involved in some years ago when adults went into schools to read to children. Gerard gave us one of his fiendish quizzes with a bookish theme.

Find out more:-

PS Not bookish – but I also gave information about an event coming up between 1 and 3 June 2017 – the Bristol Quilters Quilt Fest, a Textile Exhibition at Badminton School, Westbury Road, Bristol BS9 3BA. Visit for further information.

If you missed the show first time round, you can listen to it here (10 am to 11 am)

Silver Sound is broadcast by BCfm Radio 93.2 fm between 10 am and mid day on Thursdays and Fridays. I’ll be back on the show on 2 June 2017.   

Picture Credit: Reading Chair - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Public Domain Images