Birmingham was riddled with forgers in the late eighteenth century. Some were so cocky that they even advertised on street signs.
Copper coins were in short supply. They were made by hand presses and so easy to forge that The Royal Mint didn’t bother making them. Its own study revealed that 92% of halfpennies were fakes. It was a huge problem.
But Brum was also the home of Matthew Boulton – the Richard Branson or Bill Gates of his day. His factory at Soho House was the most advanced on the planet. He was in partnership with James Watt and their steam engines were revolutionising the world.
Boulton hated forgers – and the unscrupulous bosses who were short-changing their workers by paying them in counterfeit coins or tokens. In 1788 he launched his own mint – driven by steam and capable of making millions of identical coins so cheaply that it wouldn’t be worth forging them. Today, every coin is a descendant of Mathew Boulton’s process – manufactured using roughly the same methods.
When the government adopted Boulton’s machine, the game was up for Brum’s backstreet coin forgers.
Of course, forgers weren’t the only tradespeople whose livelihoods were threatened by the rise of Boulton and Watt’s steam engines. Labourers and skilled workers were all about to have their lives changed forever by the industrial revolution.
This is the inspiration for my short play, ‘Horsepower’, in BOLDtext’s Power of Invention this summer. You won’t see any forgers hanged but it should still be a good spectacle! Stephen Jackson
PS. The last forger executed in Britain was probably William Booth – hanged in Stratford-upon-Avon but originally from Birmingham, hotbed of forgers!
Power of Invention is at Soho House, Birmingham, on the 30th, 31st July and 7th August, at 12, 3 & 6pm each day.
The site-specific production is a collaboration with Birmingham Museums Trust and is funded by Arts Council England and the Sir Barry Jackson Trust.