Review by Les Kendall. Book by Thomas Levenson. Book or eBook (Kindle) available from Amazon
The amazing story of what happened when Sir Isaac Newton, Master of the Royal Mint, met William Chaloner, serial counterfeiter and con-man.
The Greatest Scientist vs. the Greatest Counterfeiter
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is one of the best known scientists in the planet, but for the last 30 years of his life he was Master of the Mint. As part of his duties was to deal with counterfeiters, and it is then that he came up against maybe the greatest counterfeiter and con-man of his time, William Chaloner.
We probably all know a little about Newton. He was one of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of all time, his discoveries are the basis of physics. Newton broke new ground on maths, co-invented calculus, solved the riddle of gravity and planetary motion, heat, light, matter; he solved problems and equations that no-one else could do. This culminated in his book ‘Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia‘ which was considered as one of the most important books in the World.
Amazingly, most of this myriad of works was done by Newton when he was in his 20’s and 30’s. Although he continued his scientific work all through his life, by the time he was in his forties Newton was more interested in Alchemy and biblical studies.
When turning 50, Newton wanted a change. Although he was not poor as a Cambridge Professor, he wanted more financial income. Having spoken to his good friend John Locke and deciding that he didn’t want a school master position, in 1696 Newton (despite not wanting to move from Cambridge to London) accepted the Royal Mint’s offer to become Warden of the Mint. He became Master of the Mint in 1699 until his death in 1727. He was also President of the Royal Society 1703–1727.
The role of Warden was meant to be part-time, even hands-off, but not to Newton. He was driven and committed with the same obsession that he had in his scientific endeavours.
The Royal Mint
At that time, the Royal Mint had several problems. The initial task was to look at improving the quality of the coins. As the existing coins were poor, it meant that they could be faked quite easily, and ‘clipping’ was also very common. (Clipping is physically cutting the edge of a gold or silver coin to get some free metal).
Clipping can render coins worthless and with counterfeit coins approaching 20% of all coins in existence the problem was critical. Even the threat of the death sentence did not deter the forgers.
This was in the remit of the Warden of the Mint and Newton responded by forming a network of snitches and watchers to worm out the bad guys. Newton himself would disguise himself and frequent the local drinking establishments for intelligence gathering.
Later the main problem would be the relationship of the price of gold to silver, which eventually led to Newton suggesting a move to the gold standard.
William Chaloner was born in Warwickshire in 1650. His family was poor and when young became an apprentice nail maker in Birmingham. Birmingham, already an industrial giant, also had a reputation as being a training ground for forgers. It didn’t take Chaloner long to learn his trade, and when groats (fourpence coins) were in short supply, he helped out by counterfeiting ‘Birmingham groats’.
By the time Chaloner was 30, he decided to walk to London (over 100 miles away) so as to make his fortune. London turned out to be a dump, with open sewers, smoke, poverty. He scratched a living selling some ‘questionable’ items (I’ll let the book fill you in on that), and a bit of stealing and petty crime, but eventually he came to counterfeiting.
His coining skills were excellent, and he made fake Guineas, French gold Pistoles (also known as the Spanish double escudo), crowns, half-crowns, even Banknotes, to a level that they could fool the great majority of people. Using debased metal, the coins were highly profitable, enough to allow Chaloner to buy a house in the exclusive Knightsbridge area of London.
Chaloner was much more than a serial counterfeit coiner. He became a confidence trickster and had friends in high places. He even suggested to members of the government that he could act as advisor to the Royal Mint.
As a side income, Chaloner used people to distribute his forgeries then either blackmailed them for doing so, or grassing them in if there was a reward to be had.
Newton the Detective
Sir Isaac eventually heard the name of William Chandler and started to move in on him. But Chaloner was the master criminal, like Lex Luther or Professor Moriarty. Chaloner made sure he was always disassociated with any of the schemes he set up; other people always took the blame and Chaloner’s name wasn’t mentioned under threat of violence.
At one stage Chaloner even complained to a parliamentary committee that he was being victimised by Newton, and Newton was not fit to run the Mint. Newton was insulted and the challenge now became personal.
Chaloner set up a big scheme, buying a house and fitted it with an actual coin making machine. His plan was rumbled and although he hid his name and kept his distance from recriminations, he lost a considerable amount of his wealth.
With little money to buy precious metals, Chaloner turned his attention to Lottery tickets (yes, they had a lottery in the 1690s!). Lottery tickets cost £10, a lot of money in those days, and could be used as banknotes. Now a marked man, Newton’s associates closed the net and Chaloner started to run out of friends and eventually he ended up in Newgate prison.
I won’t spoil the ending but it didn’t end too well for Chaloner. From Newgate he wrote several letters to Newton, the last ending with “dear Sr nobody can save me but you O God my God I shall be murdered unless … I am Your near murdered humble Servant“. Newton never responded.
It’s a great story, well told
For all that William Chaloner was a really bad person, I was a little sad for him at the end. If Chaloner had not been a counterfeiter he may have made himself famous at the Royal Mint, who simply just wanted to produce quality coins. Chaloner probably knew how to do this.
The book is excellent reading, it’s written like a novel and just as exciting. It’s an unlikely pairing; the cleverest man on the planet pitted against an uneducated crook. Thomas Levenson has researched the subject extensively but presents the story in a very readable form. Well worth a read.
Get the book “Newton and the Counterfeiter” from Amazon