Forging Money in the Regency- the sad case of John Binstead, 1815

On June 26, 1815, a young man from Sussex, John Binstead, entered a hosiery shop in Friday Street, Cheapside. Binstead was not alone; he had a companion, who was watching events from the back of the shop. Binstead examined the stock of socks, boots, gloves and coats. The owner, Robert Romanis explained that Binstead ‘came to my house, and purchased some goods from William Must, a person in my shop’- many London retailers, even upmarket ones like Romanis, lived on the premises, and the shop/warehouse/ home distinction was less clear in the regency than today. The goods cost £4 7 shillings and Binstead offered a banknote for £10, drawn on the Chichester bank of Ridge, Murray and Ridge, known as the Chichester Old Bank.

Until recently, paying with paper was common in our society, but in 1815 this apparently inoffensive habit was relatively new. This type of transaction was still quite novel in Regency England. Paper had replaced gold for transactions through an act of parliament of 1797 which took Britain off the gold standard and obligated more people to use paper.

A genuine banknote; could be forged with materials found in city street

The problem was its authenticity. Was it a forgery? Mr Romanis would have done a rapid calculation in his head. On the plus side, this was a learned young gentleman, who was spending his ‘money’ at the most upmarket hosier in Cheapside, who sold to both individuals and trade, including the East India Company. Most utterers of forged notes were women, who would appear at grocers or haberdashers and try to charm their way into having their notes accepted in exchange for small items and change in real currency. The other argument in his favour was that this was a £10 note. The poor could not be seen with them without creating instant and justified suspicion, but the large denomination notes were different. Most forgeries were £1 or £2 notes, which criminals actually preferred.

This crowning argument was when one of Romanis’s assistants whispered in his ear that he knew one of the gentlemen, presumably the one lingering in the background. The transaction was completed. Binstead was asked to endorse the cheque and provide ID by writing his name and address on the back of the piece of paper. He did so by adding a lie ‘Henderson, 16, Great Portland-street’- a prestigious address, deliberately chosen to create confidence

What did Romanis receive for his physical goods?  It was a mostly handwritten piece of paper with these reassuring words on.

“N. e, 1765,  Chichester Old Bank.

“I Promise to pay the bearer, on demand, Ten Pounds, here, or at Messrs. William, S. Fry, and Sons, bankers, London, value received. Chichester , the 16th day of February, 1815.

The fact that the cheque was drawn on a provincial bank would not have been a problem, as the cheque could be redeemed in London by a partner bank, in this case Fry’s . Romanis went there the next morning and was told that it was a forgery. One of its servants said this at the Old Bailey Trial.

WILLIAM DINMORE . I belong to the house of Fry and Co. bankers. The Chichester Old Bank notes are paid at our house. Mr. Murray signs notes for the house drawn upon us. The signature of this note is not his signature. This is not a Chichester note.

Romanis then visited Great Portland Street, and every other London street with the word ‘Portland in it’, but with highly predictable results.

Romanis then accompanied Thomas Fogg, a marshal man of the City of London to Arundel in Sussex where they tracked down Binstead to a local inn. He admitted his guilt and threw himself on to their mercy. It is not clear how they tracked him down; it seems to have been connected to the fact that the other person was known to the shop assistant; this is perhaps why they went to Arundel to find him rather than Chichester.

Binstead was not a typical forger and utterer of banknotes. For a start, he did both of the crimes himself and secondly, made no attempt to defend himself against a capital crime. The most remarkable difference was his method of making the notes. Forgeries were produced by criminal gangs who only needed the most basic of engraving tool to make a banknote. The equipment and the paper could be bought in any street. Sometimes individuals could make banknotes in their own homes by scratching out an outline on a piece of tin. Binstead had gone one step further and actually drawn the notes – he was a drawing teacher by trade, and a gifted one too, as he had fooled the Star Inn Gosport to take one, as well as Robert Romanis. He had made the monochrome note with a camel hair brush and some pencils. He admitted to making about £100 worth of notes (not necessarily of £10; notes could be drawn for any amount) and uttering them successfully.

He was sentenced to hang.  He was now on death row, awaiting his verdict. He still had reason to hope. Most death penalties, for any crime stood a good chance of not being carried out. He had been totally cooperative; he took the police officer to Chichester to showed him the brushes that he had used to draw his money. Five respectable witnesses had given Binstead a most excellent character for honesty, sobriety, and integrity, and the Chichester bankers Mr Ridge himself asked for mercy, because of Binstead’s  youth and good character.

From 13 September to 26 November he waited and hoped. On the next day the man whose trial came after his, John Elmes, who had passed a £10 note in London around the same time had his death penalty reduced to twenty-one years transportation. Binstead, however, was sentenced to be hanged until dead outside Newgate Prison. In the terminology of the Georgian Bloody code, it was to be a ‘simple execution’

A Newgate hanging

Why had he been selected? Well, there was no more invidious property crime that subverting the currency- technically it was treason. In 1815 there was a relatively low number of 58 executions in England and Wales (1814-74; 1816- 83). There were six for forgery and four for uttering, so currency crime made up 17% of all executions. Extreme deterrence was needed now and then, and Binstead fitted the bill. He was both an utterer and a forger. His accomplice had never been caught, and Binstead may have been deemed uncooperative in tracking him down. He had also made a lot of banknotes, and showed promising signs of getting away with it. He was too clever to be allowed to live.

Poor Binstead must have suffered. His defence at the trial was that he did not know they were forged, a comment completely contrary to everything else he said and did. He must have been crumbling. His failure to grass up Mr Jordane would have saved his own neck, and one plausible answer was that he simply did not know where Jordane was.

Cotton in action- the man in white, appropriately

He had eight days to wait for his hanging and during that time he came under the scrutiny of the gaol’s ‘ordinary’ (resident chaplain) Horace Cotton ( more about him here and below ). Cotton’s task was to help the condemned man’s launch into eternity to be as respectable as possible. This would start with a bloodcurdling sermon about the wages of sin the day before and then the chance to die well, with humility and resignation and without the fear of death. Binstead passed the test, spending the final night in prayer and contemplation with the house robber who was condemned with him. His only request that, after death, that his hands might not be applied to persons who came to be rubbed for the wen’ – a skin disease.

On December 5, 1815, Binstead was hanged outside the debtor’s gate at Newgate, cleanly and efficiently, but certainly a victim of the inconsistent and vengeful system that punished randomly and viciously because it could do nothing else.

A Protest against the Death penalty for forgery, signed by the hangman, Jack Ketch, produced by William Hone

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Please consider my two books on the Georgian and Victorian Era

The Dark Days of Georgian Britain– a political and social history of the Regency. More details here

Passengers – a social history of Britain 1780-1840 told through travel, transport, roads and hospitality. More details here