Educator Megan Gooch (Learning Producer for Historic Royal Palaces) introduces us to Catherine Heyland, a coin counterfeiter risking her life for her trade…
Spending a penny was a dangerous business in 1788. Seriously. If the money you spent included a counterfeit coin, you could be convicted of high treason and executed.
Today, when the rate of counterfeit pound coins is estimated to be 3% of those in circulation, you’ve almost certainly ‘passed off’ a counterfeit coin in your time. You criminal! Luckily the punishments are not so severe these days. In 1788 men would be hanged, drawn and quartered for this crime, and women burned at the stake, which was somehow deemed a more modest end for the ladies.
So it was a pretty desperate, bold or foolish young woman who engaged in the nefarious activity of not just using counterfeits, but making them. Catherine Heyland was such a woman.
Heyland and her accomplices were caught red-handed in 1787 in a garret workshop full of incriminating evidence. Catherine was wearing an apron, stained black like her hands, from the noxious nitric acid used to clean newly minted coins. There were crucibles full of molten metal, coin moulds for casting the fakes, and damningly, some brand new fake shillings.
Catherine’s defence at the Old Bailey was that she borrowed the apron, she hadn’t known her male accomplice very long, and she’d just walked in the room before the raid by the authorities. The court convicted her of high treason and she was sentenced to death, doomed to await her punishment in a gloomy, cramped and unsavoury cell in Newgate Gaol. She was imprisoned there for 14 months before given a reprieve.
Instead of execution by burning, she was transported to Australia, arriving there aboard the Lady Juliana in 1790, after a gruelling 390 days at sea. The ship gained notoriety as a floating brothel for the ship’s officers and seamen at ports along its journey. Catherine was sent to work on Norfolk Island until she was pardoned by the governor in 1796. After which she found a husband who farmed and made furniture, and had two sons.
Catherine wasn’t an unusual young woman. Counterfeiting and ‘passing off’ fake coins was a huge business in eighteenth-century London, and women were a key part of the criminal enterprise. They were useful for spending the new fake coins in markets and shops, disguised as honest housewives.
Catherine’s punishment was also typical of eighteenth-century law, a lengthy stay on ‘death row’ in awful prison conditions, before being shipped in worse conditions to Australia to complete her punishment and forge a new life.
Cheery stuff. Now, I’m off to check I’m not harbouring any fake coins in my purse…
A real shilling made in 1787, the kind of coin Catherine Heyland was caught counterfeiting © Arthur Bryant coins