Don’t Take Any Wooden Nickels–Or You Might Be Hanged

First of all, thanks to everyone who came out last weekend for our Philagrafika events, the event was a great success and one thing we definitely learned from the watercoloring exercise is that adults like to do craft projects too!

I realized through conversation that my label for George Cruikshank’s “Bank Restriction Note,” which was displayed with Enrique Chagoya’s dollar bill satire was less enlightening than it should have been and may have raised more questions than it answered. So I thought I’d try to clear up some of that in this forum.

(Color photos of our banknote make it hard to see the details clearly, so I am using this black and white version of the note from William Andrews’s book Bygone Punishments, via Project Gutenberg.)

In my label, I noted that the Bank Restriction Note was a protest against the use of capital punishment for forgery and also that the Bank Restriction period referred to the years 1797 to 1821 in which the British government, strapped for cash from the Napoleonic wars, went off of the gold standard and issued bank notes that were not redeemable for gold. All well and good. But I stupidly did not explain what the connection was between Bank Restriction and forgery–so here goes.

During the Bank Restriction period the government started issuing one, two, and five pound bank notes, whereas previously these denominations had only been available as coins. Before Bank Restriction, the smallest banknote was for 10 pounds, which meant that the average person would never use paper currency. The introduction of the smaller bills meant that paper currency was used much more and therefore made forgery easier to pass off–it was no longer suspicious for people to be paying with paper. Also, the early official banknotes were not well designed and people weren’t used to handling paper currency, which made forgery even easier. The result was that “In 1801 forgeries amounting to over £15,500 were discovered. Over half of them for the one pound and two pounds, the balance being five pounds.” (see here for more information)

So now onto the capital punishment side. One of the things that galled Cruikshank was that it was not only the making of forged currency that was punishable by death, but also the crime of “uttering” which was passing forged notes, regardless of whether or not the person realized they were forged. So an innocent person, who didn’t realize the notes he received were forged and then passed them on into circulation, could also be hanged. Reformers decried this as an example “the bloody code” and forgery became the focus of reform efforts in the British capital code in the late 1810s and 1820s. In 1832 the punishment for forgery was reduced from death to transportation (to Australia).

I hope this clears everything up.