James Brennan had been a detective in the Metropolitan Police (for G Division) but had left the force to join a specialist team at the Royal Mint. Their role was to actively pursue inquires and prosecutions against those involved in forging and distributing counterfeit currency.
In April 1860 Brennan and his team, acting on information received, visited the Penton Arms beer shop in Islington looking for suspected coiners. He saw his target, Harry Mason, talking with two or three others. Brennan went directly up to him and said:
‘Harry, I am instructed by the Mint authorities to take you into custody. You are suspected of dealing in counterfeit coin’.
With that he reached into Mason’s pocket and removed a small bag. Inside were ‘several little packets’ containing ’31 florins and 25 shilling piece, all of them counterfeit’. There was also a tobacco tun within which was a ‘good’ florin, evidently used to make the mould for the ‘bad’ ones.
The idea that people would bother to forge fake coins of such relatively small value might seem a risk not worth taking; much less obvious perhaps than counterfeiting a high denomination bank note. But look at what has just occurred in 21st century Britain? The Mint has just issued a brand new one pound coin, complete with all sorts of anti-forgery technology. Apparently 1 in 30 of the the old ‘Thatchers’ is fake, hence the desire to crate something that can’t be forged.
Back in Islington in 1860 Mason was bundled into a cab as a ‘mob’ was gathering and inspector Brennan presumably feared they might help him affect and escape. The Mint’s inspector took his prisoner to his last known address – 2 Pembroke Street, near Caledonian Road – where they found one of his known accomplices, Margaret Sawyer. Brennan told Mason that the Mint had been watching him for several weeks; this was a carefully conceived operation.
A search of the premises revealed plenty of evidence of coining: they found a mould in a cupboard, ‘two galvanic batteries fully charged, another mould, two or three cylinders, a number of bottles containing acid, and all the necessary implements for making and colouring counterfeit coin’.
Mason was, as they say, ‘bang to rights’.
Brennan took his charges before the Police Magistrate at Clerkenwell where it was revealed that Mason was a milkman by trade, and was well known to the police, having been charged and convicted of a felony more than once before. He tried of course to deny the charges, and said the florin in the tobacco tin was also ‘bad’; Margaret said she knew nothing about any of it and hoped the magistrate would discharged her.
He did nothing of the sort and remanded them both for a week, so the Mint’s solicitor could appear. Bail was refused.
The pair appeared at the Old Bailey just under a month later to face their trial. Margaret Sawyer was acquitted as she’d hoped, Mason though was convicted. A century earlier, a little over 40 years even, he would have faced the gallows but by 1860 the death penalty had been abolished for all crimes except murder. Harry Mason was sent into penal servitude for 8 years.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 09, 1860]