Billy, Charley and the Shadwell Forgeries
Amongst the many items that Hull Museums look after is a collection, which at first glance may seem nothing out of the ordinary. A group of 24 lead objects, ranging from medallions and pilgrim badges to ornate statuettes, Medieval you may think. However this collection is part of something much bigger, a clever forgery, conjured up by two illiterate mudlarks called William (Billy) Smith and Charles (Charley) Eaton, which fooled some of the most important historians and antiquarians in Victorian England.
Mudlarks to Forgers
Billy and Charley came from the area of Shadwell, London and began making forgeries in the middle of the 19th century. They started out as mudlarks, scouring the banks of the Thames for anything of value which they could then sell on. This brought them into the contact of William Edwards, a London antiques dealer, who paid them for anything of interest they found. It soon became clear to Billy and Charley that there was money to be made in antiques, and in 1857 they began their counterfeit operation.
They cast objects in lead, or lead alloys like pewter. They used carved plaster casts and bathed the finished objects in acid to make the objects look older. Their most popular objects were medallions, however they made coins, statuettes, ampullae's and even small shrines. Figures on the forgeries tended to be of Kings, knights and priests, all with naive expressionless faces.
As Billy and Charley were illiterate the writing on the forgeries are all completely meaningless. The two men claimed that they found the pieces at Shadwell where a new dock was being built and William Edwards became an unwitting participant in their scam believing the forgeries to be the earliest pilgrim badges ever found.
Taken to court
It is believed that in the 4 or 5 years that they were in production, Billy and Charley produced between 5,000 and 10,000 forgeries. The sheer volume of items aroused suspicions and they were brought to the attention of the British Museum who believed them to be forgeries. However, many archaeologists and local historians believed them to be real, giving them dates ranging from 1300 to 1600. Even a court case could not prove that the objects were forged or that the two men were behind it.
After the court case Billy and Charlie continued making the forgeries. However Charles Reed, owner of a local printers, did not give up and bribed a sewer scavenger to break into their workshop and collect moulds which finally proved that they were forgeries. Despite this evidence they were never arrested, as it was difficult to prove they had broken the law, but they could no longer sell the pieces and production stopped around 1870.
Many of the forgeries would continue to circulate around London, and there are now pieces all over the country, with some fine examples looked after by Hull and East Riding Museum. To have an important collection in a museum because it is a forgery would indeed seem strange to Victorian historians and archaeologists, particularly to those that dismissed them as no more than children's toys!
View the 24 items from this collection.