Isaac Newton and the Counterfeiters

Isaac Newton and the Counterfeiters

By John Craig

Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1963)

Introduction: Dr. Isaac Newton, who retained his Cambridge appointments, probably entered on the Wardenship of the Mint between 13 April 1696, the date of his warrant of appointment, and 2 May when he took the oath of secrecy. A memorandum by Thomas Fowle, one of the clerks, showed him that Montague’s ‘not much business to require more attendance than you can spare’ exaggerated the burden. The three principal officers of the Mint had each his peculiar province, though formal concurrences of colleagues were required for some matters. Any or all of them could leave everything to his deputy. The Comptroller kept the bullion accounts as a check on the Master’s minting, and looked after buildings and some ancillary services. The Master received the whole yield of certain taxes which he disbursed as required at stereotyped rates; he contracted to coin for set fees from this fund all gold or silver bullion bars offered to the Mint, but sub-contracted the work to the Melter and the Company of Moneyers who provided their own staff. The Warden represented the other party to this contract, the Crown; he still paid, with money drawn from the Master, those salaries once charged on the Crown’s share of the seignorage, which he had collected till its abolition; he could give orders to none except his three clerks, but he retained some fading judicial powers. Newton’s six immediate predecessors scarcely attended at all. His petition to the Treasury to restore the old primacy of the post shows his distaste for the role. The wardenship in fact remained a sinecure from before 1600 till its abolition in the 19th century except for his term, from 1696 until 1699.

Meddling with sterling coin was a capital crime. An extra clerk annexed to the Warden’s little bureau was one of the many uncoordinated organs for catching offenders, who, though he made occasional forays into the provinces, held no monopoly even in London. A Secretary of State, the Treasury Solicitor, several Justices of the Peace and any number of zealous persons, private or in state service alike, took on investigations and prosecutions. Some of the greater lights retained a number of the lesser as standing agents. Drive was supplied by a statutory reward of 40 for each conviction, to be shared among the informants, and by minor douceurs for unsuccessful efforts, while the convicted felon was entitled to pardon if he gave information which convicted two others, and might secure it, and could certainly obtain delay, by a readiness to oblige.

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