Freshfields Prison Correspondence 1781-1840

In the late 18th and 19th century, an epidemic of forged Bank of England paper notes began to emerge.

The surge in counterfeit notes was a consequence of the Napoleonic Wars in the 18th century which had led to the ‘Restriction Period’, a time when the Bank was no longer able to pay out gold in exchange for Bank notes. The result was the issuing of low denomination £1 and £2 notes in 1797, with many soon being forged and circulated across the country.

From 1697, those convicted of forging Bank of England notes had committed a capital offence. By 1725, the crime of ‘uttering’, or the known circulation of forged notes, had also been classified as a crime deemed worthy of capital punishment. However, a significant change to the way the Bank of England prosecuted those suspected of severe forgery was introduced at the start of the nineteenth century. With over 300 people being hanged for the counterfeiting of Bank of England notes during the Restriction Period, the Bank had grown to recognise that another solution to the crime of forgery needed to be found. A bill drafted by Freshfields, the Bank’s solicitors, was passed as law in May 1801 and offered those convicted the option of a ‘plea bargain’. This gave a prisoner the option of pleading guilty to being in possession of counterfeit notes; a plea that would be met with a punishment of 14 years transportation. If this plea was agreed, a capital charge would not be pursued.

Letters written by, or on behalf of, prisoners who were convicted of crimes relating to forgery of the Bank of England’s paper currency are currently held at the Bank of England Archive. They form part of the Freshfields collection, which holds many of the letters of pleas for help and charity from those convicted by the Bank’s prosecution. The letters are split into two groups; those written from the London area, and those written from outside London, described as ‘Provincial’. A significant majority of the London letters were written from Newgate Gaol, whilst the Provincial letters were written from prisons such as Bath, Horsham, Portsmouth and Warwick.

The surviving letters, transcribed by Deirdre Palk in 'Prisoners Letters to the Bank of England 1781-1827', illustrate the circumstances in which a number of prisoners found themselves following their convictions. 

Since the introduction of fixed denomination notes by the Bank of England in the early 18th century, the security concerning Bank of England notes has evolved greatly, with much having been learnt over the last two hundred years. A further history of the Bank of England bank notes can be found at the Bank of England Museum. 

Archive Catalogue Reference: F25/1-13

This page was last updated 31 January 2023