The Society of Arts included among its members some of the country’s best artists, engravers, printers, mechanics, and inventors. This made it the ideal organisation to respond to a crisis triggered in 1797 by the landing of 1,400 invading French troops in Wales.
Even though the French troops were easily defeated, rumours of an invasion caused panic. People rushed to their local country banks to convert their paper bank notes into gold coin. To avoid the rapid depletion of Britain’s gold reserves, the government suspended convertibility.
British bank notes before 1797 had not circulated widely. They were generally printed in denominations of £10 and upwards - almost £1000 in today’s money - so they exchanged hands infrequently and noticeably. Forgery was very rare. But when the Bank of England suspended gold convertibility it replaced the coinage with tens of millions of notes in denominations as low as £1 and £2. With so many notes entering circulation, it became impossible for shopkeepers to keep track. This, together with the poor design of the notes, made forgery both easy and common.
The Bank of England reacted to the growing number of forgeries by killing. The punishment for forgery, or paying with a forged note, was hanging. In 1801, the Bank even criminalised possession, to be punished by fourteen years of transportation to Australia. The Bank's lawyers pressured people into pleading guilty to possession, in exchange for avoiding the death penalty: the plea bargain was born.
But by 1818 the Bank’s own inspectors were reportedly unable to distinguish some fake notes from the real ones. If even the experts could not tell them apart, how could the public? Was the Bank's ruthlessness sending hundreds of innocents to the gallows? Many believed the Bank was itself to blame for making its notes so easy to copy. A technical solution was needed.
Solving the problem of forgery required the combination of art and industry in the service of the public - the ideal project for the Society of Arts. On the urging of John Thomas Barber Beaumont, a painter-turned-soldier-turned-managing director of a fire insurance office, in 1818 the Society put out the call for solutions.
Some, like Beaumont himself, argued that bank notes should be engraved by only the very best artists. The idea was that true talent was difficult to reproduce. Yet finer art would also require the latest engraving technology. The Bank used copper plates to print its notes, which quickly wore out and needed to be re-engraved many times every day by hand. To solve this, the Society recommended steel plates, which could be used twenty to thirty more times than copper.
Another suggestion was to engrave by machine. A "rose engine" could etch intricate geometrical patterns, impossibly complicated for anyone to reproduce by hand. As luck would have it, the engineer Joseph Clement had just won the Society’s gold medal for such an engine (Clement is best known today for constructing Charles Babbage’s difference engine, a forerunner to the calculator). A more bizarre suggestion was to integrate real peacock feathers into the paper! (pictured below)
In 1819 the Society printed its report, recommending a combination of proposals. But the report fell upon deaf ears – the Bank pursued a perfect solution at the expense of useful improvements. In the end, the crisis simply disappeared: in 1821 the Bank restored gold convertibility and recalled the low-denomination notes (but not before having prosecuted over 2,000 people for forgery, many of whom lost their lives). Despite this disappointment, however, many of the Society’s suggestions would become standard elements of modern bank note design.
Our historian in residence, Anton Howes, is currently writing a complete history of the RSA. If you're interested in finding out more, please email him at Anton.Howes@rsa.org.uk.