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Shadwell Dock Forgeries

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    OA.5288

  • Title (series)

    • Shadwell Dock Forgeries
  • Description

    Lead statuette; standing figure (bishop?) in floral robe and with mitre, holding sword in left hand and laurel wreath in right; sham inscription around base; fake.

  • Date

    • 19thC
  • Production place

  • Materials

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 13.8 centimetres
  • Inscriptions

      • Inscription Type

        inscription
      • Inscription Position

        base
      • Inscription Comment

        Sham legend.
  • Curator's comments

    Jones 1990
    'Billy and Charley's' medieval forgeries
    William Smith (Billy) and Charles Eaton (Charley) were mudlarks who searched the foreshore of the Thames for valuable objects. In 1857, deciding that they could make more money by manufacturing 'finds', they started to cast a range of 'medieval' objects, mainly medallions or badges, decorated with figures, animals and garbled inscriptions, in hand-cut plaster moulds.
    Taking the precaution of dating many of their products (in arabic numerals), mainly to the eleventh century, they sold them at Shadwell, where a new dock was being excavated. Through William Edwards, an antique dealer whom they had known for some time, many of their wares found their way into the shop of another antique dealer, George Eastwood. Naturally, the sudden appearance of these peculiar objects aroused suspicion, and in April 1858, in a lecture to the British Archaeological Association, Henry Cumming condemned them as forgeries. His lecture was reported by the Athenaeum and sales rapidly declined. George Eastwood, however, decided to sue the Athenaeum for libel and at the subsequent trial secured the famous scholar Charles Roach Smith as a witness. Roach Smith considered that, even though the judge decided that Edwards had not been libelled, the trial 'proved the genuineness of the finds'. In his opinion they could not be forgeries because no forger would produce anything so preposterous and no forger could produce so wide a variety of objects. It was not until 1861 that a further article by Roach Smith on the finds, suggesting that they dated from the reign of Queen Mary and that they had been imported to replace devotional items destroyed during the Reformation, provoked Charles Reed into further investigation. This culminated in the theft of some of Billy and Charley's moulds, which were then exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries.
    Though their exposure restricted their market, Billy and Charley continued in business, using 'cock metal' (a lead/copper alloy) from 1863, until Charley's death in 1870. They produced several thousand pieces in all, and their work is now quite sought after. As evidence of the extent to which a vision of the Middle Ages had penetrated popular culture, as a concrete realisation of that vision and as enduring proof of the gullibility of even the greatest scholars, they are unrivalled.

    Literature: R. Halliday, 'The Billy and Charley Forgeries', Antique Collector (June 1988), pp. 140-3.

    More 

  • Bibliography

    • Jones 1990a 199c bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited:
    1992 Mar-1993 Jan, Canada, Québec, Musée de la Civilisation, True or False or: Beyond Reality

  • Subjects

  • Department

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory

  • Registration number

    OA.5288

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Object reference number: MCN2155

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