In June of 1692, a Holborn woman, Ruth Phillips, was charged with high treason in the Old Bailey. Her crime? Clipping coins. This may not sound like a serious offence today, but in the early modern period, trimming bits of the currency of the realm was seen as an attack upon the monarch by undermining the country’s coinage. English money wasn’t in great repute in the 1690s – the beleaguered government decided in 1696 to remake all the coins in a new, reliable process but failed to recall and remake all the money in this ambitious scheme. Instead, coin clippers and counterfeiter continued their covert attacks on the cash that fuelled England’s economy and filled their own pockets.
We might think of currency crime as an activity of powerful bankers, financial wizards or vast workshops of cunning tradesfolk, but coining and counterfeiting were crimes that could be committed at home by men and women, young and old. All it required were a few basic tools and enough muscle strength to wrangle the metal of the coins in order to succeed. That, and a little privacy where you wouldn’t be discovered in the criminal act. The accusations made against Ruth Phillips came largely from women in her household. After showing the many tools of the trade that were found in a trunk in her house, one of Ruth Phillips’ maids testified against her mistress.
Swore that comming into the Kitchen, she saw the Prisoners Arm move up and down as if she Clipp’d Money or somewhat else like it; and that she saw both Broad Money and Clipp’d Money lie before her, but she could not say that she saw any Shears in her Hands, neither did she see her actually Clip
Another witness testified that she heard the clipping of the coins, metal screaming under the trimming of the shears. Those tools and a bag of freshly trimmed coins were produced as evidence. Phillips fought back, accusing various others, particularly a nurse in her household who spoke against the mistress. In Ruth Phillips’ account, the coining materials had been brought into her house by some of her servants. Furthermore, the accused countered, charging that the Nurse who had testified against her had robbed Phillips. Another witness was brought forward to substantiate Phillips’ claim and further suggest that the nurse had framed her mistress. The court seemed unmoved by these counter-claims and given that so much material had been seized in Phillips’ house, how could anyone believe she was ignorant of the operation?
We do not know if Ruth Phillips was married, unmarried, or a widow. After her attempt to frame the nurse failed, the accused woman then claimed that one Cha. Phillips, presumably a male relative, had left the bag of coins and clipping tools with her but the court was dubious. Two wildly different claims from Ruth Phillips swayed the judge not at all. She was found guilty and the punishment for high treason was death.
However, Ruth Phillips had an ace up her sleeves or so she might think. The court heard a “pleading of the belly” where the condemned claimed that she was pregnant and thus should not be executed while she was quick with child. Apparently a jury of matrons agreed, as Ruth Phillips’ sentence was respited for pregnancy. In some cases, the respite was permanent: expectant mothers might be entirely pardoned or sentenced to a lesser punishment such as transportation. Sadly, Ruth Phillips was not so lucky. We have no information about her pregnancy, but in October her name appears in the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account as she is readied for her execution.
According to the Ordinary, Ruth Phillips had hoped that her respite, like that of some others, would have continued. Instead, she was rudely reminded that a respite wasn’t necessarily permanent.
Ruth Phillips, Condemned about three Sessions since, then respited because quick with Child, and now brought back to her former Judgment. She denyed not the Crime: She confess’d that she had neglected her Duty to God, of which she was now very sensible. I declared to her, that I feared she had not improved her Reprieve to the advantage of her Soul, but grew secure, hoping that she should escape the Sentence of Death. She replyed, that the Concernment of making Preparation for her Death, was a secret Work betwixt God and her own Soul.
When brought out to the execution, Ruth Phillips sat while the men were hanged and then her own method of execution was prepared. As befits a female traitor, her end was different: she was not to be hanged, but burned at the stake. The Ordinary was disappointed that there was no final penitence from this wicked woman. Ruth Phillips rather maintained that she was a victim of her servants’ malice, but submitted to her execution calmly. She was strangled and then her body was burned: a salutary lesson to any others who might besmirch the royal majesty by clipping coins.
Clifford, Naomi. “Pregnant and condemned: Pleading the belly and the jury of matrons.” Naomi Clifford: Life, Love and Death in the Georgian Era. 11 march, 2016. http://www.naomiclifford.com/pleading-the-belly-jury-of-matrons/
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 18 January 2018), June 1692, trial of Ruth Phillips (t16920629-32).
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 18 January 2018), Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, October 1692 (OA16921026).
Rock, Robert S. “Making Money Go Further – Clipping.” Coins, Crime and History 2 December, 2013. https://crimeandcoins.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/making-money-go-further-clipping/