HC Deb 22 January 1819 vol 39 cc72-8
The chancellor of the exchequer

presented, by command of the Prince Regent, the following REPORT of the Commissioners appointed for inquiring into the mode of preventing the FORGERY OF BANK NOTES. To his Royal Highness George Prince of Wales, Regent of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In obedience to the directions contained in his majesty's commission, we proceeded, in the latter end of the month of July last, to consider the important subject referred to us. Our attention was first directed to the proposals for improvement in the form of the notes issued by the Bank of England; and it being known that many plans had been submitted to that body which they had not thought it expedient to adopt, we felt it proper, in the first instance, to obtain correct information upon this point; and we therefore requested the court of directors to furnish us with an account of such plans, They did accordingly furnish us, without delay, with a detailed account of 108 projects, regularly classed and arranged; together with the correspondence respecting them, a statement of the trials to which they had been subjected, and specimens of the proposed originals, and of the imitations executed by order of the Bank. They also laid before us about seventy varieties of paper made at their manufactory in experiments for its improvement, in which almost every alteration recommended for adoption had been tried, and, in some instances, anticipated by their own manufacturer. We have also received and answered communications from about seventy individuals, which have been arranged and considered; and in some cases, a personal interview has been requested, and held. Several of these persons had been previously in communication with the Bank: and we find that in the instance of some projects of superior promise, the directors had furnished to the proposers, the pecuniary means of carrying their ideas into effect. We have likewise sought and obtained information, as to the state of the paper currency in other countries; but this has proved of very little importance, with reference to the object of our present inquiry. From America, which affords the closest parallel to the state of England in this particular, no official return has yet been received, but we have reason to think that in several parts of the United States, the crime of forgery is prevalent, and that great efforts are now making to give to the notes such a character as may baffle the skill of the American forger. Specimens of these improved notes have been communicated to us by the agent of the American patentee, and have received our particular attention with regard to the practicability of adopting the invention, in whole, or in part, so as to present a barrier to the art and skill of the forger in this country. Upon the general subject of the extent of forgery, we do not think it necessary to recapitulate statements which are already before parliament and the public. It appeared to us however proper to obtain more particular information as to the course which has been hitherto pursued by the Bank, both with respect to the prevention, and with respect to the detection and punishment of the crime. Upon the former of these points, we have received from the directors, in addition to the account before alluded to, clear and circumstantial details. And it is but common justice to those gentlemen to state, that in every instance our inquiries have been met by them in the most prompt and satisfactory manner, and every sort of useful information readily furnished. We feel it also proper to add our opinion, formed after an examination of all the projects which have been formerly submitted to the Bank for a change in the form of their notes, that no one of these could have been adopted with such a prospect of solid advantage to the public, as would compensate the evils necessarily attendant upon a change. The invention to which we refer in the latter part of this report, and on which our attention is now principally engaged, was laid before the directors a short time previous to the issuing of his majesty's commission, and so far entertained by them, that they advanced a large sum of money to the author. The chief merit of this invention consisting in the extreme accuracy of the machinery requisite, time and application are necessary to bring it to such a state of perfection as appears likely to answer the purpose desired. Upon the latter of the two points above referred to, we have received from the chief inspector and chief investigator at the Bank, and also from the solicitor, accounts of the course pursued in their respective departments. For which purpose, we requested the personal attendance of each of those officers, and entered into such an examination of them, as appeared to us to be calculated to produce the necessary information. We have also been furnished by the Bank with the means of judging of the actual slate of forgery, and of that degree of skill which appears sufficient to deceive the public, by the examination of forged notes of various kinds; and even of the tools and instruments used by one forger, which were taken upon him. Whilst it is painful to observe the degree of talent perverted, it is at the same time o be remarked, that in many instances the public suffer themselves to be deceived by very miserable imitations; and it is to be feared that a similar carelessness would very much lessen the good effects to be derived from the employment of superior skill and workmanship in the formation of a new note. Another fact appears proper to be noticed here, as forming an important ingredient in the consideration of any proposed plan. The issue of small notes by the bank is necessarily very uncertain and irregular in its amount. We find, that to keep up the usual supply, not less than fifty plates are requisite; and it is considered proper to have a much larger number in a state of preparation. And as it is obviously necessary to preserve, as much as possible, identity in the notes, this circumstance alone, precludes the application for this purpose of many ingenious plans, even if there did not exist other insuperable objections to them. Resulting from the above statements and examinations, some general observations have occurred to us, which appear proper to be introduced in this stage of the Report. It has been very commonly imagined, that, in consequence of the simplicity or execution in the present bank notes, the actual forgery of them was very generally and extensively practised, and that often by persons without money or talent; and this idea has formed the basis of much of the reasoning used by many of the projectors, whose plans have been under our view. The reverse of this we believe to be the fact; and from the information before us, we feel ourselves warranted in stating our opinion, that the great quantity of forged small notes which have lately been found in circulation, have all issued from a very few plates only; and that the fabrication of them is chiefly confined to one particular part of the country, and carried on by men of skill and experience, and possessed of a very considerable command of capital. Upon a cursory observation, it appeared remarkable that whilst so many utterers are constantly brought to justice, the actual forger should very rarely indeed be detected. But further investigation has led us to think, that this fact may be accounted for; and without entering into details, which upon this point it is better to avoid, we think that it results naturally from the lamentable perfection of system, to which this fraudulent traffic has been brought; and we have seen no reason to doubt that the directors of the Bank, and their officers, have used every exertion in their power to bring the actual forgers to justice, though unfortunately without success, except in very few instances. We cannot refrain however from adding to this statement, our opinion, that there must be some culpable remissness in the local police of those districts within which the actual fabricators of bank notes are more than suspected to reside, and to carry on their trade with impunity. And before we quit this part of the subject, we wish to suggest for the consideration of those, by whose judgment such a question may be properly decided, whether it might not be expedient to offer a very large reward for the apprehension and conviction of a person actually engaged in forging bank notes. We are aware of the objections which exist against the system of pecuniary rewards, and are fully impressed with a sense of the evils that may arise from a too general adoption of it. But the circumstances under which the crime of forgery exists in this country are peculiar; and it appears to us hardly possible that those evils which might be anticipated from the offer of a reward in the case of some other crimes, could follow from such an offer in this case; and knowing how many individuals must be saved from punishment by the conviction of one actual forger, we venture to recommend the adoption of this measure, to be concurrent with such an improvement in the form of the note as we hope to see effected. Having been furnished with such information as was within our reach, relative to the subject of our inquiry, we in the next place, proceeded to examine more in detail the several projects submitted to us. In pursuing this examination, we have not indulged the vain expectation of finding any plan for a Bank note, which shall not be imitable by the skill of English artists, and we have considered that it would be utterly unsafe to rely for security against forgery, upon the employment of any process, the chief merit of which was to consist in its being kept secret; of which several have been communicated to us. Our object has been, to select some plan, of which the process, when the principles of it are understood, and the machinery and implements provided, should be simple enough to be applied without interruption to the extended operations of the Bank; and should at the same time comprise so much of superior art, as may oppose the greatest possible difficulties to the attempts of the forger, and may present such points of accuracy and excellence in workmanship to the eye of any individual using ordinary caution, as shall enable him to detect a fraud by observing the absence of those points in a fabricated note. In the mass of the schemes before us, there are, of course, very various degrees of merit; and we endeavoured to class them as well as circumstances would permit. From a very large portion of them it was obvious, upon a first inspection, that no beneficial result could be expected. Of the whole number, we find about twelve of superior skill and ingenuity, but anticipated by others of higher merit; or merely ingenious, but inapplicable in practice. And we consider nine others to be either of such originality or ingenious combination of existing means, as to have required our more particular attention; and with respect to these, much consideration has been had, and in some instances, improvements and experiments suggested and tried. We have not considered, as decisive against the merit of any particular plan, the single fact, that it may be imitated by superior art and expensive means. But when we have found, in the case of specimens submitted to us, apparently of great excellence, and the result of a combination of talent or machinery, that a very good imitation has been produced in a short time, without any peculiar expense, and by the application of means only, which are within the reach of very many artists and engravers in England; and when we reflect, to how very few hands the business of forgery appears to be at present confined, we cannot doubt that in the event of bank notes being formed from any of such specimens, an equal number at least of persons would very soon indeed be found capable of fabricating those notes to a considerable extent, and with a degree of skill quite sufficient to deceive the public. Another consideration has also had weight in inducing us to hesitate much, before we venture to recommend any specific plan. The adoption of any new form of note presenting peculiar and characteristic marks, but the imitation of which we could not confidently feel to be extremely difficult, would not only not do good, but would produce much evil; and would induce a false security, by accustoming the public to rely upon the appearance of such marks and peculiar character, rather than upon a cautious and general observation of the whole note. Our remarks however, as to imitation, do not apply to all the specimens which have been offered to us. There are a few of singular and superior merit, produced by means which it is very improbable should ever come within the reach of any single forger, and the imitation of which, except by those means, appears in a high degree difficult. Safety, or rather comparative safety, is to be sought, to a certain extent, in a combination of excellence in various particulars; but chiefly, as we conceive, in the application of a principle beyond the reach of the art of the copper-plate engraver, which in its different processes is possessed of the most formidable power of imitation. One plan, before alluded to, as apparently affording this advantage, has been, with the most liberal assistance from the Bank, for some time past in a course of trial for its greater perfection, and with a view to combination with other improvements, satisfactory experiments of which have already been effected. The result, if our expectations be not disappointed, will afford a specimen of great ingenuity in the fabric of the paper, of great excellence in the workmanship, and of a very peculiar invention, and difficult machinery in the art of printing. We confidently hope, that no long time will elapse, before we are enabled to lay before your royal highness that result; and we have every reason to know, that the bank directors are seriously anxious to adopt any plan, which shall be found, after patient examination, to be worthy of adoption. In the mean time, we have thought it right not to delay informing your royal highness of the course of our proceedings. The investigation in which we have been engaged, has strengthened rather than removed our feeling of the difficulties with which the whole subject is surrounded. We do not wish to represent those difficulties as precluding the propriety of an attempt to remove the existing evils, by a change in the form of the notes issued by the Bank of England; but we do feel them to be such, as make it imperative upon those with whom the responsibility rests, to be fully satisfied that they shall produce an improvement, before they venture to effect a change. All which is humbly submitted to your royal highness's consideration and judgment. Soho Square, Jos. BANKS. Jan. 15, 1819. WILLIAM CONGREVE. WILLIAM COURTENAY. DAVIES GILBERT. JER. HARMAN. W. H. WOLLASTON. CHARLES HATCHETT.

The report was ordered to lie on the table, and to be printed.