Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Lives of Remarkable Criminals: Barbara Spencer


Coiner, etc.

Before we proceed to mention the particulars that have come to our hands concerning this unhappy criminal, it may not be amiss to take notice of the rigour with which all civilised nations have treated offenders in this kind, by considering the crime itself as a species of treason. The reason of which arises thus. As money is the universal standard or measure of the value of any commodity, so the value of money is always regulated, in respect of its weight, fineness, etc., by the public authority of the State. To counterfeit, therefore, is in some degree to assume the supreme authority, inasmuch as it is giving a currency to another less valuable piece of metal than that made current by the State. The old laws of England were very severe on this head, and carried their care of preventing it so far as to damage the public in other respects, as by forbidding the importation of bullion, and punishing with death attempts made to discover the Philosopher's Stone which forced whimsical persons who were enamoured of that experiment to go abroad and spend their money in pursuit of that project there. These causes, therefore, upon a review of the laws on this head, were abrogated; but the edge in other respects was rather sharpened than abated. For as the trade of the nation increased, frauds in the coin became of worse consequence and not only so, but were more practised.

In the reign of King William and Queen Mary, clipping and coining grew so notorious and had so great and fatal influences on the public trade of the nation, that Parliament found it necessary to enter upon that great work of a recoinage[1] and in order to prevent all future inconveniences of a like nature, they at the same time enacted that not only counterfeiting, chipping, scaling, lightening, or otherwise debasing the current specie of this realm, should be deemed and punished as high treason, but they included also under the same charge and punishment the having any press, engine, tool, or implement proper for coining, the mending, buying, selling, etc., of them; and upon this Act, which was rendered perpetual by another made in the seventh year of the reign of Queen Anne, all our proceedings on this head are at this day grounded. Many executions and many more trials happened on these laws being first made, dipping, especially, being an ordinary thing, and some persons of tolerable reputation in the world engaged in it; but the strict proceedings (in the days of King William, especially) against all, without distinction, who offended in that way, so effectually crushed them that a coiner nowadays is looked upon as an extraordinary criminal, though the Law still continues to take its course, whenever they are convicted, the Crown being seldom or never induced to grant a pardon.

As to this poor woman, Barbara Spencer, she was the daughter of mean parents and was left very young to the care of her mother, who lived in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate. This old creature, as is common enough with ordinary people, indulged her daughter so much in all her humours, and suffered her to take so uncontrolled a liberty that all her life-time after, she was incapable of bearing restraint, but, on every slight contradiction flew out into the wildest excesses of passion and fury. When but a child, on a very slight difference at home, she must needs go out 'prentice, and was accordingly put to a mantua-maker, who having known her throughout her infancy, fatally treated her with the same indulgence and tenderness. She continued with her about two years, and then, on a few warm words happening, went away from so good a mistress, and came home again to her mother, who by that time had set up a brandy shop.

On Miss Barbara's return, a maid had to be taken, for she was much too good to do the work of the house. The servant had not been there long before they quarrelled, the mother taking the wench's part. Away went the young woman, but matters being made up and the old mother keeping an alehouse in Cripplegate parish, she once more went to live with her. This reconciliation lasted longer, but was more fatal to Barbara than her late falling out.

One day, it seems, she took into her head to go and see the prisoners die at Tyburn, but her mother meeting her at the door, told her that there was too much business for her to do at home, and that she should not go. Harsh words ensuing on this, her mother at last struck her, and said she should be her death. However, Barbara went, and the man who attended her to Tyburn, brought her afterwards to a house by St. Giles's Pound[2] where after relating the difference between herself and her mother, she vowed she would never return any more home. In this resolution she was encouraged, and soon after was acquainted with the secrets of the house, and appointed to go out with their false money, in order to vend, or utter it; which trade, as it freed her from all restraint, she was at first mightily pleased with. But being soon discovered she was committed to Newgate, convicted and fined.

About this time she first became acquainted with Mrs. Miles, who afterwards betrayed her, and upon this occasion was, it seems, so kind as to advance some money for her. On the affair for which she died, the evidence could have hardly done without Miles's assistance, which so enraged poor Barbara that even to the instant of death, she could hardly prevail with herself to forgive her, and never spoke of her without a kind of heat, very improper and unbecoming in a person in her distressful state.

The punishment ordained by our laws for treasons committed by women, whether high or petty, is burning alive.[3] This, though pronounced upon her by the judge, she could never be brought to believe would be executed, but while she lay under sentence, she endeavoured to put off the thoughts of the fatal day as much as she could, always asserting that she thought the crime no sin, for which she was condemned. It seems her mother died at Tyburn before midsummer, and this poor wretch would often say that she little thought she should so soon follow her, when she attended her to death, averring also that she suffered unjustly. As for this poor woman, her temper was exceedingly unhappy, and as it had made her uneasy and miserable all her life, so at her death it occasioned her to be impatient, and to behave inconsistently. For which, sometimes, she would apologise, by saying that though it was not in her power to put on grave looks, yet her heart was as truly affected as theirs who gave greater outward signs of contrition; a manner of speaking usually taken up by those who would be thought to think seriously in the midst of outward gaiety, and of whose sincerity in cases like these. He only can judge who is acquainted with the secrets of all hearts and who, as He is not to be deceived, so His penetration is utterly unknown to us, who are confined to appearances and the exterior marks of things.

She lost all her boldness at the near approach of death and seemed excessively surprised and concerned at the apprehension of the flames. When she went out to die, she owned her crime more fully than she had ever done. She said she had learnt to coin of a man and woman who had now left off and lived very honestly, wherefore she said she would not discover them. At the very slake she complained how hard she found it to forgive Miles, who had been her accomplice and then betrayed her, adding that though she saw faggots and brushes ready to be lighted and to consume her, yet she would not receive life at the expense of another's blood. She averred there were great numbers of London who followed the same trade of coining, and earnestly wished they might take warning by her death. At the instant of suffering, she appeared to have reassumed all her resolution, for which she had, indeed, sufficient occasion, when to the lamentable death by burning was added the usual noise and clamour of the mob, who also threw stones and dirt, which beat her down and wounded her. However, she forgave them cheerfully, prayed with much earnestness and ended her life the same day as the last mentioned malefactor, Perkins, aged about twenty-four years.


[1] A commission was appointed to consider the debased state of the currency and, not without considerable opposition, a bill was passed in 1696, withdrawing all debased coin from circulation. This incurred an expense of some L1,200,000, which the Government met by imposing a window tax.

[2] This was at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street. It was an old London landmark, from which distances were measured as from the Standard in Cornhill. It was demolished in 1765.

[3] In practice, criminals were strangled before being burned. The last case in which this penalty was inflicted was in 1789; it was abolished the following year.

Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals