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The term Billy and Charley or Shadwell forgery or Shadwell dock forgery[1] refers to one of a series of mid-19th Century forgeries of medieval lead and pewter artifacts. The name derives from two Londoners, William (Billy) Smith and Charles (Charley) Eaton, who were responsible for their large scale manufacture between 1857 and 1870. At the time, some antiquarians were fooled by the forgeries, despite them being crudely made by two individuals with limited skill in metalworking and little knowledge of medieval art,

Today, Billy and Charleys are viewed as examples of Folk art and are sought-after collectable items in their own right.[2] A number of museums hold collections of them and some have been sold for higher values than examples of the medieval originals they purported to be.

William Smith and Charles Eaton[edit]

Little is known of the lives of William Smith (dates unknown) and Charles Eaton (c.1834-1870) except that when young they were Mudlarks - individuals that made a small living by searching the mudflats of the River Thames at low-tide, seeking any item of value. They lived in Rosemary Lane (now called Royal Mint Street) in what is now part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.[3]

In 1845 Smith came into contact with an antique dealer, William Edwards; Eaton met Edwards some years later. Edwards came to view the pair as "his boys" and frequently bought from them items of interest they found while mudlarking.[3] In 1857, the two began to manufacture counterfeit examples of some of the medieval artifacts they had previously found and sold to Smith.


During their career, Smith and Eaton manufactured many kinds it items, including pilgrim badges, ampulla, statuettes, small, portable shrines and medallions. Initially they were all made from lead or pewter, but later the two also used brass. The items were cast using plaster of paris molds, into which a design by engraved by hand. They were then given the appearance of age by being bathed in acid.

The most common type of Billy and Charley were medallions, around 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) in diameter. These had crude depictions of knights in armour, crowned kings or religious figures. They often carried inscriptions, but as Smith and Eaton were illiterate, these were meaningless. To give the appearance of age, many of the items also carried dates between the 11th century and the 16th century. However the dates were inscribed using Arabic numerals which only came into use in England during the 15th century and would have been anachronistic on the "older" items.[3]

Smith and Eaton sold their forgeries to Edwards, selling around 1100 items between 1857 and 1858 for a total of £200.[4] The two claimed the source of the steady stream of antiquities was was the large-scale excavations then taking place as part of the construction of Shadwell Dock. Edwards in turn sold them to another antique dealer, George Eastwood.[4], who made a great success from selling them to the public. This success can be explained by the fact that in the mid-19th century, there was great public interest in medieval history, especially amongst the growing middle class. However the archaeology of the period was a comparatively undeveloped field, even amongst the era's leading scholars, making it easier to pass off the forgeries as genuine.

Libel trial[edit]

By 1858, Henry Syer Cuming, the secretary of the British Archaeological Association, together with the archaeologist Thomas Bateman, had noticed the appearance of large numbers of medieval artifacts for sale which they suspected to be forgeries from a single source. On 28th April, Cuming delivered a lecture, "Some Recent Forgeries in Lead",[4] to the British Archaeological Association in which he condemned them as "Gross attempt at deception". The lectured was reported in The Gentleman's Magazine and the Athenaeum. George Eastwood responded with a letter defending the authenticity of the items he was selling, and then by suing the publishers of the Athenaeum for libel, even though he had not been named in their report.

The trial was held at Guildford Assizes on 4 August 1858. The judge was Sir James Shaw Willes, Eastwood was represented by Edwin James QC.[4]

Among the witnesses were William Smith (described in a newspaper report as a "rough looking young man"[4]) In his testimony, Smith claimed he had obtained the objects from the Shadwell Dock construction site, by bribing the navvys building the dock with money and drink, and by sneaking onto the site himself after hours. He testified he had sold around 2000 to £400 [4]

The prominent antiquarian Charles Roach Smith testified to the authenticity of the Billy and Charlies. Before the trial, Roach-Smith had stated their very crudity was an argument for their authenticity - he assumed any 19th Century forger intent on deception would simply have done a better job in making them. Later in 1861, he would write they were 16th century religious tokens, dating from the reign of Mary I of England.[3] Under examination during the trial, he simply said that he could not say what the objects were for as he believed them to be a of a previously unknown type. However, he was confident of their age. The Rev. Thomas Hugo, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, gave testimony that supported Roach-Smith, stating that the items dated from the 15th or 16th centuries.[4]

Subsequent history[edit]

The libel trial attracted widespread publicity. Even though Eastwood failed to convict the Athenaeum of libel, the result gave the appearance of endorsing the authenticity of his stock, and his business prospered.

Later career of Smith and Eaton[edit]

Despite their exposure, Smith and Eaton continued to make and sell forgeries throughout the 1860's. In 1867 they were arrested in Windsor, Berkshire after a local clergyman recognized them. In court, there was found to be insufficient evidence to prosecute and they were released. Charlie Eaton died in January 1870 of consumption. William Smith's last appearance in the historical record was in 1871, when he was attempting to sell a copy of a 13th century lead jug. Nothing further is known about him.

Modern Collections[edit]

Examples of Billy and Charleys are in the collections of the British Museum[1], the Victoria and Albert Museum[5] and the Museum of London.


  1. ^ a b "Shadwell Dock Forgeries". Collections Online. The British Museum. Retrieved 11 January 2016. 
  2. ^ Mark Jones; Paul T. Craddock; Nicolas Barker (1990). Fake?: The Art of Deception. University of California Press. p. 188. ISBN 978-0-520-07087-5. 
  3. ^ a b c d Halliday, Robert (1986). "The Billy and Charley forgeries". The London Archaeologist (Autumn). 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "Home Circuit". The Times (23065). London. 6 August 1858. p. 12. 
  5. ^ "Billy and Charley". Collection Catalogue. Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 11 January 2016. 

See also[edit]