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Billy & Charley’s Curious Leaden Figures

January 14, 2014
by the gentle author

“Curious leaden figures discovered at Shadwell” read the shameless announcement published in the ‘Illustrated Times’ of February 26th 1859, placed there by George Eastwood, eager dealer in the works of Billy & Charley, two East End mudlarks turned forgers who succeeded in conning the London archaeological establishment for decades with their outlandish and witty creations.

These fine examples of Shadwell shams from the collection of Philip Mernick fascinate and delight me with their characterful demeanours, sometimes fearsome and occasionally daft – inspiring my speculative captions which you see below.

Witch doctor




Hookah pipe


St Peter




Weary Conqueror

Surly Knight


Announcement by George Eastwood, Billy & Charley’s dealer, published in the Illustrated Times, February 26th, 1859

A very considerable addition has been made during the winter to the singular leaden signacula found at Shadwell, which were the subject of a trial at Guildford. They are now on view at Mr. George Eastwood’s, Haymarket, where they have been inspected by some of the most experienced antiquaries, who, while they one and all concur in asserting the perfect genuineness of these remarkable objects, do not fully agree in explaining the purpose for which they were made. Upon one point there is no dispute, and that is, that the figures date from Queen Mary’s time, and were probably used in religious processions. Some of the badges resemble the earlier pilgrims’ signs.

The centre figure shown in the illustration we give of these additions to archaeological science, is that of a king holding a sword in his left hand and with the other pointing downward. The head is surmounted by a crown, the hair is long and flowing, the beard square in form and the face altogether bears great resemblance to the effigies seen on some of our early Saxon coins. To the right of this figure is another, evidently a bishop, judging from the mitre which he wears – the dress is apparently extremely rich in ornamentation. Immediately in front of thisfigure stands a smaller one, also of an ecclesiastic, but having no inscription on its base like the others. Again, in front of this another mitred statue holding a scepter of globular form at the top and dressed in robes of costly material. To the left are two well-formed bottles with handles, the lesser one having winged figures around the body. The larger one has also figures upon it and a foliated pattern. To the left of the king, who forms the centre of our group, stands a female figure, in not very graceful attitude, bearing a scepter in one hand and having the other resting on her hip. The remainder are but repetitions, to a great extent, of those already described and require no further explanation.


You may also like to take a look at

Billy & Charley’s Shadwell Shams

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Annabel Mallia permalink
    January 14, 2014

    A cardinal’s chess set maybe?

  2. Libby Hall permalink
    January 14, 2014

    How wonderful to see more of this fabulous collection. My favourite this time is ‘Aghast’ (perfect caption) closely followed by ‘Weary Conqueror’.

    What marvellous things the Gentle Author finds to share with us.

  3. January 14, 2014

    I love their work, it’s so alive.

  4. January 14, 2014

    Remarkable, extraordinary, exciting — not only for that time when they were made.


  5. Gary Arber permalink
    January 14, 2014

    It appears tht every generation had its Dell boys.
    The comments of the so called experts admiring the works remind me of the comments made by 20th century “experts” when Esther Ransom and her team set up a fake art exhibition and invited the public to view the “exhibition” where hidden cameras filmed their reactions.

  6. Katya permalink
    January 15, 2014

    One could assume these resourceful fellows derived a bit of pleasure from an understanding that humans love to be dazzled by magic, real or otherwise. Whether the beguilement is a carefully staged seance, a fleeting figure in an artfully crumpled photograph, indeed, a battered trinket unearthed from the mud, such sorcery becomes, magically, more endearing than criminal.
    Thank you, Gentle Author, for unearthing this gem.

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