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Billy & Charley’s Shadwell Shams

January 4, 2014
by the gentle author

William Smith & Charles Eaton – better known as Billy & Charley – were a couple of Thames mudlarks who sold artefacts they claimed to have found in the Thames in Shadwell and elsewhere. Yet this threadbare veil of fiction conceals the astonishing resourcefulness and creativity that these two illiterate East Enders demonstrated in designing and casting tens of thousands of cod-medieval trinkets – eventually referred to as “Shadwell Shams” – which had the nineteenth century archaeological establishment running around in circles of confusion and misdirection for decades.

“They were intelligent but without knowledge,” explained collector Philip Mernick, outlining the central mystery of Billy & Charley, “someone told them ‘If you can make these, you can get money for them.’ Yet someone must also have given them the designs, because I find it hard to believe they had the imagination to invent all these – but maybe they did?”

Working in Rosemary Lane, significantly placed close to the Royal Mint, Billy & Charley operated in an area where small workshops casting maritime fixtures and fittings for the docks were common. Between 1856 until 1870, they used lead alloy and cut into plaster of paris with nails and knives to create moulds, finishing their counterfeit antiquities with acid to simulate the effects of age. Formerly, they made money as mudlarks selling their Thames discoveries to a dealer, William Edwards, whom Billy first met in 1845. Edwards described Billy & Charley as “his boys” and became their fence, passing on their fakes to George Eastwood, a more established antiques dealer based in the City Rd.

Badges, such as these from Philip Mernick’s collection, were their commonest productions – costing less than tuppence to make, yet selling for half a crown. These items were eagerly acquired in a new market for antiquities among the middle class who had spare cash but not sufficient education to understand what they were buying. Yet many eminent figures were also duped, including the archaeologist, Charles Roach Smith, who was convinced the artefacts were from the sixteenth century, suggesting that they could not be forgeries if there was no original from which they were copied. Similarly, Rev Thomas Hugo, Vicar of St Botolph’s, Bishopsgate, took an interest, believing them to be medieval pilgrims’ badges.

The question became a matter for the courts in August 1858 when the dealer George Eastwood sued The Athenaeum for accusing him of selling fakes. Eastwood testified he paid £296 to William Edwards for over a thousand objects that Edwards had originally bought for £200. Speaking both for himself and Charley, Billy Smith – described in the record as a “rough looking man” – assured the court that they had found the items in the Thames and earned £400 from the sale. Without further evidence, the judge returned a verdict of not guilty upon the publisher since Eastwood had not been named explicitly in print.

The publicity generated by the trial proved ideal for the opening of Eastwood’s new shop, moving his business from City Rd to Haymarket in 1859 and enjoying a boost in sales of Billy & Charley’s creations. Yet, two years later, the bottom fell out of the market when a sceptical member of the Society of Antiquaries visited Shadwell Dock and uncovered the truth from a sewer hunter who confirmed Billy & Charley’s covert means of production.

As they were losing credibility, Billy & Charley were becoming more accomplished and ambitious in their works, branching out into more elaborate designs and casting in brass. It led them to travel beyond the capital, in hope of escaping their reputation and selling their wares. They were arrested in Windsor in 1867 but, without sufficient ground for prosecution, they were released. By 1869, their designs could be bought for a penny each.

A year later, Charley died of consumption in a tenement in Wellclose Sq at thirty-five years old. The same year, Billy was forced to admit that he copied the design of a badge from a butter mould – and thus he vanishes from the historical record.

It is a wonder that the archaeological establishment were fooled for so long by Billy & Charley, when their pseudo-medieval designs include Arabic dates that were not used in Europe before the fifteenth century. Maybe the conviction and fluency of their work persuaded the original purchasers of its authenticity? Far from crude or cynical productions, Billy & Charley’s creations possess character, humour and even panache, suggesting they are the outcome of an ingenious delight – one which could even find inspiration for a pilgrim’s badge in a butter mould. Studying these works, it becomes apparent that there is a creative intelligence at work which, in another time, might be celebrated as the talent of an artist or designer, even if in Billy & Charley’s world it found its only outlet in semi-criminal activity.

Yet the final irony lies with Billy & Charley  – today their Shadwell Shams are commonly worth more than the genuine antiquities they forged.

You may also like to read about

Steve Brooker, Mudlark

Mud God’s Discoveries 1

Mud God’s Discoveries 2

Mud God’s Discoveries 3

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Libby Hall permalink
    January 4, 2014

    What a marvellous story! What a wonderful collection!!

  2. January 4, 2014

    What a brilliant story

  3. January 4, 2014

    They might have been chancers… but very clever and enterprising. A great story.

  4. January 4, 2014

    They made some wonderful things, and must have been most creative, great story. It reminds me of Thomas Chatterton! Valerie

  5. January 4, 2014

    What a brilliant story. A tribute to the ingenuity and spirit of a people You can just imagine the embarrassment of the art world .What a tragedy that Charley died so young I heard somewhere that the average life expectancy in Bethnal Green in 19th Centary was 25 So much for the Empire. Keep the stories coming your a gentleman Phil

  6. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    January 4, 2014

    Looking at the bunch of them together: the bug-eyes are so similar, as if they were all made by the same artist, not many different engravers over the course of many centuries. Also, the letters, especially those wavy S’s – the same thing. And the dates – as well as not being Roman numerals, they are so easy to read, unlike real dates on real coins and medals!

    But I really like the animals perched at the top of some of them, and they are very attractive.

    By the way, here in sunny, sunny NEW England, the water pipes are frozen this morning. One degree Fahrenheit outside, this morning; no shower for me.

  7. Stephen Barker permalink
    January 4, 2014

    Looking at them together the lettering and the dates look so false. But the images on the medals/tokens show real imagination even if the armour in many cases looks like it has been derived from Nineteenth century illustrations of the past. I am surprised the fraud was not detected sooner than it was.

  8. Gerry Wiseman permalink
    January 4, 2014

    Most interesting. This is a new one to me.

  9. mary moulder permalink
    January 4, 2014

    I find it so amusing that things that were “of shame” in one generation can become great stories of huge chuckles several generations later. (I speak of my own genealogy experience of characters, of course.) It would be a great “tourist” item to reproduce the fakes in “pewter; ie fake cast aluminum; and sell them as ornaments truthfully giving the source of the journey to the present. Just saying…from Tucson, Arizona.

  10. Robert Brown permalink
    January 14, 2014

    I bought one forty years ago, a large statue of a “mediaeval” warrior, and it still stands on my bookshelf!

  11. Shawdian permalink
    May 18, 2017

    FABULOUS ! :)) What larks!

  12. Norman Lakay permalink
    August 30, 2022


    I am in possession of one of the medals with the date of 1205

    Kind regards

    N. R. Lakay

  13. December 30, 2022

    What a pair of clever Victorian Del-Boys eh? You cant blame them for making a bit of money spurning these fakes which are now collectors items in their own right, and now I hear there are copies of these copies!!!

    I have four of these to date and find them very interesting; I started a small collection as “Things that are often mistaken for horse brasses, but are not” and became interested in their history.

    A fascinating article indeed!

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