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Billy & Charley’s Leaden Men

July 3, 2023
by the gentle author

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“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

11 Responses leave one →
  1. July 3, 2023

    I can see some irony here that these figures ARE now antique. One can only begin to imagine where they came by the ideas for the designs and who carved the original moulds. The level of detail is to be admired even though they were fakes.

  2. Susan permalink
    July 3, 2023

    I stumbled upon Billy and Charley years ago, when I bought an authentic pilgrim’s badge and was doing some research. What an interesting (and enterprising) pair they were! I especially thank you for the link to Philip Mernick’s website, which is fascinating unto itself.

  3. Richard Cleaver permalink
    July 3, 2023

    What a wonderful tale. With no harm intended other than to make a (dis)honest living the story has now transcended into folklore and brings a smile when recounted. The further irony to above is that there are now reported to be ‘fakes’ of the ‘fakes’ in circulation. How Billy and Charley would laugh.

  4. Robin permalink
    July 3, 2023

    I love Billy and Charley’s ingenuity and imagination. And yours, dear GA, with your inventive captions.”Blood-thirsty” is hilarious– a court jester… turned ad hoc executioner?

  5. Cherub permalink
    July 3, 2023

    They’re very charming, my favourites are Aghast and the Surly Knight.

  6. Annie S permalink
    July 3, 2023

    They may have been forgeries in the true sense but I think they are great pieces of work – love them!

  7. July 3, 2023

    Fantastic sham!

  8. July 3, 2023

    I am smitten. The Surly Knight. Oh, my.
    Shams, or not — these are wonderful examples of folk art, as only YOUR culture can express.
    Loved discovering these wonders today.
    Thank you, GA

  9. July 3, 2023

    I had not realised that Billy and Charlie made little lead men, too! They might have been rogues, but what delightful rogues…! They were true artists.

    (“Surly” looks a little like Sean Connery.)

  10. July 4, 2023

    The Sean Greenhalghs of their time. I love these little figures.

  11. Debenie permalink
    July 13, 2023

    These remind me of the lead figures we used to make as children, melting down old sash weights and using toy soldiers etc to impress into sand as a mould. Probably very inadvisable given leads poisonous qualities, but good fun.

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