The King of counterfeiting:

Actor Pierre Brault portrays both Sir Isaac Newton and William Chaloner, the king of counterfeiting, in the play Counterfeit! by the Ottawa Baroque Consort on May 11. PHOTOS: LISA WALL

An incredible story told in music and drama

By Lisa Wall

How can you tell if the money in your wallet is counterfeit? Even with today’s technology, fake coins and bills still circulate. But can you imagine the possibilities in the 1600s? Without modern safeguards, counterfeiting could be done with relative ease and by a number of different methods. The problem was so widespread that it brought the British economy to the brink of collapse in the 1690s.

In fact, in 1696, fully 10 per cent of all coins in circulation in England were fake! And even though counterfeiting was considered high treason and punishable by death, it would seem everyone was attempting to clip, pound, melt or otherwise fashion silver or other base metals into the likeness of a shilling or a guinea.

Many of these were easy to spot, but not those of William Chaloner. With a background in blacksmithing, Chaloner was able to produce moulds that turned out coins of equal, and some have even said better quality than the Royal Mint of England! A devious character and insider connections allowed Chaloner to get away with bolder and bolder schemes. But could he fool the Royal Mint itself? And if that worked, could he take on the Bank of England? The government? By the time England had woken up to the fact that the king of counterfeiting was in their midst, they needed a very strong adversary to stop him.

The case was assigned to the warden of the Royal Mint of England, a position held at the time by none other than Sir Isaac Newton. Newton had retired from a 30-year career at Cambridge University. He was famous the world over for his scientific findings, widely published and consulted on matters of all kinds. But he was ready for a change and accepted the position of Warden of the Mint.

And so, one brilliant mind was pitted against another. Newton’s mandate was not only to stop Chaloner, but also to solve the country’s crippling financial crisis and put an end to rampant coin counterfeiting. If he failed, so did the English economy, and Chaloner’s life hung in the balance.

This incredible story is the topic of the newest play by the Ottawa Baroque Consort. Simply titled Counterfeit!, it will be performed by well-known Ottawa actor Pierre Brault with live music by the Ottawa Baroque Consort. Brault will play both Chaloner and Newton in this performance. Playing multiple characters in a single play is a skill Brault has become particularly well known for over his career. Watch as he alternates between villain and detective with only changes in demeanour, voice and posture to tip us off. The play will be presented May 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Glebe St. James United Church.

The story of Chaloner and the British currency collapse are so captivating that we have added two free pre-concert talks to the program. We are excited to announce that the Ottawa Numismatic Society will collaborate with us in giving these talks, bringing with them an in-depth knowledge of currency and its history. We are also thrilled that they have offered us historical counterfeit coins and artifacts to put on display during these talks. Join us at one of the two offered times (see box). It is the same talk, repeated twice. The talk is roughly 1.5 hours in duration, allowing for questions and viewing of the artifacts. And yes, we will be showing you how to tell if the cash in your wallet is real or counterfeit!

Lisa Wall is a clarinettist and communications manager for the Ottawa Baroque Consort. She can be reached at

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