Uttering, not littering

Research Brief 2


Learning to decipher the handwritten criminal registers being used to construct the Prosecution Project’s database can be like learning another language. Over time the initially illegible appearance of nineteenth-century scrawl becomes more familiar. Those who work regularly with archival documents gradually learn the secrets of decoding the idiosyncrasies of historic handwriting; discovering, for example, that a double ‘ss’ can take on the appearance of an ‘f’.

Those who become involved in the transcription of documents related to criminal justice find themselves additionally becoming familiar with arcane legal terminology, and with obscure or now defunct categories of crime. During the learning process, though, mistakes are inevitably made. One transcription error that caused a fair bit of amusement among the project team early on involved a case where a man apparently convicted of littering was sentenced to seven years’ hard labour, a rather harsh sentence for such an offence, even during the colonial era.


Reference back to the original text revealed that the man had been convicted of uttering, a fairly common offence in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Uttering is the crime of knowingly using or tendering counterfeit coin or a forged instrument – such as a cheque or legal document – with intent to defraud. Individuals often appear in the criminal registers charged with both forgery and uttering, since those who uttered counterfeit coin or cheques were likely to be implicated in the forgery unless the police identified an accomplice as the responsible party. Forgery being the more serious offence some defendants plead guilty to uttering in the hope of avoiding a longer sentence. Juries who doubted a defendant’s level of involvement in the crime or who were otherwise sympathetic to their plight could also return a partial verdict against those charged with forgery by finding them guilty of this lesser offence.

However, the scale on which uttering was conducted and the financial rewards it returned could vary dramatically. The most rudimentary attempts involved simply disguising a coin for another of greater value. A silver sixpence could easily masquerade as a gold half-sovereign by changing the colour, as both had the same size and edges, and featured Queen Victoria on the obverse and a shield with the ensigns armorial of the United Kingdom on the reverse.

The uttering of counterfeit coins, bank-notes and cheques often took place in public hotels, where the high volume of business provided greater cover for such transactions. Individuals who were identified tendering forged money despite these precautions usually claimed they had themselves received the counterfeit without realising anything was wrong with it. Society was far less cash-ready than today, however; suspicion attached to those who could not identify where they had received particular coins or notes, or prove that the transactions took place.

More sophisticated counterfeiting attempts tended to involve a group of co-conspirators. The most skilled forgers, once they became known to police, were forced to have others utter their forgeries in order to try to distance themselves from the crime. Criminal associates, sometimes more than one, were therefore given the task in exchange for a share of the profits. William Manwaring, a police detective in Victoria from 1857 to 1880, noted that forgers looked for utterers with an ‘honest and pleasant expression’ who could pass as respectable farmers. Women were also recruited to the practice, especially underclass women already in the habit of assisting male confederates. Mary Mortimer, charged with uttering in Melbourne in 1875, had thus previously been convicted of receiving stolen goods in 1867. Yet uttering was a versatile offence that at other times embodied a form of employee theft or white-collar crime in cases where workers used their positions to abstract cheques or cashbooks from which to utter forged instruments.

The most dramatic cases of forgery and uttering were those involving confidence-tricksters who used forged documents in larger schemes of deception. The mobile nature of the populace of the Australian colonies, particularly during the heady gold-rush period, and the slow means of communication with other parts of the globe, made them perfect locations for such shams. The type of documents involved included wills, birth and marriage certificates, property contracts, land transfers and letters of authority. In 1855 a man giving the name Houston, for example, presented himself in Adelaide as an agent of the Royal Zoological Society of London sent to collect native wildlife specimens, with a generous letter of credit from an English bank ostensibly for this purpose. The South Australian Banking Company advanced him several hundred pounds before discovering months later that the letter was forged and the man an imposter, by which time he had returned to England. Discovery of the fraud created a sensation in the local papers.

While uttering is not as familiar to the public today, it remains a criminal offence.


Author: Dr Alana Piper, Postdoctoral Research Fellow

To cite this research brief: Alana Piper, ‘Uttering, not littering’, The Prosecution Project, Research Brief 2, https://prosecutionproject.griffith.edu.au/uttering-not-littering (15 October 2014, viewed 19 July 2016).