The Castle & Falcon Inn in Aldersgate Street, c.1827
What does ringing the changes mean to you? I’d always thought it was a phrase that suggested we might try something new, maybe originating from bell ringing, but it appears that in the 1870s it had another, less innocent, meaning.
In April 1879 Thomas James was brought before the alderman magistrate at the Guildhall Police court in the City of London. James was a young man who lived with his mother in Hoxton and may well have been suffering with some sort of illness. He said he was a sailor but his mother, who came to court to speak up for him, said he was ‘subject to fits and not accountable for his actions’.
Thomas was in court because he had been arrested by a policeman at the Falcon Tavern in Aldersgate Street. According to a number of witnesses he had approached the barman there and ordered a half pint of beer. The beer cost a penny and the youth handed over a shilling, receiving ‘6d. in silver and 5d. in copper’ in his change.
‘Young man’, James addressed the barman, ‘you have given me only 5 1/4d.’ The barman apologized and handed over another sixpence.
It was a scam, a trick known as ‘ringing the changes’. Thomas was well practiced at it and had conned Ada Slap, a barmaid at the Bell Tavern in Falcon Square out of 2s, and another (Ann Gale, barmaid at the Royal Mail in Noble Street) said he’d tried (and failed) to play her for a fool for a shilling.
Unbeknown to the conman however, a policeman had been alerted to his fraud by the staff at the Royal Mail and followed him to the Falcon. He watched him approach the bar and, as he began to walk away the officer asked the barman if he’d been tricked. When the man confirmed his suspicions PC Hickman (170 City) followed him out and nabbed him.
A search revealed that James was in possession of 8s 6d in silver, 1d 7d in copper and a few farthings. At the Guildhall he was charged with obtaining money by false pretenses, with intent to defraud. He admitted the charge at the Falcon (he could hardly do otherwise) but denied the others. Alderman Hadley sent him to prison for a month at hard labour.
According to Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld (1949) to ‘ring in’ or ‘ringing the changes’ was to exchange ‘bad’ currency (i.e. forgeries) for ‘good’. That expression dates back to at least 1811. ‘When a person receives silver in change, to shift some good shillings and put bad ones in their place’ says the dictionary. The term ‘ringing’ (for doing the same thing) can be traced to the middle of the previous century.
Ringing the changes, as it was by Thomas James (to con people – generally tradesmen), is still a common enough fraud, as this warning from the Devon & Cornwall Policeshows.
The Falcon (or Castle and Falcon Inn) used to stand at 5 Aldersgate Street but was demolished many years ago. The Royal Mail (originally the Coachmakers Arms then the Royal Mail Coach) stood at 17 Noble Street. It was rebuilt in 1898 but I think it too has vanished. After this current health crisis I wonder how many other London pubs will finally fall victim to the wrecking ball?
[from Morning Post, Monday 14 April, 1879]