The famous flint forger of Whitby

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Almost 200 years ago, Whitby was a vibrant centre for geological discovery.

Ammonites allowed Lewis Hunton to devise his geological theory that would transform paleontology, while all along the coast ancient artefacts were being uncovered.

This was the golden age of Victorian geology and museums and collectors were furiously snapping up any items they could find.

Into this world was born Edward Simpson, a Sleights resident of no remarkable birth or education, but who possessed a talent that would make him famous as a rascal and forgerer.

He would earn various nicknames throughout his career, such as ‘Flint Jack’, ‘Snake Billy’, ‘Fossil Willie’ and ‘Bones’, but his career began in the most honest of circumstances.

In 1829, aged just 14, he entered into the service of Dr George Young, a local minister and geologist.

Dr Young would talk profusely about history and pre-history and Edward would listen intently and soak this information up.

He would later use the knowledge he gained to sell his deceptions to others.

After leaving the service of Dr Young, and the death of his next master, Edward turned his attention to collecting and cleaning fossils from around Whitby, which he then sold on to collectors and dealers.

Aged 26, and having achieved a good reputation in the local area, Edward was approached by a dealer who showed him a flint arrow head and asked whether he could make one like it.

Discovering a natural talent for forgery, Edward embarked upon a 30-year career that would have earned him a modest fortune, had he not fallen foul of a liking for drink.

To supply his cravings for liquor he set about forging hundreds of flint arrow heads and a variety of other ‘artefacts’, including pottery, a Roman milestone and even a Roman breastplate made out of a metal tea tray.

But the sale of these items could not compensate for his need for alcohol and the vagrant Edward squatted in cliffs near Bridlington or lived in the woods of Staintondale - where he could set up a pottery and manufacture more artefacts.

The first pot he made was sold for a considerable sum and encouraged him to follow this more lucritable trade.

After modelling an urn he would place it in the shelter of an overhanging rock for it to dry and would then set off to Whitby or Scarborough to sell his goods.

In 1845 Edward got to know a collector of prehistoric remains named Mr Kendall.

One day he showed Edward some flints he had purchased from a dealer in Whitby, and when asked what he thought about them, Edward admitted he had made them.

It was this openness and naivety that would prove Edward’s undoing, as he would later become well known as a forger, and his unscrupulous profession would come to an unceremonious end.

He spent a year in London and would brag that many of his forgeries could be found in the British Museum.

Chief among his detractors was a Mr Tennant of the Strand, who organised a public demonstration of flint forging, in which the unsuspecting Edward readily co-operated.

Edward had many supporters while the practice remained secret, but these soon disassociated themselves from the forger when his practice became public.

He left the capital and for a time returned to the honest practice of collecting and selling genuine fossils and shells, primarily around York, Teesside, and along Hadrian’s Wall.

However, upon stumbling across a piece of flint on the beach at South Shields, he fell back into his old habits.

For the next few years he would travel around Britain and Ireland, selling his wares.

He eventually returned to London where, in 1862, he took part in a public demonstration which showcased his talents at creating flint tools.

Before an assembled crowd of influential geologists, Edward created multiple arrowheads at great speed.

This meeting saw the height of ‘Flint Jack’s’ fame, but also marked the beginning of his descent.

Had he kept off the drink he may have rescued a reputation as an eccentric adventurer, but sadly his addiction was such that, unable to sell his forgeries due to his self-imposed fame, Edward took to the road as a tramp.

He was sent to Bedford Gaol for twelve months for the attempted theft of two petty objects - the start of a series of minor offences that would repeatedly see him incarcerated.

At one point he even stole a top hat from his former master, the Dr E. Wood, who was a well-known naturalist and geologist.

Presumably illiterate, and leaving no documents relating to his life, little more is known about Edward’s later years.

It is thought that he probably died in a workhouse around 1875, though where and exactly when is not known.

This article was produced with the assistance of ‘Flint Jack’ (1985), by Michael Richardson and Tom Stamp and published by Caedmon of Whitby.