Saturday, 10 September 2011


By Richard Locker

The Victorian era was an age teeming with heroes and villains, from an abundance of pioneers, inventers and forward thinkers, to the numerous ‘evil’ empires that sought to knock Great Britain from its imperial throne. Even the privileged and academic worlds of geology and archaeology had their share of good and bad from such luminaries as Charles Lyell and Lieutenant - General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers right through to the villainous, like the infamous anti-hero Flint Jack (aka Jack Flint, Fossil Willy, Bones, Shirtless, Cockney Bill, the Old Antiquarian, Snake Billy, Skin and Grief).

Edward Simpson was born in 1815 in the village of Sleights. The family appeared unexceptional, his father been a sailor, and it was probably assumed that the young Edward would follow in his footstep when he eventually came of age. But his life was destined to take a different path when at the age of fourteen Edward became a servant to the local Geologist and Historian Dr George Young.

It seemed that this is where Edward learnt the rudiments of his trade as he followed Dr Young on his fossil - hunting expedition along the Yorkshire coastline. Some time later he left the services of Dr Young and took up with a Dr Ripley who was also a keen local historian.

After Dr Ripley’s death Edward ostensibly became an itinerant worker and it was on these tramps that he began to acquire his numerous aliases. At first he etched out a meagre living by gathering fossils found along the cliffs of Whitby and selling them to the local dealers. In 1841 he extended his ‘walks’ to include Scarborough, Filey and Bridlington, where he also became quite an expert in cleaning the fossils.

But it was on a return visit to Whitby when Edward met with a dubious character called Mr Dotchon, who showed Edward his first flint arrow head. Mr Dotchon went on to inquire if it was possible for Edward to replicate the arrow heads. Edward, fascinated by this questionable venture, decided to take up the proposition, and so it was that Flint Jack was born.

Replicating the fine workmanship of a genuine flint arrow head was a lot harder than Flint Jack had first imagined. In his despair Jack decided that however the Ancient Britons had crafted such tools had long been lost to antiquity, until one day when, purely be accident, he finally discovered a means of achieving the desired effect.

It was said that one morning whilst Jack puzzled over the intricacies of a flint arrow he became distracted by a damaged gate, he took off the hasp which was hanging loose and absentmindedly struck the ring against a piece of flint. To his astonishment off flew a fine flint flake and upon trying again and again he soon discovered he had found the perfect tool for his needs.

This was the defining moment that sent Flint Jack head long on his deceitful enterprise, along with flint tools he also set about reproducing British and Roman urns, which he manufactured first in Bridlington and then in a hut at Stainton Dale in the vicinity of Raven Hall, but possibly the most unscrupulous ‘find’ was ‘discovered’ in 1846 at Pickering, when he used an old tea tray to fashion a piece of armour. The Roman breast plate, he claimed, was unearthed at a site near Cawthorne camp on the outskirts of town. In fact he was so proud of his ‘discovery’ that when he had finished it he put it on and marched into the town of Malton, where he immediately found a buyer for the piece.

Jack eventually branched out and after teaming up with an art dealer named Block in Colchester move onto London, where Block acting as Jack’s agent set about selling the ‘finds’. It is no small credit to Flint Jack’s ingenuity and charisma that he was able to fool the establishment for so long . For not only did he pray upon the amateur Victorian collector he was also able to sell artefacts to museums and other serious collections across the country, including numerous pieces to the British Museum itself.

But in the end it seems that Flint Jack was his own worst enemy, as this passage from the Whitby Gazette at the time proclaims :-

It is to be regretted that a man so capable should be destined to waste his information among the occupants of the common lodging-house or the beer-house kitchen. On being asked recently, in Malton, what he would do if he was put into a hogshead of beer, he replied, “I would drink myself dry!”. Such is Flint Jack.

The following excerpt is a concise account of Flint Jack’s trial published in the Whitby Gazette on 19th March 1867

"Flint Jack" - A notorious Yorkshireman - one of the greatest impostors of our times -was last week sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for felony at Bedford. The prisoner gave the name of Edward Jackson, but his real name is Edward Simpson, of Sleights, Whitby, although he is equally well known as John Wilson, of Burlington, and Jerry Taylor, of Billery-dale, Yorkshire Moors. Probably no man is wider known than Simpson is under his aliases in various districts - viz. "Old Antiquarian", "Fossil Willy", "Bones", "Shirtless","Cockney Bill", and "Flint Jack", the latter name universally.

Under one or other of these designations Edward Simpson is known throughout England, Scotland and Ireland - in fact, wherever geologists or archaeologists resided, or wherever a museum was established, there did Flint Jack assuredly pass off his forged fossils and antiquities. 

He imbibed, however, a liking for drink, and he admits that from that cause his life for 20 years past has been one of great misery. To supply his cravings for liquor he set about the forging of both fossils and antiquities about 23 years ago.

In 1859, during one of his trips to London, Flint Jack was charged by Professor Tennant with the forgery of antiquities. He confessed, and was introduced on the platform of various societies, and exhibited the simple mode of his manufacture of spurious flints. From that time his trade became precarious, and Jack sunk deeper and deeper into habits of dissipation, until at length he became a thief, and was last week convicted on two counts and sent to prison for 12 months.


Marnie said...

How fascinating!

Richard said...

He did seem like quite a lovable rogue.