The Cragg Vale Coiners: the real counterfeiting conspiracy behind The Gallows Pole
A gritty BBC Two series, directed by Shane Meadows, dramatises the lives and dishonest livings of a counterfeiting gang in the north of Georgian England, who were so successful that they severely devalued the pound. Nige Tassell tells the real story behind the drama of the Cragg Vale Coiners and the ‘king’ who ruled over them...
“If the story of the Cragg Vale Coiners was a work of fiction, it would rank alongside the likes of Treasure Island, Robin Hood and Oliver Twist. The fact that it is a true story places its participants alongside infamous criminal legends such as Blackbeard, Jesse James and Dick Turpin.” The historian Steve Hartley – writing in his book The Yorkshire Coiners: The True Story of the Cragg Vale Gang – is quite correct when it comes to describing the bunch of 18th-century counterfeiters from the West Riding whose nefarious activities nearly bankrupted the economy of the country.
It’s a brutal story of misdeeds, double-crossing and murder. As such, it’s a tale that’s ripe for the small-screen treatment, which it’s received courtesy of a three-part BBC Two drama, The Gallows Pole, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Shane Meadows and based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Benjamin Myers.
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The act of manufacturing counterfeit coins had occurred ever since metal coins were first introduced and accepted as common currency. Most who were caught and convicted of the crime tended to work alone or as part of a small outfit. Counterfeiting gold and silver coinage was outlawed by a 1696 Act of Parliament and, as a mark of the seriousness of the offence, it carried the same punishment as that imposed on someone found guilty of plotting to have the sovereign killed: death.
Who were the Cragg Vale Coiners?
But the Cragg Vale Coiners, based on the high ground of the Calder Valley between Leeds and Manchester, feared no law and took the practice to a never-seen before level. They ran a sophisticated and layered operation involving a great many people in the local area.
Highly organised, they were highly disciplined, too. Should anyone involved in the operation even think of breaking rank and jeopardising the entire enterprise, the upper ranks of the pyramid would be swift to intervene, either with warnings of violence against the perpetrator or actual acts of physical harm. These were ruthless, unsentimental men. As one of the gang’s acolytes in Myers’ novel observes, “cross the Coiners and dig your plot”.
Should anyone involved in the operation even think of breaking rank, the upper ranks of the pyramid would be swift to intervene
The enterprise was headed by ‘King David’ Hartley, a local man who, with his family, lived in a very remote farmhouse, Bell House, on very remote moorland. Along with his brothers Isaac and William, the gang’s first recruits were his neighbours on adjacent farms. Like most other farmers in the area, these were desperate men in search of alternative sources of income.
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The slopes of Cragg Vale, a valley within a valley, are steep and sharp. The topography ensured that earning a living solely through farming in the 18th century was a precarious business. Many farmers had diversified, splitting their working lives between agriculture and weaving, with looms taking up space in their farmhouses. But while the wool industry of the West Riding prospered during the Seven Years’ War thanks to the demand for worsted yarn used in the manufacture of military uniforms, the war’s end in 1763 brought hard times for the industry’s workers. Money was needed from other means in order to survive.
Counterfeiting new coins
The Cragg Vale gang’s particular modus operandi favoured the hard-up locals. Where other counterfeiters sent coins of an inferior standard, made from base metals, back into circulation, Hartley’s operation maintained the purity of the new coins.
Dealing almost exclusively in golden guineas, the gang filed down or clipped the coins’ edges and collected the shavings. The original coins went back into circulation, but only a little smaller in size to avoid anyone noticing. The shavings were melted down to produce new coins, which were then stamped with a design – usually of a Portuguese nature, as Portuguese moidores were the most valuable of the foreign coins that were, at the time, legal tender.
Through local businesses, most notably the area’s many inns and hostelries run by publicans happy to conspire with the fraud, the coins were now in general use. Also, the healthy amount of trade coming into the area from elsewhere ensured that a good supply of full-size guineas flowed in, eventually making their way up to Bell House.
These intact guineas came via local hands. By lending the gang coins, the citizens of the surrounding villages were rewarded financially. After the coins had had their edges shaved, these lenders had their original coins returned, plus a small amount of interest. The interest came from the value of the shaved metal, soon to be smelted and forged into coins again. Everyone benefitted. It was a victimless crime.
The financial institutions wouldn’t have agreed. Estimations of the extent of the gang’s operation suggests that the value of the counterfeit coins put into circulation may have been as much as £3.5 million, the equivalent of more than £500 million today. Their activities ended up devaluing the pound by nearly 10 per cent, a drop that put the solvency of the British economy in peril. The coiners’ operation would eventually be debated in the Houses of Parliament as politicians sought to avoid copy-cat enterprises, “to prevent the mischief to which the public are thus exposed”.
How were the Cragg Vale Coiners stopped?
That was to come. For now, the Cragg Vale gang needed to be stopped. But their identity remained elusive, with law enforcement in such a remote, often meteorologically hostile location as the Hartleys’ corner of the Calder Valley non-existent. The brothers and their associates continued to prosper, unencumbered by suspicion and far from the prying eyes of both nosey parkers and the authorities.
David Hartley: ‘King’ of the Cragg Vale Coiners
The cunning – occasionally violent – leader was not a man to be messed with
Born in 1730, ‘King David’ Hartley was undeniably the leader of the Cragg Vale gang. He is said to have served as an apprentice ironworker in the Black Country, where he initially became involved with clipping and forging coins, but returned to his native Cragg Vale concerned that his illegal activities might be easily discovered in the city.
His exceedingly remote farm, high on a windswept moor, was perfect for resuming his coining business. Along with his younger brothers Isaac and William – who, in line with his ‘King David’ nickname, were respectively known as the Duke of York and the Duke of Edinburgh – he ruled his coin kingdom firmly.
A serious, intense person (in The Gallows Pole, his novelisation of the gang’s story, Benjamin Myers writes of a “seldom-seen smile”), Hartley was a brutal man, not unaccustomed to using fists and force to bend others to his will. It’s inaccurate to paint him as an altruistic, charming Robin Hood figure; that he forged a network of allies and associates was probably less to do with charisma and more with intimidation.
But Hartley was smart. Taking advantage of his formidable local reputation, as long as everyone around him was benefitting financially, his enterprise was relatively secure. As Myers writes, “the valley folk mythologised this gang leader whose behaviour they saw no harm in, so long as there was food on their tables and logs in their log stores”.
From his lofty position, high above everyone else, ‘King David’ could gaze down on all that he was controlling. He was the area’s unofficial royalty. Although newspapers in Leeds had already speculated that a group of coiners near Halifax were producing counterfeit guineas, it took one of the gang themselves, James Broadbent, choosing to become an informant for the authorities to become aware of the Cragg Vale gang’s existence.
Wronged and ridiculed by the domineering ‘King David’, Broadbent met with William Dighton, the official who oversaw matters of excise for Halifax and the surrounding area. A reward of 100 guineas was offered in return for Broadbent detailing the depth of the criminality of the eldest Hartley brother and one of his closest associates, James Jagger. Broadbent, a figure on the fringes of the gang, took the bait, disclosing that he had personally witnessed the pair engaged in illegal coining activities. Dighton had his evidence, but failed to keep his end of the deal. Broadbent never saw the money; his decision to break ranks brought no reward
Estimations of the extent of the gang’s operation suggests that the value of the counterfeit coins put into circulation may have been as much as £3.5 million, the equivalent of more than £500 million today
In mid-October 1769, ‘King David’ Hartley was tracked down to the Old Cock Inn in Halifax and duly arrested. Dighton, armed with Broadbent’s evidence, now believed that the gallows at York would be “honoured with the weight of royal blood”.
But if he thought that removing the lynchpin, the ‘monarch’, would mean the collapse of the gang, he was sorely deluded. Instead, the coiners were out to avenge their leader’s capture and planned a demise of their own: that of Dighton himself. The murder was arranged in an alehouse in Mytholmroyd, the nearest village to Bell House. Isaac Hartley was the author of the conspiracy. He offered the would-be killers 100 guineas from his own pocket, matching the amount Dighton had dangled before Broadbent.
The job of ridding the gang of Dighton’s attentions forever fell to two local farm labourers, Matthew Normanton and Robert Thomas. On 10 November 1769, the excise man was murdered near his home in Halifax, dispatched with a bullet to the head. The cold-blooded assassination of a public official forced the government into further action.
What happened to the Cragg Vale gang?
The former prime minister Charles Watson-Wentworth, aka the Marquess of Rockingham, was placed in charge of the manhunt for Dighton’s killers. The marquess was ruthlessly efficient in his search. By Christmas, 30 members of the Cragg Vale gang had been rounded up and were in custody.
Robert Thomas had been arrested on suspicion of his involvement that November night in Halifax but, pleading that he hadn’t fired the fatal bullet, wasn’t charged with Dighton’s murder. However, he was found guilty of highway robbery, having stolen valuables from the dead man’s still-warm body. He was hanged in York in August 1774 and his body transferred to Halifax where it was put on display to deter anyone else who might be considering a similar line of work.
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Normanton went into hiding but was eventually captured and put on trial for coining. His guilty verdict also condemned him to be hanged. The Marquess of Rockingham didn’t capture all his prey. With no direct testimony citing him for any involvement for coining activity, and with Thomas and Normanton holding their tongues about him commissioning the murder and funding the kill fee, Isaac Hartley evaded the authorities and lived at Bell House for the rest of his days, into the next century and well into his seventies.
His older brother wasn’t so fortunate. By the time Thomas and Normanton went to the gallows, ‘King David’ Hartley had long since suffered the same fate. Tried in April 1770 on a charge of clipping four guineas, he was found guilty, largely based on Broadbent’s testimony.
By the end of the month, the lawless, seemingly formidable boss of the Cragg Vale Coiners had met the punishment dictated by that act of parliament. His body was hanging from the gallows at York Tyburn. The gang had been stopped and the king was dead.
Watch The Gallows Pole
All episodes of The Gallows Pole are available to watch on BBC iPlayer now
Nige Tassell is a journalist specialising in history
This article was first published in the July 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
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