Coins, crime and people’s resistance

Saturday 10 June 2023 –

The BBC series The Gallows Pole is based on the true story of the Cragg Vale Coiners. They fought 18th century poverty by counterfeiting money. Judy Cox looks at the history behind the drama and reviews the television version

Workshop of coiners creating counterfeit money

Workshop of coiners creating counterfeit money

The Gallows Pole TV series shows the reality of people who fought back against poverty and risked death to feed their families. In the 1760s, farming families living in isolated farmhouses along the Calder Valley in Yorkshire faced extreme hardship. They were dependent on the income made by spinning wool on hand looms in their cottages.

When the Seven Years War ended in 1763, demand for their products slumped and they faced destitution. They survived—and for a time prospered—by breaking the law. They didn’t have enough cash, so they made their own.

The Cragg Vale Coiners’ organisation was impressive. Some £3.5 million of counterfeit coins were circulated, which wiped 9 percent off the value of Britain’s currency and almost caused the economy to collapse.

The gang involved between 80 and 200 local people who obtained gold coins, clipped the edges and melted them down into new coins at a huge profit. The scale of this coining inevitably attracted the attention of the authorities.

Government tax supervisor William Dighton was sent after the coiners. One of them, James Broadbent, turned on his mates for a reward and Dighton had “King David” Hartley, the leader of the coiners, arrested.

Revenge came swiftly. David’s brother Isaac Hartley raised 100 guineas to pay two men to kill Dighton who was shot dead on 10 November 1769 in Halifax.

The murder of a state official raised the stakes. By Christmas Day, some 30 coiners were in prison. But most of the coiners were protected by their communities and escaped punishment.

In 1699 Isaac Newton—the famous scientist—had become Master of the Mint. He ruthlessly pursued counterfeiters and faking silver and gold coins was classified as treason.

Men found guilty were hung until nearly dead, drawn (disembowelled) and quartered. Women were drawn and burnt alive.

But enforcing these ferocious penalties was not easy for the state. There were only two constables and their two deputies for the whole of the huge Halifax district. Magistrates relied on informers to bring criminals to justice and juries were not always minded to believe the testimony of turncoats.

The counterfeiting campaign was one of many responses to the unacknowledged crimes of the British ruling class.

Over the preceding century, the violent enclosure of the common land had thrown thousands into desperate poverty, forced them to become wage labourers and made them dependent on the market.

By the 18th century, widespread destitution bred multiple forms of resistance. Pirates, smugglers and bandits might have been criminals to the lords and magistrates, but many were celebrated as heroes, avengers and fighters for justice.

As historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “social banditry” was not a coherent programme of action, but it was an effective form of collective self-help. Criminal activities such as poaching, smuggling and coining offered rural workers an escape from starvation and challenged the landowners’ right to profit from the once-common land.

Rural workers created secret networks which depended on loyalty, established models of collective working and provided experience of leadership.

In 1783 a crowd of angry and hungry weavers gathered in Halifax. At the head of the crowd was one of the Cragg Valley Coiners, Thomas Spencer.

The crowd besieged the corn merchants and forced them to sell their oats and wheat at reduced prices. When Spencer was executed for riot, the military was drafted in to prevent disorder and thousands joined his funeral procession up the Calder Valley.

Hand-loom weavers were the backbone of the industrial revolution. It created them and then destroyed them as production moved from their cottages to the factories of Halifax and Bradford.

In Volume One of Capital, Karl Marx wrote, “History discloses no tragedy more horrible than the gradual extinction of the English hand-loom weavers.”

The coiners’ subversion of the currency was part of a tradition of diverse forms of resistance. Price rises were the flashpoint for most major confrontations in the 18th and early 19th centuries which took the form of frequent food riots.

As the industrial revolution gathered pace, crowd actions began to shift focus away from the price of food and towards the machinery which devalued human labour. In 1788 the government strengthened legal penalties for machine breaking, which was made a capital offence in 1812 to terrorise those involved in the Luddite Rebellion.

The mythical General Ludd led working people across Yorkshire and north Nottinghamshire to smash machinery and restore their wage rates. Hobsbawm called the tactic “collective bargaining by riot”.

In his maiden speech to the House of Lords, on February 27, 1812, the poet Lord Byron defended the Luddites. He said, “Can you commit a whole county to their own prisons? Will you erect a gibbet in every field, hang up men like scarecrows, place the country under martial law, depopulate and lay waste all around you? Are these the remedies for a starving and desperate populace?”

The poor constantly found new ways to resist. Early forms of class struggle included sabotage, pilfering, arson and threats of violence.

When workers began to combine in trade unions, they drew on the experiences of the secret, collective organisations like that of the Cragg Vale Coiners. The English working class movement was built by coiners as well as Chartists, smugglers as well as trade unionists.

Turning the tables on those who bleed us dry

The Gallows Pole is a brilliant drama. From the moment the opening credits begin, we know this is a story of resistance to poverty and exploitation. There are no lords and ladies here, no posh frocks or marriage markets.

This is historical drama remade, with unscripted naturalistic dialogue, some local untrained actors and inclusive casting. It gives the dialogue all the energy and wit of working class communities organising to fight back.

The series is based on a novel of the same name by Benjamin Myers. It focuses on the Hartley family—“King David” Hartley, his brothers Isaac and William and wife Grace, the acknowledged brains of the operation.

Director Shane Meadows transforms the Hartley family and their community of Cragg Vale Coiners into the Robin Hood and Merry Men of their day. They use their ingenuity to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor.

The coiners forge a rebellious community in which women are free to be bold and adventurous and everyone has a part to play. The coining operation is based on mutual need, but it is sustained by drinking, socialising, music and folklore.

Such community mobilisations were to sustain radical movements throughout the nineteenth century. Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Daily Mail reviewer complained that the actors playing penniless villagers didn’t look hungry enough.

Since the series exudes authenticity, the obvious motivation for such sniping can only be political. The reviewer does not like working class criminals to be portrayed as courageous, intelligent and victorious.

Meadows focuses on the beginning of the Coiners’ story—the gathering of the gang, their growing sense of possibility and their joyful triumph. For once, we get to win, to turn the tables on those who bleed us dry.

At the heart of this hugely engaging series is the capacity of labouring people to find ingenious and collective ways to kick back against a system that deprives them of the means to live and love.