Everyone knows Dick Turpin and more films have been made and books written about Robin Hood than most historical figures, but the name of David Hartley is little known outside of a few historians and a small corner of West Yorkshire.
The lack of recognition is surprising given that back in the 18th century Hartley, or David ‘King’ Hartley as he was known, masterminded the most audacious act of fraud the country had ever seen and was a hair’s breadth away from taking British currency to bankruptcy.
It was a crime inspired, initially at least, by poverty as a group of weavers conspired to boost their income with a little light forgery, but the Cragg Vale Coiners became caught up in greed, double-crossing and murder. Little wonder then that Benjamin Myers has used it as the basis of his new book The Gallows Pole.
“I first became aware of the Cragg Vale Coiners when I first moved to Yorkshire back in 2009,” says the Durham-born author who now lives in Mytholmroyd.
“It’s obviously a great tale, but for a while I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. It came back to me a couple of years ago when my wife was staying at a country house and came across a dusty old book about the case. We started talking about what a brilliant film it would make and then it struck. I didn’t have the money or the contacts to make a film, but I could turn it into a novel.
“The more I talked to people, the more I realised just how little known the story of the coiners is. David Hartley played a huge part in English history and in another life he could have been a folk hero equal in standing to Robin Hood, but for some reason he got forgotten. This is my small way of bringing him back to life.”
The Gallows Pole is due out later this month and is the result of two years of painstaking research to discover the truth about Hartley and the rest of the coiners. Going back to original source material, Myers read dozens of written statements about the case and found he had his own personal connection to the band of forgers.
“James Broadbent is the main protagonist. He was one of the coiners, but he ended up betraying the gang by turning King’s evidence. I knew he had lived nearby, but it turned out that for a while he worked as a weaver in the very same cottage where I live now.
“This part of Yorkshire was pretty remote back in the 18th century, it was all but cut off from the rest of the country, which is how they got away with what they did for so long.”
The Cragg Vale coiners scam was most ambitious and technically complex. First they persuaded publicans to hand over genuine coins on the promise they would ‘grow’ the investment by smelting the original metals with base ores. Once in their hands the gang milled the edges and then melted down the shavings to produce counterfeits. Designs were punched into the blank coins and the fakes were passed into circulation.
“Forging coins now is difficult, but back then it would have been almost impossible and the skill they showed, just in terms of the level of craftsmanship, was pretty impressive in itself. There was something audacious about this group of weavers taking on the Mint and almost winning even though they did come so very close to capsizing the economy.
“However, while like the story of Robin Hood there is something instantly appealing about the poor rising up against the rich, I didn’t want to romanticise what had happened. They relied on the complicity of the whole community, but ultimately the coiners turned on each other and there was very little honour amongst thieves.”
While the crime might have passed into the history books, Myers, who is married to fellow writer Adelle Stripe, says there are definite parallels between then and now. “The landscape they may have lived in has changed – there was no station and no big Sainsbury’s back then, but people don’t change. There will also be an underclass fighting for the crumbs from the rich man’s table and there will always be people whose crimes escalate beyond all control. You only have to look at the various traders who gamble with other people’s money and end up breaking the bank to see that.”
The period detail in The Gallows Pole is impressive, from the accounts of cockfighting to reference to smallpox scars and working-class slang. It should come as no surprise. Myers has form when it comes to giving a voice to society’s outsiders. His first novel Pig Iron, published by Hebden Bridge-based Bluemoose Books in 2012, was set in the traveller community of the North East. The follow up, Beastings, was played out on the bleak Cumbrian mountains and opened with a teenage girl having abducted a child.
While both novels were rejected by the big publishing houses, they were critically successful. Pig Iron won the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize and was runner-up in The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize, while Beastings won the Portico Prize.
“I honestly thought, ‘Right this is it, happy days, I just sit back and wait for the phone to ring with some big deal’, but nothing happened. The awards are lovely and mean a lot to me, but they haven’t made any difference to my career. The fact is that the big publishing houses are so risk-averse and they don’t want to take on the kind of subjects I write about.
“For a while it felt like I was in limbo, so that’s when I went back to Bluemoose and I’m happy I did. I know a number of authors who have got big publishing deals and none of them seem to be having a great time.
“I remember when I first met Kevin (Bluemoose founder Kevin Duffy) he told me he had remortgaged his house to start the business. He has a lot invested in making it a success and not just his own money. I might not get the huge advance, but what I do get is creative freedom and, to be honest, that’s priceless. With The Gallows Pole I said to Kevin I knew a designer and would it be OK if I worked with him on the cover. He was and it was job done.”
Myers has various projects in the pipeline, including a follow up to Turning Blue, which was set in the Yorkshire Dales and followed the disappearance of a teenage girl, but while he has always had a strong political voice he says that it’s the natural world which is increasingly the source of inspiration.
“Every day I go out for a walk and I am currently writing a sort of personal reflection on a little place called Scout Cragg. In terms of what’s happening politically I saw from abject pessimism to optimism that things will come good, but more and more I have started to think that we can only achieve the stability we all crave if we pay more attention to the environment.
“It was true back in the days of the Cragg Vale coiners and it’s true now, it’s the landscape that shapes us all.”
The Gallows Pole, published by Bluemoose Books, is out on May 13, priced £15.