by Roy Stockdill
Cragg Vale is a peaceful Pennine valley, once the site of a Norman deer park, later in the Middle Ages the centre of a thriving iron smelting industry and centuries later, during the Industrial Revolution, home to around a dozen cotton mills. It runs off the Calder Valley from the village of Mytholmroyd, near Hebden Bridge, and climbs steadily up the hillside to the moors atop Blackstone Edge, where one of England's most dramatic Roman roads can still be seen, majestic amidst the heather.
In the second half of the 18th century, Cragg Vale was an isolated and lonely place that few outside the immediate area had heard of - and yet the name became infamous throughout England for the operations of a notorious gang of counterfeiters known as the Cragg Vale Coiners. So damaging were their activities that it was said they came close to wrecking the currency of Britain. At this time the inhabitants of the valley operated a dual economy, eking out a bare subsistence living by weaving cloth in their little cottages and lonely farms and also keeping a few animals to produce milk, butter and eggs to keep themselves and their families alive. Some men sold their labour on farms and in mills and quarries, working in appalling conditions and incredibly long hours. A gang of them got together and determined to improve their lot by counterfeiting gold coins. Their leader was a man known as "King David" Hartley, who lived at a medieval farmhouse in Cragg Vale called Bell House. The gang operated with the connivance of local publicans, who were needed to take genuine gold coins out of circulation.
The coins were clipped or filed, so that some of the gold was sheared off, and a new edge was then milled back onto them. The effect was to make the gold coins marginally smaller but unnoticeable to the naked eye. The clippings were carefully accumulated and melted down to produce new blank coins, which then had new "head" and "tail" faces stamped onto them with metal dies which had been engraved by skilled craftsmen. A heavy hammer was used to punch the engravings onto the faces of the coins, which were then given to the publicans to casually pass back into circulation. Three engravers are mentioned in the accounts of the Coiners' trial - Thomas Sunderland of Halifax, Joseph Shaw of Bradford and a man called Lightoulers. who made the dies for David Hartley. Some of the farms used by the Coiners still exist in Cragg Vale today. One Coiner called Greenwood lived at Hill Top Farm, another, John Wilcock, at Kellham, Thomas Clayton and Matthew Normanton at Stannery End, and Thomas Spencer lived at New House, Mytholmroyd. These farms were remote and any strangers approaching them, especially in those days, would have been easily spotted, so it was not difficult for the Coiners to carry out their activities in relative safety.
However, rumours of the counterfeiting reached the authorities, who appointed one William Dighton, an Excise Officer, to investigate the matter in 1769. One of the Coiners, James Broadbent, turned King's Evidence and betrayed his accomplices. Dighton arrested David Hartley. However, Hartley's brother, Isaac, offered £100 to anyone who would kill Dighton. The plotters supposedly planned the murder in a pub at Mytholmroyd called the Dusty Miller, which still stands in the centre of the village today. On the night of November 10 1769, Matthew Normanton and another man called Robert Thomas ambushed the Excise Man at Bull Close Lane, near Halifax, and shot him in the head. The Government was outraged and appointed the Marquis of Rockingham, Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding, to hunt down Dighton's killers. Rewards were offered for information leading to their arrest, as well as a free pardon to anyone except the killers themselves who wished to turn King's Evidence. There were Coiners in other parts of Calderdale, too, and by the end of 1769 a list of 80 counterfeiters had been drawn up, 30 of them from Cragg Vale, 20 from Sowerby, 15 from Halifax, 7 from Wadsworth and 6 from Warley and Midgley. By Christmas 30 had been arrested.
David Hartley - "King David" - was hanged at Tyburn, near York, on April 28 1770. His body was buried in an old graveyard at Heptonstall above Hebden Bridge. It took the authorities some time to catch the others. Robert Thomas was acquitted of the murder of William Dighton but finally hanged as a highwayman on August 6th 1774, his body being displayed on Beacon Hill, Halifax, as a grim warning. Normanton fled when the Sheriff's men came for him and hid out in the valley, but he was finally caught and hanged on April 15 1775. Isaac Hartley, the man who organised the plot, was never brought to trial due to lack of evidence. He died an old man of 78 at Mytholmroyd in 1815, one of the few principals among the Cragg Vale Coiners to escape the hand of justice. Let's not forget, however, that it was the sheer desperation of their economic circumstances that drove these men to commit such a colourful crime as counterfeiting.