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Meet the counterfeit king who crushed the pound and ended up on the gallows in new BBC series


The murder of the tipsy taxpayer was particularly brutal – “barbaric, bloody and inhumane,” according to a contemporary account – as if someone had a score to settle.

Mr. William Dighton, Officer of the Excise, to give him his official title, was waylaid in November 1769 on a dark track just outside the Yorkshire town of Halifax. It was already late. He had been drinking with colleagues and was on his way home to his wife and seven children, unaware that men with a complaint against him were lurking in a field and pointing a gun and a blunderbuss at him over the top of a gate .

A shot rang out at close range and the exciseman fell, a lead bullet to the head. He was probably dead before he hit the ground, but to be on the safe side his attackers stepped out of the shadows, bashed his head in with the butt of the blunderbuss and stomped on him with their spiked boots, leaving the marks of their studs all over his body. left behind. chest.

When the body was found, four gold guineas he was carrying had disappeared. (A guinea pig was 21 shillings or £1.1s – about £250 today.)

However, this was no simple highway robbery. The men were hired killers, and behind the murder was a crime of such colossal proportions – symbolized by those gold guineas – that it is estimated to have cost the British Treasury £16 million (£3.7 billion today).

David Hartley (played by Michael Socha in BBC2’s The Gallow’s Pole) led a gang of counterfeiters whose antics brought the economy to a standstill in the 18th century

It is said to have brought the Bank of England to its knees, devalued the pound by 9 per cent and shook the British economy.

The people of Halifax had no doubt who slaughtered “unfortunate Mr. Dighton” – money counterfeiters.

He had, that contemporaneous report continued, “been surprisingly diligent in finding a gang of thugs plying their illicit trade by clipping the kingdom’s current currency.”

The government man had been watching them and threatening their incredibly lucrative business.

He had to go. The brutality of his death shows how high the stakes were, how deep and personal the animosity.

The story has now been dramatized in a new series, The Gallows Pole, which started on BBC2 last night.

The former weavers’ village of Cragg Vale high up in the Calder Valley was the base of the fraudsters, and their leader was a charismatic man who called himself ‘King’ David Hartley.

He was recognized as such by the locals for having saved them from destruction in their eyes.

This area of ​​the West Riding had been prosperous enough until not long before, a loom in each cottage producing woolen garments for the army.

Then, with the end of the Seven Years’ War with France in 1763, the mass market for uniforms dried up and Cragg Vale and a dozen surrounding villages were plunged into poverty, barely managing to survive.

Hartley came to their aid. He was a local man, a bit of a rogue, who had been away for years in the rapidly industrializing city of Birmingham, where he made his living as an ironworker in the smelter, but almost certainly also forged coins.

Returning to Cragg Vale, probably one step ahead of the law, he saw the desperate situation the villagers were in and suggested a get-rich-quick scheme.

Michael Socha stars as David Hartley, alongside Sophie McShera as his wife Grace

Michael Socha stars as David Hartley, alongside Sophie McShera as his wife Grace

Coins were usually counterfeited by turning a cheap base metal into a round shape and covering it with a thin layer of gold to make it appear real. It was difficult to make such fakes convincing.

Hartley’s plan was to skillfully trim real gold guineas—largely Portuguese pieces known as Moidores, which were legal tender in England at the time—with scissors and then rout the edges with a file.

The idea was that at a glance they would look no different than before, even though they were considerably lighter in weight and thus devalued.

It helped that many of the coins in circulation were old and worn, making it difficult to tell a clipped coin from a genuine one.

The cutting was then melted down in a crucible and pressed into an engraved stamp to make new gold coins. It was believed that as much as a tenth of a coin could be skimmed off without anyone noticing. Therefore, for every 10 guineas, the gang got one new guinea.

But for all this to work, a ready supply of real coins was needed.

These had to be stolen or borrowed. Anyone who wants to borrow their coins gets a share of the profits. A contemporary account says that the coin makers paid 22 shillings for a full size 21 shilling coin, which they would return to circulation after shaving off a piece of bullion.

When David Hartley returned to his weaver village after the Seven Years' War with France in 1763, the mass market for uniforms dried up and Cragg Vale and a dozen surrounding villages were plunged into poverty and barely managed to survive.

When David Hartley returned to his weaver village after the Seven Years’ War with France in 1763, the mass market for uniforms dried up and Cragg Vale and a dozen surrounding villages were plunged into poverty and barely managed to survive.

The gold they collected from the ten or so genuine coins would be enough to make a counterfeit Portuguese Midore with a face value of 27 shillings, though the actual gold content was only worth about 22 shillings.

There were huge profits to be made and it was no wonder that entire villages, numbering anywhere from 80 to 200 men and women in all, got involved in what amounted to a criminal conspiracy against the British government – ​​and felt entitled to do so because their livelihoods because weavers had been taken from them, leaving them destitute.

Their sense of injustice is at the heart of The Gallows Pole, an adaptation of a book of the same name by Ben Myers – a fictionalized account of Cragg Vale’s defiance of authority as the common people put aside their differences and pooled their talents. to outsmart those in power.

However, the truth about the Cragg Vale Coiners is less appealing. Their story is based on violence, as evidenced by the brutal murder of William Dighton. The other unpalatable truth about them is that the whole operation got completely out of hand and exploded in the face of the gang.

If the clipping had remained a small-scale local venture, they might have gotten away with it indefinitely.

But word spread, and soon hundreds of clippers and coin makers began doing business in what one historian has likened to “a veritable Silicon Valley for currency entrepreneurs.”

Coins poured in from all over the north as everyone tried to make money and so much gold circulated in Yorkshire that one resident concluded: ‘All paper payments will soon be terminated.’ ‘King David’ almost became a banker in his own right, with merchants and capitalists regularly depositing their guineas with him to convert them into pure profit.

And all this despite the fact that counterfeiting and clipping constituted high treason, punishable by death. This was a risky game that everyone played.

By now, however, it was so common that it was almost normalized: “a common practice of the well-to-do people,” as one observer put it.

And in Georgian England, a country claiming to be a modern state, that could not continue.

Dighton had been in the coin makers business for 10 years. As a tax collector for the region, he was paid by merchants of lightweight coins.

The treasury lost. He infiltrated the gang with paid informers and in 1769 Hartley was arrested for clipping along with dozens of other counterfeiters.

While the ‘King’ languished in York Castle awaiting trial, the reaction of the rest of the gang – now led by his brother, Isaac, known as the ‘Duke of York’ – was to pay hitmen 100 guineas to kill Dighton to kill on that job. outside Halifax.

Dighton was not the only one to die as the coin makers desperately tried to cover their tracks.

A farmhand who threatened to name the tax collector’s murderers was attacked, thrown into the fire, hot tongs clamped around his neck and burning coals stuck in his trousers. He died in unimaginable pain.

For an outraged government in London, the murder of their appointed officer was a challenge they could not ignore.

Her authority was undermined by anarchists in the north.

Questions were raised in Parliament and the Marquess of Rockingham, Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding and a former Prime Minister, was tasked with bringing in Dighton’s killers and shutting down the gangs.

Fueled by generous rewards in exchange for information, 30 suspects were soon behind bars. Another 48 soon followed as the gangs split up, confessing their guilt and turning on each other to get off the hook.

Hartley was one of dozens hanged for “encroachment, diminution, and alleviation of guineas.”

A particularly gruesome fate befell the murderers of Excise Officer Dighton. When they were finally sentenced, their bodies were tarred and hung in chains from a gallows overlooking the murder scene.

This was the ambitious Rule Britannia Britain. Currency integrity was crucial.

In their pursuit of easy money, the Cragg Vale Coiners bit off more than they could chew – and paid the price.

  • The Gallows Pole is on BBC2 on Wednesdays at 9pm and available on iPlayer.
Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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