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Thursday 20 July 2023

Book review: The Yorkshire Coiners - the true story of the Cragg Vale Gang by Steve Hartley

Front cover of The Yorkshire Coiners by Steve Hartley on wooden plate with collection of Georgian coins

On 9 November 1769, William Dighton was shot and killed in Halifax, Yorkshire. It was a planned assassination of a Supervisor of Excise—an official responsible for ensuring the collection of tax.

Dighton was the victim of the Cragg Vale Gang—criminals who operated what was perhaps England’s largest clipping and coining operation. That is, they created counterfeit coins from gold shaved off genuine coins.

Steve Hartley, author of The Yorkshire Coiners is a descendant of David Hartley, or ‘King David’, leader of the Cragg Vale Gang. He’s spent years researching the gang’s activities from various documents and, in his words, this book:

brings together the facts from these and other sources and places them in chronological order, so that the events relating to the Coiners can be seen in the order they occurred.

It’s important to note these words because this book is very much a reference work. It’s not an easy-to-read account of the Cragg Vale Gang story.

What’s in the book

It’s a relatively short (125 pages) book organised into 25 brief chapters. Each chapter has a narrative that presents facts from original sources, including local newspapers, letters and court records.

There are a number of photographs, such as buildings once lived in by characters featured in the history, along with portraits and documents.

The author has strung the sources together into a narrative that’s strictly chronological. I found there was not much in the way of additional insight or observation, except in the final chapter, where there’s an attempt to tie up some loose ends.

Most of the sources are summarised, with occasional direct quotes.

Almost all the material in the book relates to the activities of the clippers and coiners, what they got up to, and how they were treated by the law enforcement bodies.

What’s not in the book

Other than a few brief descriptions, the book does not go into detail about clipping and coining, nor about the regional or national context in which the Cragg Vale Gang operated.

There’s no real discussion of the background culture, or explanation of how the gang may have functioned.

This is unsurprising, given the book’s focus on describing the contents of primary sources. However, I would have liked to have read more about the society the gang was operating in, and their methods.

How did coins find their way into the hands of the gang, what did they do with them and how were the clipped coins, and counterfeits, fed back into circulation? There are some clues in the book, but these issues aren’t examined.

Nor did I find any real discussion of the attitudes of society towards the criminals. Were their crimes considered to be largely victimless and therefore tolerated by many? Were they respected or feared by their community?

The book did not set out to address these issues, so I should not have been disappointed.

However, I feel the book did not fully live up to its subtitle, The true story of the Cragg Vale Gang. Yes, it focused on the truth (at least as reported in newspapers and other documents), but it was not organised in a way to tell a story.

There are, in fact, several stories: the origins of the gang, Dighton’s murder and the subsequent manhunts, the trials and executions, and the official response, which went as high as King George III himself.

A story still waiting to be told

Lack of documentary evidence always limits the historian’s scope for telling a story, without resorting to embellishing it with fiction. In this book, Steve Hartley has chosen to stick to the facts as he found them, sharing them in chronological order.

This book is a useful resource to anyone researching clipping and coining in the Georgian era, particularly the Yorkshire gang it describes.

But in my opinion, an easy-to-read account of the Cragg Vale Gang is still waiting to be written.

The Yorkshire Coiners is published by Amberley Books and is available here.

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)

Rachel Knowles writes faith-based Regency romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew, who wrote this review.

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