OK, so perhaps David Hartley doesn’t get a tag as “hero” but as “villain” - and his was not an unusual story in the 18th Century. He appears to have been born in 1729 and died at the end of a hangman’s noose, on 28th April 1770. His body was buried in the old graveyard at Heptonstall above Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire. The burial site is unusual in that two churches are built alongside each other, served by the same graveyard. It is also where the poet Sylvia Plath is buried but that is another story…
David Hartley was nick-named “King David” while his brother Isaac was called the “Duke of York”, and another brother William was known as the “Duke of Edinburgh”. Why? Because of their fame in the tiny and isolated community of Cragg Vale, up in the Pennines.
“King” David led a gang of perhaps 200 people who supplemented their meagre earnings from the land with a spot of illegal coin clipping. Even today our higher value coins have a milled edge (or an inscription, as with ‘Decus et Tutanem’ – literally, ‘an ornament and a safeguard’ – on our one pound coins) intended to prevent clipping.
The clipping of coins in the Middle Ages had always been a problem, because coins were hammered (by hand) rather than being milled (by machine). Indeed prior to the reign of Edward I there were no coins smaller than one penny and traders were free to cut pennies in half to make a ‘halfpenny’, or into four to make a ‘fourth thing’ i.e. farthing. The coins were designed with a cross on one side, marking the quarter points, so that the unscrupulous traders could not easily cut five quarters out of the one coin! Clipping and counterfeiting were both criminal offences which invariably carried the death penalty.
Cut farthing, both images courtesy of Winchester Museum
Cut half penny of William I
Hammered coins disappeared when Charles II came to the throne, with the introduction of superior quality machined coins. To prevent clipping, higher value coins had an inscription raised around the circumference of the coin (on its edge) with the regnal year (that is to say, showing in which year of the King’s reign it was minted).
In the Georgian era the Restoration practice of marking coins with the regnal year had died out. With higher value e.g. gold coins, this had been replaced with milling marks – a series of decorative marks around the edge. What Hartley did was cut off the milled edge, then hand-file the edge of the smaller coin, marking it to make it look as though it was milled. The clippings were then melted down and recast as coins.
To do this the coiners needed a ready source of gold coins to work with. Local publicans were happy to oblige in return for a piece of the action. They would hand over the coins to the gang and then later feed the coins back into circulation.Not just English coins were dealt with in this way. Because coins from other countries circulated freely in this country, the gang also had access to coins from Spain and Portugal, and these were particularly susceptible to clipping. And if this all sounds like small beer, reflect on the fact that by the 1770s it was estimated that 9% of all gold coins had been tampered with in this way, and that fake guineas with a face value of three and a half million pounds had been paid into the Banks.
“King” David was the ringleader. He had been raised by his parents in the remote farmhouse at Bell House near Halifax (pictured). He had then gone to Birmingham in 1760 to be apprenticed as an iron worker – a five year training which was to stand him in good stead for his future ‘trade’. When he returned home in 1765 he was already married, to Grace Sutcliffe, and had in all probability already engaged in clipping. Birmingham was renowned as a centre of coining operations at the time.
What lent itself to the clipping and coining was the remoteness of Cragg Vale: any stranger entering the valley would be spotted a mile off so the gang of ‘cottage workers’ were never likely to get caught red-handed. And so, for five years, they prospered…
Quite separate from the clipping (‘diminishing the coin of the realm’ in legal parlance) was the actual counterfeiting i.e. melting down the gold shavings and hammering them with an impression to give the appearance of a genuine gold coin from the continent. These forgeries were not particularly well done, but they did not have to be, since the quality of coins in circulation had become extremely poor. Pure gold is soft, and any parts of the design which were raised were quickly worn, so the public had become used to poor quality coins. The actual counterfeiting was done by outsiders. Three of them were named in the later court proceedings as Thomas Sunderland of Halifax, Joseph Shaw of Bradford and a man called Lightoulers. who made the dies for David Hartley. The picture shows a set of dies used in the counterfeiting process.
Coin dies courtesy of Heptonstall Museum.
After a while the prevalence of light coins in the area, and the poor fakes, came to the notice of the authorities and in particular one William Dighton, Excise Officer. He was astute enough to know that he was never going to catch the gang without inside information, so he offered a bribe of one hundred guineas to one of the coiners called James Broadbent. He was happy to betray his accomplices for a mere promise (the reward was never actually paid) and he swore before the magistrates that he had seen David Hartley and his colleague James Jagger clipping four gold guineas at the family home at Bell House.
This was enough for Dighton, and David Hartley was arrested on 14th October 1769 at the Old Cock Inn in Halifax. At this point family loyalty intervened; so incensed was Isaac Hartley (brother to David) at the idea of his sibling being in York prison that he put up a reward of £100 to anyone who would kill Dighton. No sooner said than done! Poor Mr Dighton, who was only doing his job, was ambushed in the darkness on 10th November 1769 while walking in Bull Close Lane in Halifax. He was shot in the head and fatally wounded, his assailants being Matthew Normanton and Robert Thomas. You don´t mess with the Hartleys…
The authorities were outraged. No lesser a personage than the Marquis of Rockingham, Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding, was tasked with hunting down the killers. Extensive bribes were offered for information, and pardons offered to those willing to turn King’s Evidence. By the end of that year (1769) a list of some 80 coiners had been prepared, of which 30 came from Cragg Vale. Arrests followed soon afterwards.
The gravestone marking where members of the Hartley family are buried.
None of this helped “King” David. He was tried in the Spring Assizes, found guilty of ‘impairing diminishing and lightening guineas’ and sent to be hanged at Tyburn, near York, on 28th April 1770. The records show that he and his fellow coiner James Oldfield ‘died penitent and acknowledging the justice of the sentence passed upon them’
The entry in the register of deaths at St Thomas à Becket Church at Heptonstall states in Latin: “1770 May I. David Heartley de Bellhouse in Villa Erringdinensis suspensus in collo prope Eboracum ob nummos publicos illicite cudendos et accidentos” which as everyone knows (!) translates roughly as “David Hartley of Bell House in the town of Erringden was hanged near York for unlawfully stamping and clipping public coin.”
It took a while for the other ringleaders to be rounded up. Of the two who murdered Dighton, Normanton got wind of his impending arrest and went into hiding. He was finally captured and hanged on 15th April 1775. A year earlier his co-conspirator Robert Thomas had been caught, tried and acquitted for lack of evidence, but justice caught up with him shortly after that when he was charged with Highway Robbery. He too went to the gallows, and his body was displayed on Beacon Hill Halifax as a warning to others.
Other members of the Hartley family were also called in for questioning. Brother William, a.k.a. The Duke of Edinburgh was, according to the Leeds Mercury, fortunate to escape through a window, wearing only his shirt, when the local constables surrounded his house in December 1769. Poor blighter, shivering half to death in a night shirt out on the bleak Yorkshire moors! In fact it is unlikely that William played a significant part in the family’s coining activities.
Isaac Hartley, the man who organised the murder plot, was one of the ones wanted for questioning but was never brought to trial due to lack of evidence. He died at the age of of 78 at Mytholmroyd in 1815. The ‘Wanted’ poster back in 1769 had described him as “Isaac HARTLEY, late of Erringden, in the Parish of Halifax [commonly called the Duke of York, being younger Brother of David Hartley, usually called King David, now a Prisoner in York Castle] about 35 years old. 5 ft 7 ins high, a dark down-looking man, wears his own hair, which is black, a little pock-broke, and generally wears light-coloured cloaths”
The importance of the various cases involving the Cragg Vale coiners is shown by the fact that Parliament debated the whole question of the state of the coinage and what should be done to protect it: trust in coinage was central to trade, and anything diminishing public confidence had to be dealt with. The King’s Speech at the opening of the 1773 session contained the words “nothing can better deserve the attention of Parliament than the state of the Gold Coin”.
The debates in the Commons and Lords culminated in 1773 with ‘An Act for the better preventing the counterfeiting, clipping, and other diminishing the Gold Coin in this Kingdom’ (13 Geo. III c. 71). One of the changes was to define the weight of each gold coin more accurately, and to give anyone paid with an underweight coin an entitlement to compensation from the person tendering it. All of which would have put more pressure on shopkeepers like my ancestor Richard Hall, where light or forged guineas handed over in the gloom of the counting house at the rear of the shop could easily be accepted in payment for goods, only to leave the shopkeeper out of pocket when he reached the Bank. Small wonder weighing scales were the 18th Century equivalent of a light scanner to check forged banknotes today….
(The two paper cut outs used in this post were made in the 1780′s by my ancestor Richard Hall. More information about these fascinating illustrations appears in The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman.)