From his remote moorland home, David Hartley assembles a gang of weavers and land-workers to embark upon a criminal enterprise that will capsize the economy and become the biggest fraud in British history.
They are the Cragg Vale Coiners and their business is ‘clipping’ – the forging of coins, a treasonous offence punishable by death. When an excise officer vows to bring them down and with the industrial age set to change the face of England forever, Hartley’s empire begins to crumble.
Forensically assembled, The Gallows Pole is a true story of resistance and a rarely told alternative history of the North.
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers is a dark and decidedly bleak (and you know that’s a compliment coming from me) novel that is inspired by true events. In the eighteenth century, a group of individuals came together under the leadership of David Hartley to form the Cragg Vale Coiners. They committed the crime of clipping – shaving thin slivers of metal from coins and using those slivers to make more coins and therefore wealth for their families.
The novel opens with a boy going to see David Hartley, pondering over the sight of a hanged man he passes on the way. The man’s crime? Poaching a nobleman’s stag so that he can feed his family. One stag that would feed a family for months, with the added benefit that someone who is well fed is able to work more effectively and is more likely to remain in relatively good health.
Hunger then it was that had led this poor soul to the gallows steps – a hunger for warm meat rather than cold-blooded murder. Not greed but necessity.
The rationale for the Coiners’ actions isn’t explored beyond the obvious, and yet this introductory scene which is largely irrelevant to the story itself barring some foreshadowing (not a spoiler – we know their fate) highlights for me the inequality felt by many at the time. To be driven to hunt and kill an animal given the risks involved and the sentence if caught highlights the impoverished situation many found themselves in, and I think that the Coiners were driven by a similar necessity.
As we get to know them, it quickly becomes apparent that these are not nice men and there are some shocking scenes of violence throughout the novel. And don’t mistake their activities for any Robin Hood “redistribution of wealth” style antics. These men are in it for themselves, and what they make they make, they keep. While the social inequality they face is apparent, these men are not portrayed sympathetically – I think it’s more an attempt to explain their actions and to highlight the imbalance in society at the time rather than to encourage support for them. Many of the Coiners are portrayed as thugs, using brute force to “encourage” the locals to go along with their schemes whether they want to or not and while their story is a fascinating one, it’s difficult to sympathise with them.
If there was anything that was missing for me, it was understanding what was going on in the minds of these individuals. The only two that have their motivations explored are David Hartley and James Broadbent. I would like to understand how these men weighed up the risks involved, particularly as exciseman Willian Deighton seeks to bring them to justice. It’s a crime that carries a death sentence and so not something undertaken lightly, and I wonder if they ever paused for thought, or whether the near instant rewards so heavily outweighed the risks that it was considered worthwhile. I also wonder if they felt that it was a victimless crime – clipping devalues the currency, but that would have been of little concern to men such as these. I’d particularly like to know what how the wives of these men felt. They may have benefited from the proceeds to a degree, but I wonder if they felt it was worth the risk.
I love the way in the location and the rural setting are brought to life for the reader. It’s portrayed as a harsh and unforgiving landscape – descriptions that apply just as much to the men as to the land they inhabit. Taking place at the outset of the industrial revolution, it’s clear that the times are changing and that these men and their way of life will have to adapt accordingly despite their resistance which seems futile in this wider context. While the reader doesn’t condone their actions, it’s also not that surprising that these men turn to a life of crime given that there are few options of improving their status by fairer means, and this is perhaps a last-ditch attempt to cling onto what they know.
The Gallows Pole is a novel that brings the story of the Cragg Vale Coiners to life. There are some violent scenes that some readers may find gratuitous, and the bleakness of it may not appeal to all. I personally found it to be a gripping read – I knew the outcome, but it’s a novel where the journey is as important as the destination.
Originally published by the wonderful Bluemoose Books, it has more recently been picked up by Bloomsbury.