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Coin Con: The King of Yorkshire Counterfeiters

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

David Hartley ran a criminal empire counterfeiting coins.

David Hartley ran a criminal empire counterfeiting coins.

The small West Yorkshire village of Cragg Vale served as the headquarters of a criminal enterprise that threatened to wreck the economy of Georgian England. At its core was a man named David Hartley.

Charles I shilling whose edges have been nibbled away by clippers.

Charles I shilling whose edges have been nibbled away by clippers.

Coin Clipping

The scheme revolved around the old practice of coin clipping. In the 18th century, almost all daily transactions were carried out through coins. Paper money was available in the form of IOUs or bills of credit, but for the general public, coins were the only currency. High-value coins were made of pure silver or gold and were— literally—worth their weight in the precious metal from which they were made.

For a long time, crooks had learned to shave or file small amounts of silver and gold off the coins and accumulate enough to sell for a tidy profit. A judge in 1677 observed:“ 'Tis sadly known how common that mischievous crime of Counterfeiting, Clipping, and Filing of his Majesties Coin is become in most parts, to the great abuse of all good Subjects.”

The authorities deemed coin clipping to be a “sin abominable to God and the world,” and they didn't mess about when it came to punishments; in England, it meant execution. In Venice, a criminal convicted of coin tampering in the 14th century was sentenced to the “loss of his right hand and right eye, and banishment.”

To counter the counterfeiters, in 1699 Isaac Newton, who was Master of the Mint of Great Britain, developed the practice of milling the edges of coins with ridges. This meant that any metal shaved off the sides of coins would be immediately spotted.

But the coiners learned to trim the milling and then replace it. Also, there were still plenty of unmilled coins in circulation, such as Portuguese moidores, to keep counterfeiters in business. At the time, trade meant that British and foreign currencies were used as legal tender.

This hoard of coin trimmings was discovered in 1972.

This hoard of coin trimmings was discovered in 1972.

The Cragg Vale Coiners

The people of the Calder Valley, in which the village of Cragg Vale sits, had a hard time making a living in 18th-centry Britain. The principal occupation was weaving local wool on single looms in cottages.

The money from this work was just enough to put a roof over a man and his family and put simple food on their table. When David Hartley, who lived in Cragg Vale, dreamed up a way of earning extra income, he had a receptive audience.

Hartley organized a scheme in which local traders would hand coins to him for clipping. The traders would then get the money back to return to circulation and receive a cut of Hartley's profits.

So much clipping was going on that even if a small edge was missing the coin was likely to be accepted at face value. Indeed, some coiners would even clip bits off their own newly minted counterfeits to make them look authentic.

By collecting enough shavings and clippings, the gang would melt down the precious metal and then strike their own fake coins, with dies they made themselves or stole.

“This enterprise wasn't a small fry operation. It was once the biggest fraud in British history, with some estimates saying that £3.5m of fake coins were paid back into circulation, reducing the currency's value by 9%. Today, that sum would be around £650 million.”
–BBC

Bringing that kind of money into the community of Cragg Vale meant Hartley and his gang enjoyed a great deal of protection by locals. His Robin Hood-like activities brought him the nickname “King David.”

But of course, the powers that be could not tolerate the debasement of the country's wealth; it was threatening the stability of the economy. So investigations began in 1767.

Bell House in Cragg Vale, once the headquarters of David Hartley's crime gang.

Bell House in Cragg Vale, once the headquarters of David Hartley's crime gang.

The End of the Coiners

Excise officer William Deighton was sent to Yorkshire to put a stop to the activities of the coiners. He bribed informants and soon began arresting some of the minor players. The big break came in 1769 when he captured David Hartley and a handful of his followers and put them in the dungeons of York Castle.

Isaac Hartley, David's brother, was incensed and put a bounty of £100 on William Deighton's head. That was a large sum of money for the time and attracted the attention of a couple of thugs who ambushed Deighton and shot him dead in November 1769. That triggered a fierce response from the government.

The Marquis of Rockingham, who later became prime minister, was told to deal with the coiners; within weeks he had 30 locked up.

Seeing their rackets under sustained attack, some coiners fled while others tried to exchange information for a sentence less severe than hanging. David Hartley was hanged April 28, 1770.

Deighton's killers initially escaped but were caught and hanged. Isaac Hartley avoided any consequences because of a lack of evidence and lived into his old age, dying in 1815.

Surprisingly, for someone hanged for a serious crime, David Hartley was buried in consecrated ground.

Surprisingly, for someone hanged for a serious crime, David Hartley was buried in consecrated ground.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1247, a royal survey found that precious metal coins had lost about one third of their official weight. Some of the loss was due to wear but much was caused by clipping.
  • When it became apparent that coins were being clipped, blame was of course fixed on Jews. This anti-Semitism was common throughout Western Europe as Jews were routinely believed responsible for every misfortune. According to David B. Green, writing for Haaretz: “On November 17, 1278, all the Jews of England were subjected to arrest and search of their homes on suspicion of coin clipping and counterfeiting. Eventually, some 680 were imprisoned in the Tower of London, where it is believed that more than 300 were actually executed in 1279. At the time, the Jewish population of England is believed to have been some 3,000.”
  • The United States Department of the Treasury estimates that $70 million worth of counterfeit bills are in circulation at any given time.

Sources

© 2022 Rupert Taylor