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Where did the Coiners operate?

This particular gang of Yorkshire Coiners are perhaps more accurately referred to as the Cragg Vale or Turvin  Coiners  due to their base being in an area just off the Calder Valley  in West Yorkshire. West Yorkshire, or the West Riding of Yorkshire as it was known at the time, had three main valleys running towards the Pennine fringe of the county towards Lancashire. The Colne, Calder and Aire valleys were all served by cross Pennine routes and the area between the valleys was known as the wool district.

The Calder Valley lays mid way between Manchester  and Leeds. The settlements of Walsden, Todmorden, Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd  and Sowerby Bridge  lie along the base of the valley from east to west, with the towns and cities of Burnley , Bradford, Halifax and Huddersfield  in the immediate surrounding area. The OS map on the left shows the local area around Mytholmroyd. The name of the valley is derived from the River Calder  that runs through the valley from west to east. The valley sides in this part of Yorkshire are particularly steep and from the Middle Ages, small homesteads were mostly situated on shoulders of land on the valley sides between the heavily forested and marshy valley bottom and the open moorland on the tops.

To the south of Mytholmroyd, another valley runs into the hillside and away up into the moors towards Huddersfield. Part way up this valley lays Cragg Vale, a small cluster of houses clinging to the valley sides. It is this small village that gives its name to the valley and hence the name of the ‘Cragg Vale’ Coiners, possibly due to the fact that the homes of the leaders of the gang were on the moorland immediately above this area.

Due to the difficulty of farmers living off the land alone, handloom weaving was used to supplement the income from farming.  The weaving industry developed and settlements grew up around the homesteads to form the villages of Heptonstall, Luddenden and Sowerby. Weaving during this early period was a cottage industry with groups of people working from home but sharing common amenities. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, merchant Clothiers organised the domestic industry and developed markets overseas which helped the industry prosper. Not least was the export of Worsted cloth (also known as ‘Stuff’) which was a high quality hard wearing cloth, originally produced in the village of Worstead in Norfolk and used extensively in military uniforms.

Supplies and produce were carried between villages by pack horses using paths across the tops. Where the paths crossed the valley floor and the River Calder, an inn was often built alongside the crossing which encouraged further settlement. This was the case at Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd, Todmorden  and Sowerby Bridge. The advent of the canals in the latter part of the 18th century saw the Calder and Hebble navigation reach Sowerby Bridge  by 1794, and then the construction of the Rochdale  canal from Sowerby Bridge meant that the canal was extended to Todmorden by 1799 with a complete cross Pennine route via the Calder Valley by 1804.

As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the canals ultimately brought coal and raw materials to feed the mills that sprung up along the valley and then transported the completed cloth away. Much later than the day of the Coiners, the construction of the Manchester and Leeds railway closely followed the route of the canal and when it opened in 1841, the railway and the canal fought for business.  A journey through the modern day Calder Valley  often sees the river, road, canal and railway running parallel in very close proximity to one another.

Away from the main settlements, the farmhouses were still some distance from their neighbours. By modern standards the farmhouses might be considered remote but in fact they were amply served by rough footpaths or cart and pack horse tracks, which generally followed the tops of the hills close to the farms. Nevertheless the farmhouses and tracks that served them were surrounded by open fields or moorland, so the chances of anyone arriving unexpectedly were slim, giving the Coiners ample opportunity to tidy away the evidence of their unlawful activities.

Daniel Defoe.

Daniel Defoe, best known as the author of "Robinson Crusoe"  and "Moll Flanders" was amongst other things an accomplished travel writer, and between 1724 and 1727 his three volume travel book "Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain" was published. In this book Defoe described his visits to all parts of the country and in one of his letters he described the area of West Yorkshire with particular references to the Calder Valley and its industrious inhabitants. In the the second of his journeys through the area, Defoe described  the difficulties he experienced in coming down Blackstone Edge in a snow storm, during which he almost lost his life.  On arriving at the base of Blackstone Edge he then described the route along the still undulating valley with its houses interspersed throughout.

Defoe's description of the journey along the valley paints a vivid picture of the features of the landscape and the lives of the local population. Defoe noted the apparent absence of people but found that the people were actually hard at work in their houses producing cloth. Defoe also identified that the reason the houses were distributed so sparsely was to be close to coal deposits and water, upon which the woollen business was dependant.

The Dusty Miller Myth.

A place that is often associated with the Cragg Vale Coiners is the Dusty Miller Inn at Mytholmroyd. Indeed the Inn now incorporates the 'Coiners Restaurant'. It has always been thought locally, and quoted in some sources, that the Coiners met at this inn and that it was there that they plotted the murder of the excise officer William Dighton, who was pursuing them. As a result of the research to compile my book I located the title deeds to the property which show that this inn was not actually built until after most of the Coiners activities had ceased. Indeed, the land on which the Inn stands was not purchased until the 5th September 1778 by Dr John Alexander. A lease dated 1792 is the first mention of a "newly erected messuage now occupied as an inn by the said James Broadbent lately erected by the said John Alexander".

It is therefore clear that the Dusty Miller was not built until at least 1778, and is more likely to have been built shortly before 1792, long after most of the events in the story of the Cragg Vale Coiners had passed. In fact, the Coiners used a public house located opposite the site of the Dusty Miller, known as "Barbary's" which was probably where the public toilets now stand. This house was so named after Barbara Broadbent, the wife of the Innkeeper, James Broadbent, who later took up the lease on the newly built  inn that became the Dusty Miller. Barbary's is mentioned in several of the depositions relating to evidence of the meeting of those plotting the murder, including statements by James and Barbara Broadbent themselves.

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