The story of the 18th century Cragg Vale Coiners

Why did the Coiners do what they did?

Daniel Defoe had written about the industrious nature of the inhabitants of the Calder Valley as he travelled through it in the early 18th century. Most of the local population worked in the weaving trade in order to support their otherwise meagre existence. The region produced high quality, hardwearing Worsted cloth which was used largely for military uniforms.

(Left to right) 37th Grenadier, Senior officer of the 25th, and Grenadier Officer of the 51st illustrating the type of uniforms made from the Worsted cloth. Artist: G.A. Embleton.

In the fifty years after Defoe’s journey through the valley it is unlikely to have changed a great deal, but by the time that the local people turned their hands to clipping and coining the prosperity of the regions weaving trade had suffered a setback. After a boom during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) the woollen industry in the West Riding of Yorkshire fell into decline during the post war recession. This was due to a reduced demand for Worsted which had been used largely for military uniforms.

It is evident that many of those involved with the Cragg Vale Coiners had trades associated with the weaving industry and were suffering from the lack of demand for their produce. The occupations of those accused of clipping and coining in the area are summarised by John Styles in his essay '
Our traitorous money makers' as follows:-

Textile Occupations
Clothier (4)
Master cloth dresser (1)
Piecemaker (14)
Dealer in wool or yarn (2)
Woolcomber (7)
Weaver (24)
Total: 52

Other Occupations
Farmer (1)
Farmer/Weaver (3)
Husbandman/Weaver (1)
Miller (1)
Innkeeper (10)
Butcher (3)
Clockmaker (2)
Painter/engraver (2)
Tanner (1)
Carpenter (1)
Healdstriker/Staymaker (1)
Badger/Weaver (1)
Labourer/charcoal burner (1)
Total: 28

John Styles noted that one of the accused Merchants and one of the Woolcombers were bankrupts and two of the Worsted Piecemakers had been imprisoned previously for debt, supporting the theory that many took part in the activities of the gang due to financial pressures. The prevalence of Innkeepers, Butchers and Clockmakers is an indication of the means of obtaining gold and returning it to circulation, as many of the men involved in the textile trade as small manufacturers would not have regular access to such coins when compared to these trades.

Another factor to the success of the Coiners was the state of the coins in circulation. Many denominations of coins had been minted in low quantities in the early part of the 18th century which meant that much of the coin in circulation was old and worn. The currency of the Kingdom had been considerably weakened due to an increase in clipping and coining during the Nine Years War (1688–97). As a result it was decided to recall and replace all of the hammered silver coinage that was in circulation. But the process almost failed due to corruption and mismanagement and was only saved by the intervention of Isaac Newton, who was appointed Warden of The Mint in 1696.

When King George III came to the throne in 1760 the coin was again found to be in a very poor state. The Crown pieces had virtually disappeared completely, Half Crowns were generally defaced and impaired such that they were unsuitable for use. The Shillings remaining had hardly any impression left on either face and the Sixpences were in even worse condition. The gold coins were not in such a bad condition but were deteriorating nevertheless.

The state of the genuine coin, mixed with the prevalence of foreign coins and the fact that the common man rarely handled much money, made the differentiation of a modified coin from a genuine one all the more unlikely. Combined with a shortage of good quality cash generally within the country, this led to an acceptance locally of clipped or remanufactured coins as the only means of continuing business in the absence of genuine, unclipped coins.

The moorland farmhouses and the 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. The chances of discovery were made even more remote by the fact that during the 18th century, England had no organisation corresponding to a modern day Police force. Constables were unpaid and played only a minor role in law enforcement. Halifax, seven miles away, had two Constables and two Deputy Constables and the nearest Magistrate was in Bradford, fourteen miles away.

The best means of catching criminals in these days was by means of using informants, who would betray their friends and neighbours in the interest of lining their own pockets with the reward. But because the conviction of a coining offence carried a sentence of death, when an offender appeared in court Jurors were often reluctant to convict the defendant unless there was overwhelming evidence to support the prosecution. There was also some reluctance on the part of the Mint to pursue offenders, which was due to the allowances paid to the Mint Solicitor to fund prosecutions. Fountain Cooke, Mint Solicitor from 1748 to 1755, had been forced into bankruptcy and emigration as the Treasury refused to pay him when his expenditure exceeded the £600 annual allowance.

The rugged location, primitive transport links, sparse law enforcement, and the state of the genuine coinage all therefore created the right climate for the Coiners to exist and prosper. There was also willingness locally during these hard times to make an extra Shilling by lending unclipped guineas to the Coiners. The trade of woven produce carried out by the locals in nearby Halifax provided a regular source of gold coins to be clipped and returned to circulation.

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