The peasants who struck gold (in Yorkshire)

Unbelievably, Britain’s biggest fraud was committed in the 1760s – now a new drama tells the astonishing tale of… The peasants who struck gold (in Yorkshire)

You might think fake currency is a relatively modern phenomenon, so you’ll be astonished to discover that the biggest counterfeit fraud in British history was committed by a bunch of peasants in 18th-century Yorkshire.

Using the hammers and clippers they possessed for their trades, the so-called Cragg Vale Coiners filed the edges off real coins and smelted the shavings into counterfeits to transform their poverty-stricken lives as farmers and weavers in the 1760s, and now a new three-part BBC drama written and directed by This Is England’s Shane Meadows tells their extraordinary tale.

The cast includes Downton Abbey‘s Sophie McShera and Peaky Blinders‘ Ralph Ineson, while Shane has enlisted his This Is England star Michael Socha for the lead role of David Hartley, who returns to his Yorkshire home after seven years working in Birmingham and becomes the driving force behind the scheme, which is thought to have produced £3.5 million in gold coins (£650 million today).

When we meet him at the beginning of episode one he’s close to death as he drags his bag of tools across the moors, and only a visitation from the Stag Men – otherworldly creatures with skeletal animal heads and antlers – revives him.

‘The Stag Men tell him he can fulfil his destiny by using the tools in his bag,’ explains Michael. ‘Each episode begins with David being visited by them.’

Michael Socha (pictured) plays the lead role of David Hartley, who returns to his Yorkshire home after seven years working in Birmingham and becomes the driving force behind the scheme

Inspired by those meetings, David seeks to galvanise his fellow villagers, forming an alliance with prominent locals and showing them how to create new coins from the shavings of old ones.

The task then is to find someone who can circulate the coins. The bulk of the story is based on the real-life Cragg Vale Coiners, but the Stag Men didn’t enter the narrative until Ben Myers wrote the novel on which the TV series is based (the title refers to the pole the forgers would be hung from if they were caught).

‘I read through lots of dry and dusty accounts of the Cragg Vale Coiners, but I added detail and characters myself, including the Stag Men,’ says Ben.

‘They came from one of my neighbours in Mytholmroyd, the village next to Cragg Vale. Her nickname is Pauline Dragon, and she told me how she woke up with stag-headed men in her bedroom, dancing round with steam coming off them. She swore she wasn’t asleep.’

Sophie McShera, best known as kitchen maid Daisy in Downton, plays Grace and it’s her relationship with David that lies at the heart of The Gallows Pole. He left her in the lurch when he headed off to Birmingham and she’s reluctant to take him back when he returns home with a serious stab wound inflicted in a skirmish.

The plan was to show the couple reconciled at the end of episode one, but real life intervened.

‘I realised that Sophie and Michael had had a little set-to,’ explains Shane Meadows. ‘It only seemed right that they weren’t reconciled – at least not immediately.’

Sophie explains what happened.

The cast includes Downton Abbey's Sophie McShera and This Is England star Michael Socha, both pictured

‘I think the fall-out was because I wanted to talk about their back stories and Michael didn’t, which annoyed me. But working on the project was an unforgettable experience. We’d take long walks followed by a cold swim and a Sunday roast in order to bond.’

Alongside the big names, Shane wanted to cast as many people as possible with real Yorkshire accents and a natural affinity for the story.

They were trying to transform their poverty-stricken lives as farmers and weavers 

‘We put flyers up in garages, hair salons, pubs and social clubs across Yorkshire,’ says casting director Shaheen Baig. The plan worked, and 7,500 audition videos were sent in to the team.

Stevie Binns, 36, an insurance company employee from Halifax, was among those to land a part, as Grace’s friend Mand.

‘I must have redone my audition video 50 times, so I was so pleased when I was invited to take part in workshops with the cast,’ she says. ‘I walked into a room full of people I’d seen on TV and I was screaming inside, but trying to act dead cool!’

The Gallows Pole begins on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC2.


Related posts