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Yorkshire’s 18th Century ‘credit crunch’ counterfeiters

Posted on 17 June 2009

When a steep decline in the wool trade prompted an 18th century version of the credit crunch, many Yorkshire people took to counterfeiting as a way of surviving.

The activities of the Yorkshire Coiners, a notorious group of counterfeiters will come under the spotlight in a pioneering project led by University of York historian, Dr Hannah Greig, and Harrogate-based film-maker Peter Kershaw. Backed by a £15,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Council (AHRC), it will link academic research with the production of a feature film.

The boom and bust culture experienced by coiners is one that might seem uncomfortably familiar to us now

Dr Hannah Greig

The Last Coiner, under development with Peter Kershaw’s Duchy Parade Films, will have a historically-accurate script thanks to a series of research workshops, involving academic historians, specialists from Yorkshire museums and the film’s production team.

In the 18th century, coining was a treasonable offence, punishable by death. But in the 1760s and 1770s, a decline in the textile trade prompted hundreds of Yorkshire people from rural communities to risk the gallows by counterfeiting British and Spanish coins.

Concentrated around Halifax, counterfeiting became the new cottage industry and involved hundreds of people at its peak. The operation was led by a ‘royal family’ of ‘King David’ (David Hartley) and his brothers, known as ‘The Duke of York’ and ‘The Duke of Edinburgh’. Their royal ‘titles’ were bestowed by the populace to acknowledge the Hartleys’ success in fighting poverty.

But their activities infuriated the Government, which launched an extensive manhunt. A series of criminal trials followed, and many of the coiners were sentenced to hang at York’s Tyburn or ended their days in jail. Their stories were remembered in Yorkshire ballads and their colourful characters were celebrated by pamphlet writers.

But the film and the workshops, which are being staged at the Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax, will shed more light on the coiners’ history.

Dr Greig, a lecturer in 18th-century British history, suggests their story has a broader historical significance.

 “The practice of counterfeiting reveals tensions in Britain’s developing economy. The 1700s are recognised by historians as a time of ‘consumer revolution’, with new goods flooding the marketplace and new trade routes bolstering economic exchange,” she says.

“But cash was in short supply and, as Yorkshire discovered, some of the markets were fragile. When the woollen market declined and ready money ran out, the coiners found alternative ways to beat their own eighteenth-century credit crunch. Indeed, the boom and bust culture experienced by coiners is one that might seem uncomfortably familiar to us now.”

The workshops, organised in partnership with The Square Chapel and York Museums Trust, will provide a chance for the film-makers to discuss surviving evidence, such as trial records, newspaper reports and coining artefacts, with scholars. These sources will then inspire the characters and narrative for the production.

Set in a rural community and dealing with the everyday lives of working people, the film will provides an unusually resonant view of life for the majority in 18-century Britain. Both Dr Greig and Peter Kershaw see it as a testing ground for a new model of practice which supports the exchange of knowledge and expertise between academic and non-academic partners.

 “Usually, historical advisors are only brought in at the sharp end of delivery for a period drama,” Peter Kershaw admits. “Historians might be called upon during filming, and even join the crew on set, but in fact at this point their advice is least able to alter the result.

“For The Last Coiner we are pioneering a very different approach, ensuring that academics and experts are involved in the film from the beginning of the creative process.”

Dr Greig adds: “Wary of productions that pay little attention to the facts of research, academic historians are often extremely reluctant to contribute to media productions. However, by putting scholarly research at the heart of the production process, we hope to demonstrate that happier collaborations can occur.”

The workshops will be held at the end of 2009, after which the group will seek further funding to support the filming. You can follow their progress on

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