This is an important part of our history – and Myers brings it to life in glorious, blood-drenched technicolour.
Author: Benjamin Myers
Where did I get this book: The lovely Read indie bookshop in Holmfirth
Finished on: 20 July 2021
The Cragg Vale coiners were a gang of coin clippers in the late eighteenth century, men who would take small pieces of metal from existing coins and combine them with baser metals to create new pieces. When done on a large enough scale, clipping has the effect of devaluing and debasing the currency and, in the case of the Cragg Vale coiners, their operation was so extensive that their crimes came to the attention of the Prime Minister and the King, far away down in London town.
This is deepest, darkest Calderdale, on the verge of the industrial revolution, a place where poverty was rife and a man could be hanged from the gallows for stealing food for his family. It’s a brutal setting full of brutal people – and the most brutal of all is ‘King David’, the man at the head of the coiners.
This is a story of violence and cruelty, but it’s also a story of deep-rooted, extraordinary connection with place. The descriptions of the Cragg Vale setting are so evocative they work directly on the emotions – and it’s all achieved through the people, these incredible characters and their barbarous lives. This is some of the most powerful nature writing through characterisation I’ve ever read.
The Gallows Pole is a wholly immersive reading experience, and even more immersive for being meticulously researched and largely based on facts. For those of us who know the Calder Valley well, it’s a delicious game of spot-the-location, but no matter if you don’t – you’ll soon feel like a local. This is a book where you look up from the pages and expect to see the dense woodland and steep hills of Cragg – and maybe a few dancing stagmen – in front of you.
It is a savage story, but what Myers does so well is make us feel this savagery is a brave and natural response to a time, place and set of circumstances. I grew up just outside Halifax, lived down the road from Cragg Vale for several years, and knew nothing about the coiners until I read this book. This is an important part of our history – and Myers brings it to life in glorious, blood-drenched technicolour.