Thursday, 13 May 2010

Boom and Bust in 18th-century Yorkshire

Trade card, 1730-1742, V&A Museum

With Britain on the cusp of a new coalition government - an alliance that will have to tackle major economic problems - I thought this news item from the University of York might draw some interesting parallels with boom and bust, 18th-century-style.

I talked a while back about Tulipomania and the South Sea Bubble, but in this instance, economic ruin threatened the people of Yorkshire, who were not taking it lying down...

The coming of Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the 18th century changed West Yorkshire from a remote landscape to an industrial powerhouse. Because of the fertile pasture land where sheep could be raised, and the soft water - handy for cleaning wool - Yorkshire was particularly suited to the developing textile trade. As steam power was explored, the coalfield south of Leeds would also come into play as a source of energy for the machinery.

Yet, despite the consumer revolution of the 18th century - which saw the market for luxury goods expanding to tempt a new middle-class - cash was in short supply and the markets could be volatile. When the wool trade suffered a decline in the 1760s and 1770s, hundreds of people from rural Yorkshire communities took matters into their own hands and began counterfeiting British and Spanish coins to save themselves from poverty.

1787 Proclamation Shilling

The Yorkshire Coiners, as they were known, were concentrated around Halifax and led by a ‘royal family’ of King David (David Hartley) and his brothers, known as The Duke of York and The Duke of Edinburgh. In the 1700s counterfeiting was a serious offence - punishable by hanging - and the Government took the matter seriously, sentencing many of the gang to death at York's Tyburn. Yet the characters live on in the old ballads, and many people today can trace their ancestry back to members of the The Yorkshire Coiners.

And in a further interesting twist to this story, soon the plucky northerners will be immortalised on film. Original research on the coiners by University of York historian, Dr Hannah Greig, has led to a collaboration with Harrogate-based film-maker Peter Kershaw who is making a feature film called The Last Coiner, which promises to give a more accurate flavour of life in 18th-century Britain than your average period drama. Check out The Last Coiner movie site and the Official Movie Blog for more details.

And... please don't try this at home!

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