The Gallows Pole: The fascinating true story behind the BBC drama

Despite its mythical elements, Shane Meadows's new historical drama draws on a real life story

The Gallows Pole,31-05-2023,1,David Hartley (MICHAEL SOCHA) and The Stagmen,Element Pictures (GP) Limited/Objective Feedback LLC,Dean Rogers
Michael Socha as David Hartley in The Gallows Pole (BBC)

In the world of BBC's new drama The Gallows Pole a man is tasked with reinvigorating his West Yorkshire community by six Stag Men, but despite its mythical backdrop the story is based in reality.

This is England’s Shane Meadows lends his unique vision to the show, which stars Michael Socha in the role of David Hartley, the man who would lead the Cragg Vale Coiners during the Industrial Revolution.

Read more: The Gallows Pole review: Shane Meadows' BBC drama packs a punch

Here is everything you need to know about the real-life story that inspired the BBC drama.

Were the Cragg Vale Coiners real?

The Gallows Pole,07-06-2023,2,Barb (JENNIFER REID), Gwen Hartley (CHARLOTTE OCKELON), William Hartley (THOMAS TURGOOSE), Darya Hartley (SORAYA JANE NABIPOUR), Grace Hartley (SOPHIE McSHERA), David Hartley (MICHAEL SOCHA),Element Pictures (GP) Limited/Objective Feedback LLC,Dean Rogers
Jennifer Reid, Charlotte Ockelon, Thomas Turgoose, Soraya Jane Nabipour, Sophiee McShera and Michael Socha in The Gallows Pole (BBC)

Yes, the Cragg Vale Coiners were indeed real. They were a group of counterfeiters, led by Hartley, who helped to produce fake gold coins in order to support the local community who made only a small amount by weaving.

The group's known members included Hartley and his brother Isaac (played by Thomas Turgoose in the show) and James Broadbent (Adam Fogerty). They operated for some time before authorities caught wind of their operation, as their remote location allowed them to get away with counterfeiting without notice.

Read more: Pagans, folk rock and no script: the making of The Gallows Pole (Evening Standard, 6-min read)

It was a betrayal of one of their own that ultimately led to the group’s downfall, with Hartley being hanged for the counterfeiting crimes in 1770.

Is The Gallows Pole a true story?

The Gallows Pole is based on a novel of the same name by Ben Myers, but the author spent over a year researching the history of the Cragg Vale Coiners in order to bring his story to life. Myers actually lived in the same house that one of the group's members, Broadbent, used as a weaver.

While it does draw on mystical elements as seen in the dramatisation, the novel is best described as historical fiction.

The author says that he felt he knew the history of the Cragg Vale Coiners inside out. He’d walked the same places they would have been, and knew many of the locations they had used in the 18th century.

The Gallows Pole,07-06-2023,2,Isaac Hartley (SAMUEL EDWARD COOK), David Hartley (MICHAEL SOCHA),Element Pictures (GP) Limited/Objective Feedback LLC,Dean Rogers
Samuel Edward Cook and Michael Socha in The Gallows Pole (BBC)

He explained: “I read through lots of dry and dusty accounts of the Cragg Vale coiners in this highfalutin legal language from the 18th Century and I wrote the book.”

Even the mythical elements of the story had some truth to them, as Myers explained that a neighbour had told him she’d seen stag-headed men as a child.

Read more: Shane Meadows: ‘This is as scary a time as I can remember’ (The Guardian, 3-min read)

Myers said: “I didn’t want to write an historic account because they already exist, I wanted to write something that was a bit psychedelic and over the top and kind of reflected the intensity of this landscape, because at any time of year, but particularly in autumn and winter when you walk around these moors by yourself, you can feel a sense of history that’s there in the soil and it’s a magical feeling but it’s a bit malevolent as well.

“So I wanted to take a true story and crank it up into something that’s pushing the boundaries of what historical fiction is really.”

The Gallows Pole premieres on BBC Two on Wednesday, 31 May at 9pm, when all episodes will also arrive on iPlayer. Watch a trailer below.