A novel about an 18th century gang of Yorkshire counterfeiters has been declared the winner of Britain’s biggest Prize for historical fiction at the Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival.
The Gallows Pole, by Durham-born Benjamin Myers, won the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize after a secret vote when the judges were split on which book to pick from a six-strong shortlist.
The book tells the story of the real-life Cragg Vale Coiners – a gang of weavers and peasants in remote moorland villages near Halifax in the 1760s – who created their own fake coins by clipping the edges off legal coins, remilling them so they were slightly smaller, and collecting the shavings to make counterfeit coins.
Myers’ novel, which is published by small independent Yorkshire publisher Blumoose Press, beat books from some of Britain’s biggest publishing houses to win the award, which is funded by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch.
The award, Myers said, “is the best thing that has ever happened to me”. He added that he would be spending the prize money on “going to see the original line-up of Guns ’N’ Roses in Reykjavik”, and to take a break “and listen to the birdsong”.
As an added accolade, Myers will also be the subject of a special Royal Mail postmark this week – on around 30 million items – congratulating him on winning the prize.
This is only the second time a book prize has been selected for this special recognition.
Myers’s story triumphed over Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, Jane Harris’ Sugar Money, Paul Lynch’s Grace, Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress and Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves.
“The Gallows Pole,” said Alistair Moffat, chair of the judges, “is a roaring furnace of a novel. In telling a big story about a small place, Benjamin Myers portrays social upheavals which have a sharp contemporary echo.”
“He meets the challenge for every author of historical fiction – bringing alive the past and speaking forcefully to the readers of today.”
The Cragg Vale Coiners were finally apprehended after the murder of an investigating exciseman.
Robert Parker, the Halifax solicitor who led the prosecutions against them, is thought by some to have been a possible model for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, which Emily Bronte wrote just 10 miles away at Howarth.