One purple moment  

I saw a story in the Guardian newspaper recently about a metal detectorist who found a gold coin and posted about it on social media where it was spotted by an auctioneer.  The coin was later sold for £648,000 at auction[i] and the lucky finder said, “It is quite surreal really, I’m just a normal guy who lives in Devon with his family, so this really is a life-changing sum of money, which will go towards their futures.”

A very different outcome to the experience of a relative of mine:

London Daily News Mon 8 May 1905 [ii]

In 1905 the London newspapers – and others further afield – ran the extraordinary story of a huge haul of gold and silver coins found on a demolition site in Kensington High Street and the subsequent inquest:

Harry Mayhew was the tenth of twelve children born to Richard Alfred Mayhew and his wife Annie.  Richard was a labourer and the family lived in Victoria Road (now Pearscroft Road), in the Sands End area of Fulham, London.  The demographic of this road was described in one of the notebooks from Charles Booth’s Inquiry into Life and Labour in London just a few years before as “Irish, noisy, poor, a few criminals no licence holders”[iii] so the population was a mixture of families on the brink of poverty and others living below the poverty line.  The Mayhew family would probably today be described as ‘just about managing’, with most of Richard and Annie’s sons finding steady work as unskilled labourers in local industries as soon as they could leave school.  The Mayhews were likely to have been one of the nearly 1.3 million London families living off 21s or less per week per household[iv]

Young Harry, aged 18, was employed as a labourer and carter to help dig out and remove waste from construction sites and take the rubble by horse and cart to a rubbish tip near his home.  On 3rd May 1905, Harry was digging around the foundations of some old houses in Kensington when his shovel turned up a hoard of yellow coins near a broken teapot.  He didn’t know what they were, but he picked up a couple of handfuls of coins and shoved them in a sack which he put in in the front his cart.  He showed a coin to William Wallace, the foreman on site, who handed it back to him saying it was “only a token”.[v]

Harry returned to his depot in Fulham where he showed the coins to the foreman who told him “They are no good, you’d better take them home”.  As he left, Harry is said to have thrown a good handful of coins to a group of children and some men hanging around outside the depot.  Later that evening Harry went to his local police station where he handed the remaining coins to the police[vi] who, realising the potential value of the discovery, passed the evidence on to Scotland Yard.

Photograph of Walter Phillimore, 1st Baron Phillimore (1845-1929)
Walter Phillimore, 1st Baron Phillimore (image Public Domain)

A couple of weeks later an inquest was opened in Westminster Coroner’s Court to establish the circumstances of the find and whether it constituted a treasure trove, when it is presumed that the true owner is dead and the heirs undiscoverable thus becoming the property of the Crown.  There were several claimants to ownership of the coins, namely: the contractor who was employed to remove waste from the demolition site; the contractor who had bought the old houses to demolish them; the leaseholder of the site and, finally, the landowner, Sir Walter Phillimore, 1st Baron Phillimore and a High Court Judge.

Nearly one hundred items were placed on a chair before the coroner and jury for inspection and the court was told that the coins had probably been placed in the teapot which had been hidden under the flagstone forming the foundation of the kitchen after the original house had been built between 1780 and 1790.    

Detailed list of gold and silver coins recovered and presented to the inquest
London Daily News Mon 15 May 1905 [vii]

Poor Harry, he must have been mortified when he stood in the witness box and recounted the events of his find to howls of laughter from the coroner, the jury and others in the court.  Harry stated under oath that he had retrieved about half of the coins he’d unearthed and other men working on the site had taken the rest.  Harry’s foreman then told the court that he thought Harry had about two hundred coins before he began “scrambling” them and throwing them around outside the rubbish tip.

The coroner’s remark to Harry, “Well, you had one purple moment in your life – a sackful of coins and scrambling them among boys”, was met with renewed laughter from all around the court.[viii]

The inquest continued and one by one the witnesses were called.

Amos Crowhurst, a coalman of Victoria Road Fulham, claimed a strange chap threw a coin at him and told him to get a drink with it.  Later ‘someone’ told him the coin was valuable, so – somehow – he managed to get hold of a couple more coins, despite insisting to the court he didn’t know the chap he’d got them from.  He told the court that he later sold the coins for 2 shillings each.[ix]

Another witness, Samuel King, a carman of Fulham Road, claimed that he was passing a local pub when a man he did not know said to him ‘Here! Get yourself a drink’ and gave him three coins.  This witness added that he could have had a handful of coins if he had wanted them, but he threw them away, saying ‘I’ve quite enough lumber to carry about already’.  The man refused to take back the coins, so the witness picked them up, took them home and gave them to his children to play with.  The following morning, he took them to a local pawnbroker who offered him nearly a pound each for three coins.  The coroner asked how he knew the value of the coins he had pawned, and the witness replied that “a ‘bloke’ came up to me and said somebody had pawned some for a ‘quid’ a’piece so I went and got 19s 6d each for mine”.[x]

Stephen Crouch, a labourer of Victoria Road Fulham, stated he was mowing grass on a cricket ground when a man he did not know gave him four coins to hang on a watch chain.  Mr Crouch claimed that he sold them for 8s to “quite a gentlemanly-looking sort of man” but the first man who’d given him the coins then asked for them back so he told  him he’d sold them because he was thirsty.[xi]

Frederick Wells, a Kensington jeweller, was called next to give evidence.  He claimed that a neighbouring publican named Ampleford had shown him a couple of coins and asked about them.  Mr Wells had tested them and confirmed they were old gold, but the publican left with the coins.  Shortly after, a workman came into his shop with some coins he claimed to have found on a building site opposite.  The coins all tested as gold, so he gave the workman £12 for seventeen coins.  Mr Wells added that he didn’t think it was necessary to ask the workman for his name and address.[xii]

The coroner expressed surprise that the jeweller claimed not to know that a George III Spade Guinea was worth at least 25s at dealer’s price, however Mr Wells claimed he’d sold them the same day to a travelling dealer but – surprise, surprise – he didn’t know the dealer’s name nor address.  As Mr Wells’ books appeared to show that he’d paid £16 for some coins, but he could only produce evidence of a cheque payment for £12, the coroner concluded that something wasn’t quite right with Mr Wells’ story and sent him home with a police officer to produce evidence of the transactions.[xiii]

George III Spade Guinea 1787-1800 in 22 carat yellow go.d
Image (c) The Royal Mint [xiv]

Meanwhile, Edwin Abide, an assistant to Messrs Spink jewellers, was called to the witness box.  Mr Abide told of a ‘working man’ who entered the shop on 4 May 1905 asking what he’d get for a Spade Guinea.  Mr Abide offered 23s and his visitor promptly produced eight Spade Guineas plus several other coins for which Mr Abide paid him a total of £13.  The visitor gave his name as Allen of 1a Victoria Road Fulham and wrote his name in the book.  Mr Abide asked where he’d got the coins and was told that he’d found them[xv].

The inquiry was adjourned until the following week when Fredrick Wells’ brother and business partner James was also asked to give evidence, but it quickly became apparent that the records kept by the business were not quite as specific nor accurate as they should have been[xvi]

James Dicks, another labourer, admitted to finding four Spade Guineas at the site the day after Harry’s discovery and selling them for 25s each.  His story was confirmed by Edwin Harris, of John Barker & Co. Kensington, who stated that Mr Dicks wanted 27s, but he’d paid him 25s each, which was a fair and proper market price.  He also stated that that the next day Mr Dicks brought in another coin, and he had paid him another 25s for that one.[xvii]

Modern day pearlie suit with mother of pearl buttons
A modern day ‘pearly’ suit [xix]

The next witness to be called was Samuel Willis, a Fulham salvage contractor, whose appearance in the witness box caused some amusement as his coat was decorated with ‘pearlies’ and the coroner asked if these were from the treasure trove.  Mr Willis attested that he’d found the coins, taken them to “a jeweller opposite” who gave him a cheque for £12 in exchange for sixteen or seventeen coins and that he had cashed at a neighbouring public house.   Mr Campbell Graham, cross examining on behalf of the Treasury, asked what he’d done with the £12, to which Mr Willis replied that he’d “Had a holiday with it, and haven’t been to work since” which remark was met with great laughter in the courtroom[xviii].

Mr Frederick Wells, the jeweller, was recalled to the witness box and asked by the coroner if he wished to give any further explanation.  Mr Wells replied, “You must remember that it is a very severe-cross examination that I have been under, and I think the jury will agree that it is excusable that I should have got into a muddle with the amounts.”   The coroner went on to ask why he had obstructed the police in their enquires by refusing to give them any names, but Mr Wells again insisted that he did not know who he had sold the coins to.[xx]

Finally, Inspector Walton from Scotland Yard gave evidence to in his enquiries whilst attempting to trace the missing coins, but in many cases where the coins had been pawned the addresses given had been incorrect.[xxi]

The jury deliberated for about half an hour before returning a verdict that the coins recovered were indeed a treasure trove and therefore property of the Crown.  The Foreman of the jury added that they wished the coroner to censure Mr Frederick Wells, the jeweller, for his neglect to render any assistance to the police and for the unsatisfactory nature of his evidence.  The coroner agreed with the jury in their observation as to Mr Wells’ conduct however, having spoken severely to Mr Wells he now considered the matter closed.[xxii]

What of Harry?  He married his seventeen-year-old sweetheart Elizabeth Osborn on Christmas Eve 1905, and they went on to have two children, Mary Ann and Henry.  Harry survived WWI having served in France with the 13th Kensington Battalion London Regiment and, after the War, he returned to work at the Gas Light and Coke Company where he spent nearly 20 years employed as a carman.  In December 1933, Harry, who still lived in Fulham, died aged 47 of bronchitis from which he had been suffering for a long time. [xxiii]

Image of an open-sided coal delivery cart with carman and boy
Edwardian photograph of a coal delivery carman and his assistant [xxiv]

[i] Guardian online last accessed 24 Jan 2022

[ii] Daily News (London) 08 May 1905 © British Newspaper Archive

[iii] Charles Booth’s London George H. Duckworth’s Notebook: Police District 29 [Fulham] 1899 last accessed 24 Jan 2022

[iv] Jack London: The People of the Abyss – first published 1903

[v] Globe (London) 19 May 1905

[vi] Daily News (London) 15 May 1905 © British Newspaper Archive

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid

[xi] Ibid

[xii] The Globe (London) 19 May 1905

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] The Royal Mint: George III Spade Guinea last accessed 24 Jan 2022

[xv] The Globe (London) 19 May 1905

[xvi] Daily News (London) 26 May 1905

[xvii] Ibid

[xviii] Ibid

[xix] Image of a Pearly Suit from Flickr “IMG_1538” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Brigadier Chastity Crispbread

[xx] Daily News (London) 26 May 1905

[xxi] Ibid

[xxii] Daily News (London) 26 May 1905

[xxiii] Fulham Chronicle 15 Dec 1933

[xxiv] Image from believed in the public domain