The Romance of Hidden Wealth

W. A. ATKINSON May 1 1909

The Romance of Hidden Wealth

W. A. ATKINSON May 1 1909

The Romance of Hidden Wealth


From Chambers’s Journal

FROM time to time we are reminded by the moralist of the assiduous and anxious thought which must be given to the management of large fortunes. No part of this anxiety, save in exceptional conditions, arises out of a fear of the actual loss of bullion, specie, or plate; it originates rather in those subtler risks attending the fluctuations of stocks, the rising and falling of market prices, and the profitable or unprofitable investment of capital. In ancient times conditions were reversed. The question then was, how to hold the actual specie or plate safely and conveniently, so that one might lay one’s hands upon the stock and use it as required. The difficulty now is how to lend it safely and profitably, how to get it out of one’s hands, where it lies unproductive, and, by putting it out at interest, live upon the fruits of it. The factors which make for success in the two cases are very different. Strong walls and secret hiding-places give little contentment to the modern millionaire. Public opinion or the varying whims of the markets had little effect upon the affluent squire of the past, whose wealth was locked up as hard cash in an iron-bound chest in the strongest recess of his country house.

From very early times the hoarding of coins has been a common, and indeed a necessary, practice. The frequency wdth which, in this country, stores of Roman coins are turned up bv the ploughshare or laid bare by the pick and shovel of the excavator shows how general the practice of hid-

ing treasure in the ground was with these invaders. Many of these hoards are contained in metal or earthenware járs, and they consist usually of a great number of the small coins which were current at the time when the receptacles were buried in the ground. They were, indeed, working treasuries, and not stores of wealth such as a miser would accumulate. Only a few months ago, for instance, a farmer was ploughing in a field near Stanley, not far from an old Roman road, when the ploughshare struck an earthenware vase lying about two feet in the ground, which, upon examination, was found to contain over five thousand bronze coins, chiefly of the time of Constantine the Great. About sixteen years ago an almost identical discovery was made at Langwith, near York. In this instance the urn which the ploughshare brought to light held over six thousand brass coins of the reign of Constantine. More valuable, however—to select one more instance—were the contents of a copper chest found near Bingley in 1775 bv a farmer who was making a drain. In this receptacle there was close upon a hundredweight of Roman silver pieces, coined at fifteen different periods, the earliest being of the time of Julius Caesar. It is worthv of remark that this discovery turned the efforts of the local coiners (of whom there was a notorious gang) into a new channel, and the}'' berrán to counterfeit Roman coins.

The discovery of hoards accumulated and put by in more recent times

is not so common an event, bv comparison, as we might expect. It was long before post-Roman Britain attained the high civilization which it had enjoyed in Roman times, and never again was it so completely laid waste as during the Saxon invasions. It was long, therefore, before money again acquired the general utility and importance which it had possessed under the Romans ; and when it did so there was no general break in the regular progression of social growth, throwing the country back upon barbarous times and customs in which money had little or no comparative value. Treasure which was laid by in the times of the Lancastrian kings might be discovered in the reign of Elizabeth, and1 it had at once a recognized value as bullion, if not as current coin. And, again, the habitable sites and dwellings where treasure was likely to be hidden by accident or design were in most instances continuously occupied from Saxon times, and there was 'thus greater probability that the hidden stores would be brought to light than was the case in the generally deserted and forgotten sites of Roman times.

Still, the discovery of medieval hoards is not of uncommon occurrence. In Tulv, IQ02, an exceptional discovery of this kind was made at Colchester by the workmen who were engaged in taking down the premises of the London and County Banking Companv, which were about to be rebuilt. Six feet below the surface of the ground they found a leaden casket which contained nearly twenty thousand silver coins of an earlv period, manv of them of the reigns of Stephen. Tohn, and Henrv IT. Thev were all in good condition, which, considering the perishable nature of silver, affords excellent testimonv to the protective character of the leaden receptacle in which they were buried. At Oulton, near Leeds, a small discovery of a somewhat similar kind was made in 1905, and was the subject of an official inquest. Some men who were engaged in digging a hole to receive the carcase of a horse struck a 62

metal vessel, which proved to be an urn of peculiar shape. Within the urn were discovered about two hundred silver coins dating from the sixteenth century.

The hiding or hoarding of treasure is a subject often referred to in our literature, and it has occasionally employed the pen and the brush of the illuminator of manuscripts. An illumination of a fourteenth century manuscript at Oxford depicts a couple of men lowering a metal-bound box into a bricked vault by means of a couple of cords. Several persons are looking on, and one of them is a priest holding a book and sprinkling holy water over the box. The inference would seem to be that the treasure was being consecrated to religious use ; but whether that be so or not, the means employed for its preservation are significant of somewhat lawless and uncertain times.

There is evidence that the hiding of money in secret places in the ground was a well-known practice some three hundred years earlier than this. Stigand, the Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, thus disposed of his treasures ; and it is said that he spent the closing years of his life as a veritable miser at Winchester, having about his neck the cord of a little key which fitted a box wherein he kept a list of his money-bags buried in secret places.

The curious legend of “The Thief of the Treasury,” translated by Dr. Luard in the Life of Edward the Confessor, in the Rolls Series, affords indirect evidence that in those earlv times the central national treasury was nothing more nor less than a hoard of gold stored in the royal bedroom of the palace at Westminster. While the king lies in his bed, the chamberlain. Hugo, enters the room, and takes such money from the treasure-chest as he wants. A scullion of the kitchen entering a little later, finds the chest open, and. thinking the. king asleep, helps himself to a portion of its contents. Having hidden this stolen treasure, he returns again and yet again for more. But at the third time the steps of Hugo are heard approaching the chamber, and the king goodhumoredly advises the scullion to fly quickly, lest he be discovered by the chamberlain, who will not leave him even a halfpenny.

Numerous treasure-chests of various periods survive to remind us how universal was the custom of securing wealth within the walls of houses. The iron-bound so-called Domesday Chest,, with its three massive locks, is one of these. Its woodwork is two inches thick, and sheeted with iron, both within and without, in addition to the iron bands and iron nails. Its weight is at least a quarter of a ton. Down to the seventeenth century or later these iron-bound boxes were in use, and some of the more recent ones have locks of most elaborate construction, occupying the whole of the inside of the lid, and shooting a dozen bolts in all directions, even in some cases into the corners of the box.

A manuscript of the fifteenth century contains an illumination in which Avarice is represented as an English trader counting his money. His metalbound treasure-chest, not in this instance a large one, stands upon the table, and its open lid reveals a store of ^oins filling the box to its edges, and suggesting a hoard of several hundreds, if not even a few thousands of pounds—a substantial sum in those times.

Merry Mr. Pepys, who laid his soul 'bare in his secret diary, was not without a touch of avarice. Listen to this confession: “This day I received four hundred and fifty pieces of gold more of Mr. Stokes, but cost me twenty-two and a half pence change ; hut I am well contented with it, I having now nearly two thousand eight hundred pounds in gold, and will not rest till I get full three thousand. . . . My wife and all the maids abed but Jane, whom I have put confidence in ; she and I, and my brother, and Tom and W. Hewer, did bring up all the remainder of my money and my platechest out of the cellar, and placed the money in my study with the rest, and

the plate in my dressing-room ; but, indeed, I am in great pain to think how to dispose of my money, it being wholly unsafe to keep it all in coin in one place.” A very sagacious conclusion, and one which many others must have arrived at in those times —such, for instance, as the father of the poet Pope, who, when he retired from business in the city, carried with him into the country a strong chest containing nearly twenty thousand pounds, from which he drew the sums for his household expenses as he required them.

The times were now ripe for the institution of banks of a modern character, and they originated shortly after the Restoration. Informal banking had formed a branch of the goldsmith’s business for a long time before this ; but the action of Charles I. in seizing some two hundred thousand pounds placed by the merchants of London in the Royal Mint for safety, and the general disturbances caused by the Civil War, must have forced many to fall back upon their own resources for the preservation of their wealth. What, under the circumstances, could be safer or more convenient than a private hoard lodged in some secret place in one’s own house ?

Sir Henry Slingsby, when quartered at Newark with the king in 1645, grew short of money. He accordingly made a secret journey to his home near York, making the actual entry into his house by night, where he stayed one day, and returned with forty pounds in gold, the visit being made so secretly that scarce any in his own house knew that he was there. A secret hiding-place was indispensable for the private hoards at this particular time. Two rival factions were roving over the country, neither of then, disposed to be any too nice about sacrificing the private wealth of their opponents to the public uses favored by themselves.

It was the common opinion of writers on economics in the seventeenth

century that much currency was hidden in ceilings, behind wainscots, and in secret_drawers. Hogarth, in his print of “The Inheritance,” forming one of the set of “The Rake’s Progress,” has depicted a shower of coins falling from the ceiling of the room where a workman has accidentally disturbed the molding. Old cabinets and secretaries of any size have usually one or two secret drawers or cupboards often most ingeniously contrived. It is surprising how well these secret corners elude detection, even when their existence may be expected or inferred. Some years ago the wife of a Kentish laborer was breaking up an old chest of drawers, when she discovered a secret compartment nearly filled with gold coins of the reigns of William III. and George II, The chest had been purchased for a few shillings about twenty years previously, and the fact that this little store of coins had not been discovered earlier was all the more strange because in all probability the drawers had been several times repaired.

A curious list of hiding-places for money is afforded by two old books of memoranda and receipts relating to the Fulham Pottery Works in 1693 and 1698. There are two hundred and forty guineas in a wooden box in a hole under the fireplace in the garret. There are four hundred and sixty more in two covered receptacles under the fireplace in the old labora-

tory. Behind the door of the little parlor there is a can containing some milled money. Two boxes full of money were placed in two holes of the great furnace, from which they were to be drawn by a long, crooked iron standing behind the kitchen door. In all, ten or a dozen such hiding-places are named, and the money was variously contained in boxes, bags, cans, pots, and purses.

There can be little doubt that the practice of hoarding money and valuables in private houses gave great encouragement to crime. A glance through the pages of early volumes of the Annual Register, largely devoted to the chronicles of crime, reveals a number of apparently hastily planned robberies, which resulted in rich hauls out of all proportion to the occasion. Some thieves get in at the garret-window of a house in Devonshire Square, and carry off from the owner’s bedchamber an iron chest containing cash, notes, and other valuables to the amount of ten thousand pounds. Two men enter the Custom House at Limerick, and in a few minutes carry off cash to the amount of about eighteen hundred pounds. Such is the character of the crimes which were then most successful—a bold, quick bicfrfor the treasure-chest, which was almost certain to be well-stocked, and very often convenient for removal by two or three thieves acting in concert.