"The treasure-hunter is becoming a serious nuisance," fulminated The Times in 1904. The latest craze to hit London involved a wave of petty vandalism. Roads were dug up, trees were damaged and walls demolished in a frenzied hunt for concealed lucre.
The craze was kickstarted by a New Year's competition in the Weekly Dispatch newspaper. The paper had secretly buried dozens of treasure medallions around the country. By solving clues printed in the paper, the public could hunt down the tokens and claim a prize. 20 such deposits were buried in London alone, each worth £50 to the discoverer.
Certain 'hotspots' sustained heavy damage from the eager trowel wielders. Westbourne Terrace was inundated with shovelers, while Blomfield Road in Maida Vale attracted hundreds of gold diggers. Tree roots were damaged on Wimbledon Hill. The very first clue had indicated a treasure "near a place where people go against their will", prompting frantic scrabbling around the borders of Pentonville Prison.
The Times noted that "The aggressive lunatic who goes about with spade and lantern must be left to the Police Courts to deal with". Indeed, cases were quickly brought before the judge. A Woodford man, Walter Henry West, was fined 40 shillings a few days after the Times article for smashing up the roadway in the hunt for buried treasure. West was collared on Almack Road, Clapton "digging in the earth between the kerbstone and the asphalt with a garden fork". A similar case saw Frederick Maynard of Walthamstow fined 80 shillings for illegally excavating Lower Clapton Road. The allure was not restricted to those on low incomes. Architect Arthur Stuart was apprehended causing a nuisance in Claremont Street, Clerkenwell. Quoth the judge: "You are an educated man. Does it not seem to you to be a very foolish thing that a man in his senses should be scraping around the roadway with a corkscrew? It seems to me to be the act of a lunatic. Go away. You are discharged."
The treasure hunt craze had its origins in Tit-Bits magazine, which a few years earlier had led one lucky reader to a prize of £500 in gold sovereigns. But it was the Weekly Dispatch competition that provoked the greatest frenzy. People would queue all night to secure each new edition of the paper, thereby receiving fresh clues before the majority. The clamour even developed its own black-market, with forged medallions and 'magnetic forks' to help locate the prizes. Things came to a head when a huge crowd, estimated in the thousands, set about digging up Ha-Ha Road and its surroundings on Woolwich Common. Mounted troops and police were needed to break up the gathering.
The prosecutions continued, but the attention of the authorities also turned towards the original source publication, for inciting disruptive behaviour. It wasn't easy. The newspaper had "rather skilfully protected themselves in their advertisements" by disclaiming that treasures were hidden on public land and needed no tools for discovery. The public paid little heed to this and, as we've seen, dug and demolished wherever they liked. But after six weeks of chaos, the paper was persuaded to back down and cancel the treasure hunt. At its close, 43 medallions remained undiscovered. Many presumably remain hidden across the country, like this disc unearthed in 2013 by a metal-detector enthusiast in Plymouth.
As an interesting afterword, a genuine treasure was dug up later in 1904, in what is now part of London. A Romford grocer revelling in the Dickensian name of Mr Cakebread was having his shop floor lowered when workers uncovered £200-worth of coins from a century earlier.
The treasure hunt fad was highly disruptive, but very short-lived. Similar ideas were tried throughout the 20th century, most notably the 'Masquerade' treasure chase of 1979. It also anticipated the modern activity of geocaching, whereby millions of people spend their spare time hunting down cleverly hidden caches using GPS and cryptic clues — there are up to 2,000 hidden in London alone. This seemingly innocuous pastime can, too, attract the attentions of the authorities, who sometimes mistake the participant — groping around behind street furniture or on their knees among the foliage — for a security threat or drug runner. The difference is that geocaching rarely holds any prize other than the satisfaction of tracking down the hidden object.