10 June 2010

English Treasure Riots

In the irresistably titled post "On Treasure Riots and a Lust for Holes", the always excellent BLDGBLOG reminds us of a forgotten history of urban treasure hunting in the US and the UK:
During the so-called London treasure hunt riots, Londoners tore up properties all over the city "looking for one of 177 prize medallions which a Sunday newspaper called the Weekly Dispatch had planted around the UK." The paper used its first issue of the New Year to announce it had concealed a fortune in treasure medallions, the most valuable of which were worth £50 apiece. Each issue would carry a series of clues pointing to the prizes' locations. But these locations were incredibly vague, and, many readers thought, the only way to look was simply to start digging holes.

Quoting journalist Paul Slade at great length:

All over London, the story was the same. Crowds gathered outside Pentonville Prison and Islington's Fever Hospital, blocking the roads and attacking any scrap of loose ground. Hundreds of treasure seekers converged on a Bethnal Green museum and began digging there. One Shooters Hill resident said his area was "infested with gangs of roughs." Shepherd's Bush, Clapton and Canning Town were besieged too.

By the time [a 19-year-old Battersea labourer called Frederick Nurse] had his day in court, Luton and Manchester had also been hit. Luton residents seeking the town's single £10 medallion caused what councillors called "a gross disturbance" to the town in the early hours of Sunday, January 10. A week later, the Manchester Evening News found "some most extraordinary scenes" in its own city.

"From an early hour on Saturday night to late on Sunday night, various parts of the Manchester suburbs were the resort of men, women and children, people of all classes, drunk and sober, who had taken up what they thought to be the real clue to the spot where a medallion worth £25 lay hidden beneath the turf," the [Manchester Evening News] reported. “They seized upon vacant pieces of land and stretches of roadway, digging and delving until not a foot of the ground lay smooth.” In Blackley, it added, three hunters had arrived simultaneously at the same spot and “settled the matter by a three-cornered fight."
I love how deep runs the conviction that mysterious and wonderful things await us underground, waiting for us to uncover them. There's something beautiful about this mania to me - the normal world of London suddenly became enchanted with money, and everyone decided to seek it out. The shortcoming, of course, is that very few people got rich. But there's something about these moments where public consciousness of the environment is suddenly transformed that resembles the feeling I get from the process of doing archaeology.
Slade's whole article is wonderful, read it! For that matter, check out BLDGBLOG too, it's one of the best blogs period.

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