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Treasure hunt riots: continued

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Secret London
Murder Ballads

The precise beginnings of the Dispatch's scheme are a little hazy, but its first move must have been to mint up the initial batch of medallions. Each of these was a metal disc, about 6.5cm in diameter, with an inscription on one side. It read: “This is the buried treasure medallion of the Weekly Dispatch. On presentation at the offices of the paper, 3 Tallis Street, London EC, the finder will be given £50 in cash” (6). For the less valuable medallions, this £50 figure was replaced with “£20” or “£10”.
Dispatch staff were then sent out to bury these medallions close beneath the surface of public ground in 20 London boroughs and all across the UK. They noted each medallion's exact location, and prepared a series of elaborate clues describing the route they had taken to select its hiding place. They might mention, for example, “a spot where a square and a crescent stand side by side” or say they'd passed “a religious institution noted for its beautiful needlework”. These clues would be dribbled out bit-by-bit in the weeks that followed, with each journey requiring several instalments to complete.
The Dispatch launched what it called “The Greatest Treasure Hunt on Record” in its January 3, 1904, edition. “The published clues, if systematically followed up, will lead sooner or later to the spot where the treasure is concealed,” it promised, “And, in one or more cases each week, we shall indicate the exact situation of it.”

The first sign of trouble came a week later. January 10's Dispatch carried a clue saying North London's Islington medallion was hidden "near a place where people go against their will". This led to hundreds of readers gathering outside both the Fever Hospital in Liverpool Road and Pentonville Prison. The biggest crowds were outside the prison, where inmates must have been puzzled to see frantic diggers attacking any patch of loose ground.
"So great became the crowd at one time that no fewer than ten constables were called out to clear the road," the following Sunday's paper reported. "This was not the fault of the Weekly Dispatch, the too energetic hunters having altogether misunderstood the published clue, which had no reference whatsoever to Pentonville Prison" (8). The Islington medallion was eventually found just outside the graveyard attached to St Mary's church in Upper Street. No-one could argue that wasn't "a place where people go against their will".

So many people dug up Woolwich Common one night that it took soldiers to disperse them

The faint whiff of panic in the Dispatch's January 10 statement suggests the paper was already worrying that it might be held responsible for the damage its readers were causing. It had been careful to include a disclaimer in every issue pointing out that none of the treasure medallions were hidden on private property and that none required tools to unearth them. It soon became clear, however, that these disclaimers were passing most people by.
London and Manchester between them accounted for over half the medallions' total value, so those two cities were hardest hit. The crowds attacking likely spots were often hundreds strong, and came equipped with everything from corkscrews and tin openers to garden forks, crowbars and chisels. Professional men and well-dressed women fell prey to the craze just like everyone else. Some optimists, according to the Manchester Evening News, even gave up regular employment "to try and discover in a few days a sum which they could not honestly earn in as many months" (9). Others hoped to boost their income by more inventive means. A South Norwood man started selling magnetic forks which he claimed would adhere to any medallion they touched. "It is absolutely harmless," he said of his invention. "For it only leaves two small holes in the ground like a knitting needle". Hopeful forgers turning up at Tallis Street included one woman with a rusty bicycle sprocket, another with a piece of photographic glass plate and a group of four young men bearing a scrap of metal. Denied the £50 they wanted, the four men offered to settle for £1 instead (10).
Often, frustration led to violence. In Kensal Town Joseph George, a Notting Hill decorator, punched a canal official in the mouth when ordered to climb down from the bridge girders he had been searching. A counterfeiter caught placing fake discs in Stratford to confuse his rivals was forced to flee for his life. A drunk searching in Manchester's Dickenson Road after dark got annoyed with someone who stopped to mock his efforts and attacked them with a lamp.
Fourteen windows at the Dispatch's own Tallis Street offices were broken when frantic readers invaded the building to snatch early copies of the new edition. A boundary stone weighing three or four hundredweight was dislodged and thrown into the roadway in Hackney. So many people set about digging up Woolwich Common one night that it took soldiers on horseback to disperse them.
Islington and its surrounding boroughs - perhaps because of their proximity to Tallis Street - saw more action than most. A Dispatch reporter, sent to travel round London in the small hours one Sunday morning, found big crowds of treasure hunters already digging in Clerkenwell. A Kilburn man loosened a pressurised plug in the drain he was searching and narrowly escaped death when it shot past his head at high speed. One East End builder got so fed up with ejecting treasure hunters from his yard that he placed a notice on the gate pointing out that he'd searched the place himself and that "their ain't none".
By January 26, the Islington Gazette had seen enough, and that day's edition carried a powerful leader demanding the publishers responsible be called to account. "We have no sympathy with the class of people to prod roads and paths for the treasure," the Gazette thundered. "They deserve all they get from the Magistrates. But things are becoming serious when it is necessary to clear Woolwich Common by the aid of the military to prevent a fine open space being torn up with picks and shovels. [...] The actions of the public authorities ought to be against the enterprising newspaper proprietors who make the foolish their dupes and the ratepayers their victims" (11).

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Mounted troops clear Woolwich Common crowd

The Weekly Dispatch announced on January 17, 1904, that it had hidden a 50 medallion in the south-east London district of Woolwich.
     The accompanying clue mentions two "large blocks of buildings devoted to official purposes connected with the defence of the country". Readers concluded these must be the military barracks on Woolwich Common, and headed over there in great numbers.
      Here's a few press extracts describing what happened next:

"TREASURE-SEEKERS PUT TO FLIGHT: A CHARGE BY TROOPS AT WOOLWICH." -Northern Daily Telegraph headline, January 25, 1904.

"Before daybreak yesterday people poured into Woolwich in thousands, and proceeded to the south part of the common, opposite the Royal Herbert Hospital and near the Ha Ha Road. Here they commenced to probe and dig in the most reckless way, reducing this beautiful piece of ground to wreck." - The Globe, January 25, 1904.

"At nine o'clock affairs had arrived at such a pass that a detachment of the Garrison Mounted Police was ordered to clear the common. The treasure-seekers were infuriated, and but for the presence of the thousands of troops in the adjoining barracks, there would undoubtedly have been a riot." - St James's Gazette, January 25, 1904.

"As it was, the troops were subjected to a considerable amount of abuse. Hundreds of the baffled remained for many hours lining the roadway and gazing longingly at the spot where they were persuaded the coveted medallion lay." - Bolton Evening News, January 25. 1904.

"No-one has a right to incite people to injure public property, and no legal authority ought to hesitate to put a stop to a system of lawlessness. Things are becoming serious when it is necessary to clear Woolwich Common by the aid of the military to prevent a fine open space being torn up with picks and shovels." - Islington Gazette editorial, January 26, 1904.

"The Government prosecuted six men at Woolwich yesterday for damaging Woolwich Common. Evidence showed that crowds of people rushed the military and town police in their search for buried treasure, and the military had to close the common. [The magistrate] fined each prisoner 10s and 1s costs or ten days. He would punish more severely future offenders." - Northern Whig, January 26, 1904.