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Treasure hunt riots: continued

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Secret London
Murder Ballads

This was not a new idea. It had first been floated two weeks earlier, when Luton councillors wondered aloud how to tackle their own town's problems. But, faced with the awkward fact of the Dispatch's regular disclaimers, no-one seemed able to think of a practical way to target the paper. Several borough councils had asked their local magistrates to grant a summons against the Dispatch, but these were always turned down. Without a treasure hunter standing up in court to say his own vandalism had been directly prompted by the paper's promotion, magistrates said, any prosecution against the Dispatch was almost certain to fail. Therefore, issuing a summons would be pointless. Borough councillors protested that witnesses like this were almost impossible to find, but the magistrates would not budge.

The first batch of treasure hunters to be arrested reached the courts in mid-January. Magistrates hearing these early cases were certainly bemused and frustrated by the crimes involved, but on the whole they tended to take a lenient attitude. As the cost of repairing the damage mounted, however, and the treasure hunters' enthusiasm raged on, the courts got tougher and tougher. Warnings were replaced by increasingly heavy fines, and the magistrates' comments became more withering by the day. Defendants were told to their faces that they were "silly", "stupid", "mad" or, in one case, "wandering lunatics".
On January 18, four men came before Mr Bros, a Clerkenwell magistrate, charged with damaging the turf and the roadway at Percy Circus, Holford Square and Claremont Square. Bros told them they had been "extremely foolish", but let them off with a warning. Next day, he dealt with Arthur Stuart, a 37-year-old architect caught damaging the surface of the roadway in Claremont Street. Bros told him: "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 about the roadway with a corkscrew? It seems to me to be the act of a lunatic. Go away" (12).

Faced with the Dispatch's regular disclaimers, no-one could think of a way to target the paper

By January 27, magistrates' patience was wafer-thin. Archibald Freeman, described in The Times as "a respectable-looking man", had been arrested at 3:00am the previous day in Chelsea's Margaretta Terrace. He was digging a five-inch hole in the road with a (by then) broken knife. When they searched him, police found two newspapers and a notebook full of female names. One of the Chelsea clues had mentioned "a fair lady", and this prompted Freeman to investigate all the local streets with women's names. Margaretta Terrace was just one example.
This information produced some laughter in Westminster Magistrates Court, as did Freeman's insistence that he dug "in the mud in the gutters chiefly". Horace Smith, the magistrate, told him: "Of all the idle and contemptible folly I have ever heard of in the whole course of my life, this is about the worst. I cannot imagine how a respectable man like you can allow himself to do this kind of thing instead of his proper work in the world. It is folly and rubbish, and you are fined 20 shillings and the amount of the damage" (13).
All over London, the pattern was the same. Warnings gave way to fines of first 10 shillings, then 20 shillings, then the maximum 40 shillings available. The first 40 shilling fine - equivalent to about £180 today - went to Walter West, a commercial traveller brought before North London magistrates for digging at the kerbstones in Clapton's Almack Road with a garden fork. Mr d'Eyncourt, the magistrate, said: "This sort of thing seems to be spreading, not only all over England, but throughout Europe too. It is perfectly ridiculous that a man like this should do such a thing" (14).
Soon, 40 shilling fines were the norm. Then, magistrates in Westminster and Liverpool started muttering darkly about prison sentences without the option of a fine as being the next step. None of this did any good. No matter how heavy the fines imposed, or how great the threat of jail became, the crowds of treasure hunters remained as keen as ever. The Times reported that "thousands" of people had been digging on the canal towpath where Joseph George was arrested on January 17. A week later came the mass invasion of Woolwich Common, with 27 people convicted for that disturbance alone. Nothing seemed to deter them.
Anyone who doubted that had only to consider the scenes playing out every weekend at the Dispatch's Tallis Street offices. Every Saturday night, crowds would start to gather there at about 10pm, hoping to secure a good place in the queue for the early editions which emerged at 2am on Sunday. By midnight on Saturday, January 23, that queue was four abreast and long enough to fill half the surrounding streets. One of the people waiting was an unemployed young man called Walter Haynes, who had come out treasure hunting with his brother George. Armed with a first edition, they headed for their home turf of Bermondsey, getting there about 3am only to discover huge numbers of rivals already scouring the area.
Examining the other clues, George and Walter decided they knew exactly where the Wandsworth Common £50 medallion must be hidden. So, instead of going to bed, they set off on a seven-mile walk across London. When they got to Wandsworth, they found scores of other men already searching the common with candles and lanterns, but none who had hit on the precise spot. The brothers went straight to it and, five minutes later, had the medallion in their hands (15). From the City to Bermondsey, to Wandsworth Common and then back to Bermondsey again, all on foot and all at dead of night: men like these were not going to be discouraged by the prospect of a fine.
If the courts could not deal with the problem, then perhaps it was time for Arthur Balfour's Conservative government to step in. The Manchester Evening News gave Aretas Akers-Douglas, Balfour's Home Secretary, a stern warning. "It is recognised that the mere chance of being convicted of trespassing will not suffice to deter the majority who think it is worth while to join in looking for the money," the paper said. "If Mr Akers-Douglas pleads that he does not possess powers to deal adequately with the state of affairs lately created, he will be told very emphatically that it is high time he sought to obtain them." This righteous outrage did not stop the MEN running a lucrative ad for the Dispatch's Manchester hunt a few pages later in the same edition (16).

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