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Treasure hunt riots: continued

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Secret London
Murder Ballads

Government action finally came on January 29, when Earl Desart, the Director of Public Prosecutions, wrote to "the proprietors of certain newspapers which advertise hidden treasure" warning them to close the schemes down. If this was not done, he said, the Attorney General would get an injunction against them for causing a public nuisance. It seems safe to conclude that the Dispatch was the main paper he had in mind (16).
Tit-Bits, which still had one of Gold in Waiting's sovereign tubes left buried, staved off any further Government threat by dropping its own treasure hunt immediately. Its January 30 issue carried a long feature explaining that the final £100 had been hidden at the Meriden Cross near Solihull - a site which was supposed to mark the exact geographic centre of England. There's nothing in Tit-Bits to suggest the final tube had already been found by that time, and we don't know what finally happened to it. Presumably, it was either recovered by the reporter who had put it there, or gratefully nabbed by whichever reader happened to be closest to the Meriden Cross when the January 30 issue came out.
Much of Tit-Bits' feature was devoted to explaining how very, very responsible the paper had been in placing its own booty and stressing that its own readers had caused no vandalism at all. Describing his trip to the Meriden Cross, the paper's anonymous hider said: "At once it became plain to me that I must not use the obelisk itself in any way. There would be risk of damage - in fact almost the certainty of damage from treasure hunters. And as it has been our aim and prize in all this enterprise never to interfere in the smallest degree with the amenities of any district, and never to run the least risk of damage to what does not belong to us, this spot was clearly out of the question."
A little later in the piece, he added: "In view of many reports which may be read in the daily press just now, it is only fair that it should be known that the proprietors of Tit-Bits, the originators of this novel form of competition, have been guiltless of any action which could cause the rights of others to suffer. They have paid scrupulous regard, not only to their own interests and those of their readers, but also to the interests of the general public, and it is a fact that in no case have those interests been interfered with" (17).
That seems to be true. I have details of 98 treasure hunt hearings in my notes, and the damage done always seems to spring from a newspaper scheme like the Dispatch one. There's no evidence that any Tit-Bits clue ever led to the slightest vandalism or violence. Why should that be?
First of all, the Dispatch's clues began by narrowing each search to a specific town or, in the case of big cities, a specific borough. Tit-Bits, on the other hand, simply told readers that each prize was hidden somewhere in Britain and forced them to guess which town was involved. Randall's first task, you will remember, was deciding whether he should search Carlisle or Newcastle. The Tit-Bits scheme required readers to invest time and money travelling round the country, and that ruled out many of the thugs and vandals who caused so much trouble for the Dispatch.

Louise Cox, asked how she'd spent the Bermondsey disc's £50, said: 'I clothed my children.'

In 1904, many labourers would have been barely able to read, let alone undertake the detailed library research Randall must have done. The Dispatch's clues required a degree of literacy and education to follow them too. But, once the scheme started to catch on, you could take part simply by listening to the local gossip or joining the biggest crowd of diggers you could find. Once it reached a certain critical mass, the Dispatch scheme would have started feeding on itself, pulling in passers-by who had never read the paper in their lives.
Finally, while the Tit-Bits scheme had bigger individual prizes, its total prize fund was much smaller. Tit-Bits offered a total of just £1,000 in prizes against the Dispatch's £3,790. The Dispatch also spread its bounty much more widely, using over 60 different locations against Tit-Bits' ten. All these factors combined to ensure that the Dispatch's scheme attracted far bigger crowds than the Tit-Bits one. Stir in a little mass hysteria, and the resulting chaos was almost inevitable.
Tit-Bits closed its January 30 piece by promising a new competition soon, but one which buried no real treasure. Readers would get another serialised story full of clues to hidden booty, but this time be asked to mark its location on a printed map. The first reader to send in a map marked in the right place would get his prize through the post. Pike and Meggs were allowed to complete their own quest the following week, when Gold in Waiting came to an end. Real-world treasure hunts, the paper had concluded, caused too many headaches.
Tit-Bits' publishers may have opted for the quiet life, but the Dispatch decided to fight on regardless. Its January 31 edition carried a front page banner directing readers to a new batch of clues on pages five and six. Fresh medallions had been planted in Leicester (£70), Plymouth (£50), Derby (£50), Swansea (£40), Northampton (£30) and Stroud (£20). The paper also started battling the bad publicity from its rivals by running a string of cosy stories profiling successful treasure hunters and showing how much their £50 windfalls had improved these deserving lives.
Some of these accounts are undeniably moving. William Steadman, who was out of work when he found the Bethnal Green medallion, used the money to set himself up as a boot-maker. "This is the starting point in my life," he said. Henry Cameron claimed finding the Canning Town medallion was "the first good luck I ever remember having, and it came at a time when I sorely needed it". Joseph Markham, who discovered the Stratford disc after colliding with a horse on the canal towpath, found the money was enough to complete the payments on a plot of land he was buying, get a few household necessities and add to his savings. Louise Cox, asked how she had spent the Bermondsey £50, simply said: "I clothed my children" (15).

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Holmes and Watson parodies join the quest

"Pike smiled. 'Now what was your latest impression of that name? You heard it more than once I believe?'
     'Yes,' Mr Meggs replied. 'I heard it more than once, but I never felt quite certain about it. I'm pretty sure, however, that the surname wasn't Green, but Dean. I think Edmond Dean was as near the sound as possible. Perhaps Desmond.'
     'Ah,' Pike put his notes carelessly in his pocket. [...] 'Your friend Mr Green,' he said, 'is neither Edward Green nor Edmond Dean, but Jesmond Dene, unless I'm sadly mistaken, and Jesmond Dene is a place about two miles away.'"
- Gold in Waiting, Tit-Bits, Jan 2, 1904.

It's no coincidence that the characters of Pike and Meggs read so much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes and Watson. Just like Watson, Meggs can act as a stand-in for the reader's incomprehension, helping us to understand what's going on as Pike explains it to him. But there were sound commercial reasons for aping Holmes and Watson too.
      Sherlock Holmes was at the peak of his early popularity in 1904. Conan Doyle's decision to kill off the detective in 1893's The Final Problem had sparked a period of national mourning and widespread public protest. This was replaced by rejoicing when The Hound of the Baskervilles began its serialisation in The Strand Magazine - Tit-Bits' sister publication - in 1901.

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