One summer’s day in 2007 several companions set about an ambitious piece of landscaping in the back garden of their residence in Hackney, Greater London. As their shovels pierced the turf they were likely to have been thinking of the heavy work before them when a chance discovery brought them to a halt; for from its previously secure hiding spot emerged a large group of gold coins.
What the landscapers had recovered was a hoard of 80 United States Gold $20 coins of the type known as the ‘Double Eagle’. They ranged in date from 1854 to 1913, and even at the time of minting would have represented a considerable amount of wealth. Realising the significance of what they had found, the party contacted the local representative of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), Kate Sumnall. In her work as a Finds Liaison Officer (FLO), Kate is accustomed to seeing all manner of archaeological finds reported to her, but this was a special case. Finds from the 20th century certainly have the potential to provide important information about their past owners or the place in which they were found, but rarely do they qualify as ‘Treasure’ in the legal sense, under the 1996 Treasure Act.
Under the old law of Treasure Trove, finders of items made substantially of gold or silver were required to report their discovery to the local coroner. Such items, if they had no traceable owner and if they appeared to have been buried with the intention of future recovery, would be classed as Treasure Trove and become property of the Crown. They could then be acquired by a museum at a price determined (until the 1990s) by an expert at the British Museum, with the totality of the sum payable to the finder. In the case of the Hackney Double Eagles, it seems likely that such a collection found concealed in the ground can only be a cachÃ© that its depositor had hoped to return for.
It is not uncommon for hoards of 19th and 20th century coins to be found in Britain. As late as 1996 a hoard of silver threepence with coins dating to 1943 was uncovered in Hertfordshire and reported as Treasure. Nor is it unheard of for such finds to be made in urban areas. In the 1927 another hoard of gold coins was found in the back garden of a London property, but on this occasion it was gold sovereigns from Essex Road, in Islington. What is unusual about the Hackney Hoard is the combination of its recent date, the historic value of the coins, and the fact that they all came from a particular foreign country.
It seems just possible that the hoard was buried within living memory. As with any case of ‘buried treasure’, the fact that they were not retrieved by their depositor speaks to some misfortune which may have befallen him or her, even if it was something as benign as the inability to relocate the precise location of the coins within the garden. Rarer are stories of the successful recovery of hoards, though we know that at least some were retrieved by their owners, the famous example being that of Samuel Pepys who, succumbing to the fear of an invasion of London by the Dutch in 1667, sent his father and wife to hide his gold at Pepys’ country home. After much distress at the method of safekeeping chosen by his family – burying the fortune in the garden in broad daylight – Pepys managed to retrieve most of the coins some months later. In the case of the Hackney Double Eagles, precise information about the find spot has been generalised in order to protect the site (as is the practise in all Treasure cases); in addition, it is expected that a legitimate claimant of the coins will be able to provide more details about the property of the coins and history of their burial.
What that history might be remains – at the moment – only speculation. As in other areas of the Capital, the early twentieth century was a time of dramatic social change in Hackney. Then, just as now, London was a popular destination for migrants, many of whom crammed into the terraced properties so prolific in maps and photographs from this period. Research has been undertaken by the Museum of London, the British Museum and the coroner’s office to assemble as much information as possible about the property in Hackney and any individuals who might have been responsible for the burial of the coins. This has produced a plethora of data; we have learned for instance that the house and adjacent properties experienced a series of different owners in the decades after the First World War, and that the neighbourhood experienced extensive bomb damage during the Blitz leading to subsequent replacement of Victorian housing stock with large swathes of social housing.
The hoard could be the manifestation of years of patient collecting contemporaneous with the minting of the coins, a bulk acquisition in exchange for other goods, or a combination of both. It is tempting to look for evidence of an American expatriate or perhaps a visiting American soldier of the First or Second World Wars who may have brought his substantial savings with him, but the depositor may not necessarily have been a citizen of that country. Playing an enigmatic role in this story is the numismatic context of the Hackney hoard. The ultimate date of 1913 on the latest Double Eagle is important because of its proximity to the start of the Great War – an event which was to see the United Kingdom come off the gold standard. Other western countries, including the United States, clung to the gold standard after the war, pegging the value of their currency to a specified quantity of gold, which could be redeemed on demand. Legislation in the United States required that the Federal Reserve maintain a stock of gold equal to 40% of the value of all the notes in circulation. In the late 1920s the United States experienced what economist Milton Friedman termed the ‘Great Contraction’. Due to a number of factors (the stock market crash, lack of confidence in banks, deflation) the level of circulating currency dropped by a third and the United States, unable to print more money, was faced with a deflationary spiral. President Franklin Roosevelt’s new administration sought to arrest this trend in part by increasing the reserve of gold. In April 1933 it passed tan executive order which saw the enforced exchange of gold in private hands for the market rate of $20.66 per ounce. The dollar was ‘floated’ against other currencies and after a year it was refixed to the price of gold, which by that time had risen to $33 an ounce. Whilst it rejoined the gold standard, the United States no longer minted gold coins for circulation, and 1932 was to be the last year of significant production of the historic ‘Double Eagle’. Although it is possible that the depositor of the Hackney hoard smuggled the coins out of the United States after 1933, it seems more likely that they were removed or collected earlier. But why and by whom?
A large part of the significance of this case lies in the possibility that circumstantial evidence, from a living informant or documentary sources, will reveal something of the story of how these gold Double Eagles were collected and then deposited in an innocuous back garden in Hackney. What would be of interest for archaeology would be to compare the circumstances of this deposit with others of which we have only the coins and their context to examine.
Text: Ian Richardson
This is an extract, but you can read the full article in issue 251 of Current Archaeology