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When Samuel Pepys went treasure-hunting

On 30th October 1662, a party of men arrived at the Tower of London. Their leader was a short man who was obliged to surrender his sword to the guards; unwilling to proceed unarmed without a cloak, for a gentleman of the time was not considered to be properly dressed without one or the other, he retreated to a nearby pub while his servant ran home to fetch said garment. Luckily for the servant, the man lived on Seething Lane, just to the west of Tower Hill. Once properly attired, he proceeded into the Tower where he met with Sir Henry Bennet, the Secretary of State. Bennet was there to give the man the King’s warrant to search the Tower.

The man was Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts at the Navy Office, and he already knew what he had been sent to look for. Earlier that morning he had met with his patron, the Earl of Sandwich, who had told him that an acquaintance of theirs called Thomas Wade had reported that a cache of gold, silver and jewels with an estimated value of £7000 was buried somewhere in the Tower’s grounds. Sandwich had arranged for Bennet to obtain the necessary warrant to enable Pepys to carry out a search. The fact that he was delegated with this task can be seen as a sign of Sandwich’s increased confidence in his abilities.

Whatever information Wade might have had about the money’s exact location was, alas, unreliable. “We went into several little cellars,” Pepys would later record in his diary, “and then went out a-doors to view, and to the Coleharbour; but none did answer so well to the marks which was given him to find it by as one arched vault. Where after a great deal of counsel whether to set upon it now or delay for better and more full advice, we set to it; and to digging we went to almost 8 a-clock at night – but could find nothing.”

He was back at the Tower two days later, along with Robert Lee (Bennet’s agent), Wade and some workmen, “to make one triall more”. Digging, he recorded, “was now most confidently directed; and so seriously, and upon pretended good grounds … but we missed of all, and so we went away the second time like fools.” Later that day, Pepys met with Wade and a Captain Evett who claimed to have been told of the location of the treasure by a confidante of the man who had hidden it. Pepys appears to have been convinced by Evett’s account, even though he was dealing with what was at best third-hand information.

Unfortunately, the one man who might have been able to state with confidence where the treasure could be found – the man who had apparently hidden it – was dead. That man was John Barkstead, who had been the Lieutenant of the Tower under Oliver Cromwell. As a younger man, Pepys himself had supported the Parliamentarian cause and his entry into what we would now call the civil service in the 1650s had been due to the patronage of a distant cousin, Edward Montagu, who had fought for Parliament in the Civil War and had risen to become one of Cromwell’s generals-at-sea. In the political uncertainty following Cromwell’s death, Montagu had switched his loyalties and played a crucial role in restoring the monarchy, for which Charles II had rewarded him by making him the Earl of Sandwich.

Barkstead had also fought for Parliament but he had then been a commissioner at Charles I’s trial and had therefore been one of the signatories of the latter’s death warrant. He owed his position at the Tower to Cromwell, who approved of his efficiency and even knighted him in 1656. After Cromwell’s death, though, he had been dismissed amid accusations of his having fleeced the prisoners in his care, and he had fled the country at the time of the Restoration – only to be captured and sent back to England along with two of his fellow-Regicides, Miles Corbet and John Okey. Charles II may have been lenient towards some repentant ex-Parliamentarians, but for surviving Regicides there was little mercy. All three were hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 19th April 1662.

Barkstead, who Pepys also refers to as Baxter, is not known to have mentioned any hidden valuables at his former place of work following his arrest, but rumours about this started after his execution – many doubtless remembered the accusations that he had used his position to line his own pockets – and it is perhaps surprising that it had taken six months for these rumours to reach someone (Sandwich) with the power to order a proper search. Even with the treasure not yet recovered, it had already been decided that the estimated £7000 would be split three ways: £2000 for Wade for reporting it to the proper authorities, £2000 for Sandwich and £3000 for the King. Pepys reckoned that he might get between £10 and £20 from his patron for his efforts.

The Tower at the time was in a parlous state – the structure had been neglected for some time, and Cromwell had considered demolishing it. Some parts of it had been partially dismantled prior to the Restoration, and one of these was the Coldharbour Tower – what Pepys referred to as the “Coleharbour”, which stood next to the White Tower. In many respects, Pepys and his workmen were digging for what is known to history as Barkstead’s treasure among ruins.

One 3rd November Pepys met with Wade and Evett again, and found that their “prime Intelligence”, the person in whom Barkstead had apparently confided the treasure’s location, was a woman. They resolved that the next time they tried, she would “be there in a disguise, and confirm us in the place”. She was duly there when Pepys returned to the Tower four days later. By this time the treasure’s estimated value had risen to £50,000 (so Pepys records), and after the unnamed informant pointed out the cellar in which it was apparently hidden (“in butter-ferkins”), the digging-party once again set to work. Once again they found nothing, and by now Pepys was starting to have his doubts. “I do believe there must be money hid somewhere by him,” he mused, “or else he did delude this woman in hopes to oblige her to further serving him – which I am apt to believe.” His dashed hopes cannot have been helped by his domestic arrangements that day; he was “very much displeased” because his wife had gone to stay with relatives while his house was being cleaned. The next day, he compensated for this by working late.

Pepys met with Wade and Evett again the following week (“I have great confidence that there is no cheat in these people, but that they go on good grounds, though they have been mistaken”) but he does not record any more attempts at searching for the treasure until 19th December, when the workmen were set to dig “in the corner against the Mayne-guard [Main Gate], a most unlikely place”. It being a cold day, Pepys spent much of it inside, reading and conversing with Lee by the fire in the Governor’s residence while the labourers toiled outside. Once again, nothing was found, “and having wrought below the bottom of the foundation of the wall, I bid them give over; and so all our hopes ended.”

Thus ends Samuel Pepys’s search for buried treasure at the Tower of London, a tale that might seem to be little more than an historical curiosity, to the extent that it is usually edited out of the abridged versions of his famous diary. The story of Barkstead’s treasure, though, has had a surprisingly long life, with the last attempt to find it taking place in 1958. Whether it ever existed at all is doubtful.

But the fact remains that there was buried treasure beneath Restoration London, not at the Tower but on Cheapside. In 1912, a stash of jewels dating back to the mid-seventeenth century was found there, buried beneath the cellar of a building that was destroyed in the Great Fire. It is not known who put it there, but the most likely theory is that it was buried during the Civil War. The Cheapside Hoard was exhibited at the Museum of London from October 2013 to April 2014.

The unknown person who buried the Cheapside Hoard certainly wasn’t the only person to have buried valuables in seventeenth-century London. As the Great Fire took hold in early September 1666, Pepys himself famously buried his wine and a Parmesan cheese, and witnessed two others doing likewise (his house survived the blaze, but whether he was able to recover these delicacies afterwards remains unknown).

The Tower had its buried secrets too, of a much more macabre nature than some supposed ill-gotten gains. In 1674, Charles II finally got around to ordering that some of the more decayed parts be cleared, including a turret by the south wall of the White Tower– not far from the ruined Coldharbour Tower where Pepys had been searching. In the foundations of this, workmen uncovered the skeletons of two children; no-one at the time doubted that these were the remains of the boy-king Edward V and his brother – the Princes in the Tower who had disappeared in 1483. Pepys had by this time ceased to keep a diary, so we do not know if he, on hearing of this, thought about his unsuccessful treasure hunt. Four years later, Charles II ordered that the remains be buried at Westminster Abbey, where – following an examination in the 1930s that verified beyond reasonable doubt their identity – they lie to this day.

Arthur Bryant, Samuel Pepys: The Man in the Making (Granada, 1984)
Christopher Durston, ‘Barkstead, John’, p. 908, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (vol. 3) (OUP, 2004)
Nigel Jones, Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London (Windmill, 2012)
Robert Latham & William Matthews (eds.), The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Volume III 1662 (Harper Collins, 2000)

Steve Roud, London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World’s Most Vibrant City (Random House, 2008)

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