Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Story of Pepys's Buried Treasure

by Deborah Swift

What did you do with your money in the 17th century if you thought looters might be after it? There were no banks of course, so the answer was - to bury it.

After the battle of the Medway in which the Dutch sailed boldly up the Thames and captured the English flagship, the 'Royall Charles', there was a widespread fear amongst Londoners that the Dutch would then take the city. Samuel Pepys, who was (to say the least) careful with his money, became panic-stricken that the Dutch would take his gold, but could not leave the city himself as he was in charge of the Navy treasury. He also feared that the Navy Office might be blamed for this disaster, and that angry Englishmen, let alone the Dutch, might besiege the offices and his house adjoining them.

By the time the news arrived that a second Dutch fleet were on their way, and worse, that English ships were being sunk to prevent the enemy coming further up the Thames, Pepys was desperate. He was determined to save his hard-earned wealth, so he dispatched his father and his wife Elizabeth to the family home in the country. Elizabeth and Mr Pepys senior left London by coach, the gold in bags under the seats, with the orders that they should bury it ringing in their ears.

Brampton House

They chose the vegetable garden at the family home in Brampton, probably in great haste because they feared servants might see them doing it, and they did not want to risk anyone else knowing where it was.

The gold stayed were it was, and in the end the invasion was just a scare, and the Dutch retreated. So a few months later Pepys went back for his treasure. Impatient to see if it was all there, he would not wait until morning but went out by lantern-light to look for it. If you've ever tried digging up something you've hidden, you will know that once the ground has been flattened by rain and weather, it is not easy to remember where the exact spot is. So of course they could not find it:

'But, Lord! what a tosse I was for some time in, that they could not justly tell where it was; that I begun heartily to sweat, and be angry, that they should not agree better upon the place' says Pepys.

Pepys of course blamed Elizabeth, first for not being able to find it, but then when he did, for not burying it deeply enough. Poor woman, she just could not win! 

'But, good God! to see how sillily they did it, not half a foot under ground, and in the sight of the world from a hundred places, if any body by accident were near hand, and within sight of a neighbour's window, and their hearing also, being close by: only my father says that he saw them all gone to church before he begun the work, when he laid the money, but that do not excuse it to me.'

The cloth bags had rotted so that they had to scrabble in the dirt for the individual coins. With the help of Will Hewer they managed to unearth most of it. At which point Pepys would not go to bed until they had sieved and washed every last coin and note.

11th October 
'And then rose and called W. Hewer, and he and I, with pails and a sieve, did lock ourselves into the garden, and there gather all the earth about the place into pails, and then sift those pails in one of the summer-houses, just as they do for dyamonds in other parts of the world; and there, to our great content, did with much trouble by nine o'clock (and by the time we emptied several pails and could not find one), we did make the last night's forty-five up seventy-nine:'

So Pepys did get his gold back after all.

An interesting footnote to the story is that in 1842, when an old wall was removed at Brampton, a hoard of silver coins was discovered, and taken to the Earl of Sandwich, the owner of the house. The iron pot was corroded and fell apart, but the coins were preserved. They were Elizabethan half-crowns and coins of James and Charles I, of the right date to be part of Pepys's treasure. Although Pepys only mentions gold in his diary, such a coincidence is unlikely, and it is probable Elizabeth buried some other silver coins too.

Seventeenth century tokens from Pepys's Small Change

If you have an interest in the sort of coins and tokens used by Pepys, or seventeenth century money and trade, then you will find the following website absolutely fascinating: Pepys's Small Change

Sources: Pepys's Diary Online
You might also enjoy this novel - The Journal of Mrs Pepys - Sara George

All three of my novels are set in the Seventeenth Century, and I rely on Pepys's Diary for his wealth of detail, and his fascinating insights into seventeenth century life.

'The past comes alive through impeccable research, layers of intriguing plotline, and the sheer power of descriptive prose.Add to all this Swift’s rich characterisation and subtle evocation of a period of religious upheaval and you have a classy, compelling adventure story and a true journey of discovery.' Lancashire Evening Post


  1. It might have been in Pepys own book that I read something about his wife refusing to sleep with him until he got rid of his lice! Nice times!
    Interesting post. Thanks.

  2. Yes, and she refused to wash until he gave up liasons with his maid! Nice of you to leave a comment, Michele.


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