The Hackney Hoard
The tale of the Hackney hoard is an unlikely adventure that is also a true story – one which begins with a simple hole in the lawn and expands to become a epic international drama of Nazi gold, spanning generations and traversing the globe.
One day, Terry Castle, along with a volunteer and two of the residents at the centre in Bethune Rd, Hackney, where he was employed as a disability support worker, decided to dig a frog pond. “It was my idea,” explained Terry, who characterises himself as a psycho-geographer, “I’m big into amphibian preservation.”
“I got my team together, and we were three weeks into the digging. I was in my office – but I had to keep an eye on them because three people digging in a hole can be at risk of accidents – when the volunteer, who’s a local girl, looks up and says, ‘There’s something here, Terry.’ At this point we were about two and a half feet down. I saw a glass jar sticking out at a forty five-degree angle with its top pointing down. The metal seal had deteriorated to nothing. I thought, ‘This is unusual,’ because there was a lot of rubble at the site from when it had been bombed.
I remembered I had a builder’s trowel in the tool cupboard, so I excavated around the jar for about fifteen minutes. By complete coincidence, two weeks earlier, I had been working eight hours a day on the excavations at Syon Park, so I knew what to do. I studied archaeology at Birkbeck College, although my speciality was prehistory.
We hauled the jar up onto the grass and it weighed considerably more that it should weigh, it was whole and quite large. Thoughts go through your mind. What’s in this glass jar? Weights from a scales, somebody’s pebble collection, or something more sinister? I stuck in my hand and pulled out a roll of paper and put it in the palm of my hand, it was greaseproof paper. A second later, I pulled the paper apart and I saw a roll of gold coins, with the statue of Liberty marching out of the front coin in high relief.
If there was a moment which was special that was it. ‘My God, I think we’ve found treasure!’ I said. Then I took it up to the office and and slapped it on the table and said, ‘We’ve found gold.’ I wrapped it up in plastic and put in the safe and called the Museum of London. They came along from the Museum early evening. But I do remember thinking, ‘Shall I take just one, or shall I take a whole roll?’”
Yet Terry did not take a single coin of the eighty double-headed eagle American gold dollars – much to his regret, because neither he nor the others who found them ever received any recompense for their honesty. “I think something’s extremely fishy,” he claims, “We never got a cup of tea or coffee or a biscuit, but we got three years of stress and I’ve lost my respect for the law. I was known as ‘Mr Bling’ in Hackney, which is very hard when you’re not ‘Mr Bling.’”
Once the discovery of the Hackney hoard became the headline of the Hackney Gazette in October last year, it piqued the curiosity of local historian Stephen Selby who applied his sleuthing skills to remarkable effect in unravelling the tale behind the burial of the trove. In the Times’ archive Stephen found a report of a previous find of eighty-two “double eagles” at the same address in 1952 when the current building was constructed. These were awarded by the coroner to Martin Sulzbacher, a resident of the bombed house that once stood upon the site. Sulzbacher was a German Jew who had fled persecution from Nazi Germany in the late thirties and bought a double fronted suburban villa in Hackney. In 1940, when Martin Sulzbacher’s brother Fritz found the family was on an SS hit list in the event of an invasion of Britain, he took the gold coins from the safe deposit box in the City of London and buried them in the garden in Woolworths Killner jars.
Minted in the United States between 1854 and 1913, these coins were part of the hundred million dollar American loan paid to Germany for post-war reconstruction in 1924, money that Hitler eventually appropriated for his own purposes. No-one knows how Martin Sulzbacher acquired them or transported them into Britain, yet it seems the gold brought him no luck. After escaping the Nazis, he was interned by the British government as an enemy alien refugee, and sent to Canada on the Arandora Star which was torpedoed and sunk. Miraculously rescued after hours in the water, he was then sent to Australia on the Dunera, before being brought back to the Isle of Man where his wife and children were also interned.
As if this was not enough, when he was released, Martin Sulzbacher went to the deposit box and found his gold was gone. Meanwhile Fritz had informed a friend that no-one else need know of the location of the buried gold because all five members of his family knew it, but then the house took a direct hit on 24th September 1940 and they were all killed. Poor Martin Sulzbacher waited until the first discovery in 1952 for the return of eighty-two of his coins and, since he died in 1981, it befell to his son Max to come from Jerusalem to collect this recent hoard which was awarded to him by the coroner at St Pancras Coroner’s Court on 18th April. It seems the story ends there and Stephen Selby says graciously, “My greatest satisfaction is to have repatriated Max with his parent’s memory.”
Meanwhile Terry Castle lost his job, partly as a consequence of the discovery, and he has still to plumb the deeper significance of it all - “As a psycho-geographer I do think it’s very strange that we found gold when we digging a frog pond.” – yet he consoles himself with this small comfort - “I’m a free man, freer than I’d be if I had the treasure.”
Archaeologists have now excavated the site to ensure that no further gold coins remain.
Terry Castle, the psycho-geographer who discovered the gold while digging a frog pond.
Stephen Selby, the local historian who unravelled the story of the gold.