HC Deb 06 March 1957 vol 566 cc499-504

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. R. Thompson.]

10.31 p.m.

Air Commodore A. V. Harvey (Macclesfield)

I am indebted to Mr. Speaker for allowing me to raise on the Adjournment this matter concerning the finding of eighteen gold coins at Congleton. It was on 12th September last year that a Mr. Machin, while carrying out alterations to his house, found these eighteen gold coins in a wall at 12, Moody Street, Congleton. The find caused great excitement locally, and the following day the coins were handed over to Mr. Lionel Head, Editor of the Congleton Chronicle, who obtained confirmation of their value—something like £300.

On 24th September, twelve days later, Mr. Head received a letter from a Mr. Thompson, Curator of the Grosvenor Museum, Chester. I will not bore the House by reading the whole letter; I will just read two extracts from it. In the letter Mr. Thompson said: Although I cannot commit my museum, I feel sure that we ought to make efforts to secure at least two of the coins here. He went on to say that if the coins should be declared treasure trove, Mr. Machin would have a note of their feelings and would perhaps bear them in mind when a decision was taken about the disposal of the coins. He concluded: I have not the slightest wish to usurp your own claims to any that you may like to acquire for display in Congleton itself, and no doubt we can come to some amicable agreement. A very friendly letter, and if it had been lived up to all would have been well in Cheshire. But it did not work out like that. It seems to me that, in the first place, Mr. Thompson had no objection to splitting the find for his own benefit. Secondly, he recognised that Congleton had a valid claim to some of the coins, and, thirdly, he mentioned his intention to secure the help of Mr. Dolley of the Department of Coins of the British Museum.

Then the story goes on to 10th October, when an inquest was held by Mr. Daniel, Her Majesty's Coroner, at Congleton. The coins consisted of seven James I "Laurels" and eleven Charles I "Unites". They were declared to be treasure trove and taken and seized into Her Majesty's hands.

After the inquest, the Mayor and Mr. Head talked with Mr. Thompson, who said nothing at all about acquiring all the coins for the Grosvenor Museum. On the contrary, he offered to help secure some of the coins for Congleton. They were then in the hands of the British Museum which would help as to their disposal.

On the same day, 10th October, the Mayor wrote to the Treasury—before my hon. Friend took over—and to the British Museum about the disposal of the coins. On 15th October, Mr. Walker, Keeper of the Department of Coins at the British Museum, replied that if the coins were not kept by the British Museum they would be sold to a local museum. He said: No doubt I can arrange for this to be done in your case. There is a little ambiguity about this. Unfortunately, I have not got the letter in question, but on 23rd November, having heard nothing further, the Mayor again wrote to the Treasury. My hon. Friend deals with the letter in a more expeditious manner than happened in the autumn. On 8th December, Mr. Head, the Editor of the newspaper, and Mr. Hibbert visited the British Museum and were actually shown the coins. They were told by two officials—I have not got their names—that there was nothing whatsoever to prevent Congleton acquiring some of the coins. I am sure that Mr. Head would not have put this into writing to me if it had not happened. It was said that it would be a shame if the borough did not have any.

Again, on 12th December, the Treasury wrote that the coins to be sold were to be sold to the Chester Museum in order to keep the find intact: When the transaction is completed and the coins handed over, then we suggest that you should approach Chester who, we feel sure, will give sympathetic consideration to your request. The Mayor of Congleton followed up by writing to the Mayor of Chester to ask for two or more of the coins to be sold to him for display in Congleton. On 30th December, having received no reply from Chester, he wrote also to the British Museum, offering to buy them all for Congleton, and saying that the money was available by public subscription to enable this to be carried out.

Mr. Thompson telephoned the Mayor and said that all the coins were to be bought by the Grosvenor Museum for £180, and that the money was to be raised by public subscription, including a donation from the Victoria and Albert Museum. He further said that none would be sold to Congleton because, in the first place, to sell two would spoil the find, and in the second place, if dispersed, the coins would not be available for examination by numismatists.

Incidentally, there are many such coins in the British Museum, so there is no shortage of these valuable coins. He also said that Chester wanted them all for a Civil War Museum which it was forming in the King Charles Tower there. I should have thought that if they wanted them there they could have borrowed them for a special display, or at least some of them, but they wanted the lot. He said that they had changed their minds about letting Congleton have any of the coins.

The Mayor of Congleton then wrote to the Mayor of Chester asking for his fraternal co-operation, and the Mayor of Chester replied saying that he would put the matter to the Museum Subcommittee. On 6th January, the Mayor of Congleton wrote a letter to Mr. Walker at the British Museum voicing a strong protest at his action, and received from Mr. Walker a letter on 10th January rejecting the protest because Congleton had no rights in the matter.

Congleton is not big—it has an electorate of some 15,000 or 16,000—but it is old. It received its charter in 1272, and the people there have a great pride in their civic affairs. It seems to me that they have had a very raw deal and very rough treatment, at least at the hands of Mr. Thompson of Chester, who gave it in writing that he saw no objection to Congleton having some of the coins.

In his letter, Mr. Walker said: There is nothing in the Treasure Trove Regulations stating that a find must be sold in its entirety, and, in fact, in most cases of Treasure Trove the coins are sold in lots to various museums that are interested, though in many cases it is advisable to keep a hoard intact. I understand that. In fact, one of the reasons put forward for the refusal is that there are no facilities at Congleton where the coins could be safely displayed. If that is so, why did Chester offer to loan the coins, or some of them, to Congleton for three or six months? It would be a risk. It is said that Congleton has not a museum. It is true that Congleton is not a rich borough, but it has a public library with adequtae facilities, and there is a small museum attached. Or the coins could be put in the town hall and secured in the safe over night. The money is available to purchase at least four coins, as I have already stated.

I may say that an ancestor of Her Majesty lived in Moody Hall, opposite the small house where the coins were found, and there is good reason why some of these coins should be on show in the borough. I see my hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple) is present. I do not know whether he would like to give me the benefit of his support. It would be a great help if the two boroughs were to get together to bring this matter to a happy conclusion.

We do not want to quarrel with Chester about this, but there is great indignation among my constituents. Petitions are being prepared—I do not know if the people know what happens to petitions when they get here—and I would not be bringing this matter to the House unless my constituents felt very strongly indeed. I hope that my hon. Friend will go some way to see if this matter cannot be adjusted.

10.40 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. J. Enoch Powell)

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Air Commodore Harvey) has set out the salient dates and facts in this rather remarkable history of the Congleton hoard of gold coins of the early Stuart period, and there is no need for me to go over that ground again. He has told the House quite correctly that this hoard was found by Her Majesty's coroner to be treasure trove and, therefore, its ownership to vest in the Crown. It was, therefore, clear from that moment onwards that the finder, the borough in which the coins were found and the county in which they were found, had no claim of right upon them but that the ownership vested in the Crown.

There is a settled mode of procedure in these cases of treasure trove of hoards of coins, and that is that they should in the first place be offered to the National Collection, the British Museum. I think probably no hon. Member would doubt that that is the correct and reasonable course. If, however, the National Collection does not find that it needs to add the treasure trove to its own collection, then its advice is followed by the Crown in disposing of the treasure.

In this instance it was the advice of the British Museum that the collection should be offered as a whole to the Grosvenor Museum in Chester, and the grounds given for that advice were that in this case—clearly it does not happen in all cases—it was desirable that the hoard should be kept together for purposes of research, that the fact of which coins had been found together in these circumstances could be of historical and numismatic importance. They therefore advised that in this instance the collection should not be broken up but that it should be sold entire to a local museum, the Grosvenor Museum in Chester, which already has an important coin collection.

I feel that my hon. and gallant Friend would agree with me in saying that in a matter like this the Crown must obviously be guided by expert advice. I am no numismatist, and my hon. and gallant Friend is no numismatist, and we cannot say whether the advice in this case was sound and that the hoard should be kept as a whole. But clearly in these matters the best expert advice must be followed, and it was the best expert advice that it was desirable that the collection as a whole should be kept together and, preferably, in the County of Chester in which the hoard had been found.

It is in those circumstances that these coins which were found in Congleton in September last have passed into the ownership of the Grosvenor Museum, Chester. I am sorry if at any stage misunderstanding has arisen between the British Museum and the civic authorities of Congleton, either as to the advice which the Museum would tender, or as to the position in regard to treasure trove. But we have to take the position now as we find it, and that is that the hoard is the property of the Grosvenor Museum.

My hon. and gallant Friend urged me to do what I could to bring this matter to a happy conclusion. Clearly there is nothing which I can do directly, since the coins are no longer the property of the Crown but have been sold to the Museum in Chester. But I would make this suggestion, that it surely should not be impossible for the museum in the county town to find some way of reasonably satisfying the very natural wish of the inhabitants of Congleton that they should be able to see either some or all of the coins which in such curious and remarkable circumstances were found in their own borough. So, although Congleton has no claim of right in this matter, I would hope that a happy conclusion would be arrived at by an amicable agreement between Congleton and the Grosvenor Museum.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter to Eleven o'clock.