Gold rush in Salford

When George and Louisa Cotgreave were a young couple, they must have thought that they had climbed the economic ladder just a little bit. Their fathers were both poor labourers: his in Chester, hers on the Wirral. But George managed to secure a publicly-funded apprenticeship and became a freeman of Chester as a qualified rope maker. And when they married in 1867, unlike their parents a generation earlier, both were literate enough to sign their names:

Perhaps they were uppity because of it but they certainly didn’t get on with their neighbours and on one occasion in 1868, they even had to move house after an altercation on the doorstep. The neighbours blamed the Cotgreaves, the Cotgreaves blamed the neighbours, both sides had supporting witnesses, and in the end, the only possible outcome was to keep them apart.

It was not long before they moved further away, to Pendleton in Salford, where the shine was already coming off their economic success. In 1874, George was fined half a crown, plus costs, for failing to send his small son to school, surely something he would have valued if he could have afforded it, after his own social climbing had come through education.

By then, though, the events that would lead to the couple being publicly reported as “in poor circumstances” had already been set in train, with a robbery the year before, although they did not yet know that they would be caught up in its aftermath.

A few years later, in the early 1880s, George and Louisa Cotgreave were living apart – she was still in Salford but he had moved to Wrexham, where his uncle lived, presumably in search of work. His job was now described as “twine spinner,” which gives an impression of something a bit less impressive than the job of “rope maker” he had officially qualified as.

Then in May 1883, their son George, who was now 13, was out playing with his friends, when they found a stash of money hidden under the roots of a tree at Seedley, just outside Salford. There was a whole pile of gold sovereigns, some dating back to 1820, a £10 note and a £5 note.

Young George thought his luck was in, and took £26 home to his mother – a small fortune for a single mother at the time. And some of it was rapidly spent. His friend – a boy named Whelan – took home £4 of the treasure, whereupon his uncle went back to the tree and grubbed around in the soil to uncover another £3 in coins.

The story quickly got around and before they knew it Louisa Cotgreave and the other boy’s uncle, Joseph Whelan, were in court. The money was not theirs and just because the boys had found it, it did not mean they could keep it. The adults were charged under the Salford Improvement Act with keeping money that had been stolen, but the magistrate said he did not think he could proceed on that basis. They were charged with theft under the criminal law, but that charge could not be made to stick, so they were also charged under the ancients laws of treasure, with keeping treasure that belonged to the Crown and should be declared.

It turned out that, bizarre though it was, the police knew who the money belonged to. In December 1873, a butcher named William Weston had been visiting (from where he lived in the Lake District) to come to the local market in Salford. He went to the pub afterwards and got drunk with man called Jerrard. As they left the pub, Weston was violently robbed by his companion, who took nearly £90 in gold and notes. Although there had been some difficulty over identifying Jerrard (Weston had been so drunk that when he first went to the police he was incomprehensible and utterly incapable), Jerrard had nevertheless been convicted and sentenced to 15 years hard labour. So he was still inside when the boys found the gold a decade later, presumably where Jerrard had hidden it.

In the end, the magistrate could not decide quite what to do about Louisa Cotgreave and Joseph Whelan, who could hardly return money they had already spent. The Chief Constable sent what was left of the cash to the Treasury. The Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, responsible for Treasure Trove, decided that the two suspects should be let off, because there was no actual proof of who the money belonged to, and “being in poor circumstances,” they were not in a position to repay anyway. The Chief Constable applied to the bench to withdraw the summonses.

Harder times were to come for the Cotgreaves. George Cotgreave, the twine-spinning father, died in Wrexham Workhouse the following year. And Louisa, although she lived until 1923, aged 79, also ended up in the Workhouse at Salford. But when she died, her death certificate promoted her late husband back to his former rank – she was the “widow of a Rope Maker”.

Cheshire Archives and Local Studies: P 129/2/1; P 20/3/15; MFR/13
Censuses for 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911
Death Certificates
Cheshire Observer 16 Feb 1861; 4 July 1868
Chester Chronicle 27 March 1867
Manchester Times 20 June 1874; 19 May 1883; 25 August 1883; 8 Sept 1883
Manchester Evening News 16 May 1883
Manchester Courier 17 May 1833

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