The Mystery of the Gold Bars of Pentreath Beach

pentreath

This story is part recorded fact and part local legend. And what makes it all the more fascinating is that this tale of buried treasure didn’t happen back in the mists of time. It happened only around 50 years ago. On the 15th November 1973 the West Briton newspaper ran a front page story about two boys who had made a startling discovery at Pentreath beach on the Lizard. “Is there gold in them thar cliffs?” the journalist asked. And the answer was . . . yes!

Rough seas at Pentreath, Winter 2021

A ‘Mini-Klondike’

The place where this discovery was unearthed is on a beautiful stretch of the coast (where isn’t beautiful in these parts?) just a short walk from Lizard village – Pentreath lies between Caerthillian Cove and Kynance.

“Old Lizard is unchanged. So, east of Kynance is the broad scarf of Pentreath . . . in my memory a tranquil beach. It is plain and ungarnished, an uncomplicated sand-sweep below the cliff’s fierce wall. You can drowse there, or search for fluted, lemon shells but most people go on to the manifold elaborations of Kynance around the corner.”

J. C. Trewin, Up From The Lizard, 1948

The two school boys aged 14 and 13 (I am withholding their names) both were sons of serpentine workers in Lizard village. The pair had been playing together one Saturday afternoon, 3rd November 1973, and while climbing the steps up from Pentreath beach they spotted a rabbit and decided to give chase.

The cliffs at Pentreath, which is about half way between Kynance Cove and Lizard village, were very unstable at that time and still are today. There had been a large landslide a few years earlier and it was estimated that the ground had been eroded by as much as 30 metres in a short period of time. Consequently it was probably very dangerous for the boys to be scrambling about on the cliffside but they seem to have been completely oblivious to this. During their games one boy happened to kick a stone and was surprised to hear it make a strange metallic sound. Looking down at his feet he saw that where the stone had been there was a small piece of yellowish metal about 4cm long and the thickness of a pencil sticking out of the ground.

pentreath
Above Pentreath Beach

Searching around the spot the boys found seven more pieces of this yellow metal and showed their find to a passing fisherman, Raymond Hendy. Hendy told them that he thought they had found “something more than brass” and the boys excitedly took their treasure home to show their families.

The next day the boys returned to Pentreath, along with their fathers. Together they found eight more pieces of what they now suspected to be small gold bars. One of the fathers said:

“We made a very thorough search. The pieces of metal were in a fairly straight line of a little less then 15 yards and lay about 15 to 24 inches deep.”

16 Nuggety Chunks

The Camborne police were quickly informed of the find and they arranged to have a local metallurgist test one of the bars to determine whether or not it really was gold that the boys had discovered. And in the meantime the police and the media were appealing to local people to stay away from the Pentreath cliffs and what the papers had dubbed “the Lizard Yukon Trail” fearing that there could be an accident. Chief Inspector Harrison is quoted as saying:

“If there was a subsidence this place is very dangerous. If other people go down there we could be picking up bodies, not gold.”

Article from West Briton

After a nervous wait the Forensic Science Laboratory in Bristol, where the bars were tested, concluded that they were indeed gold! The analysis showed that they were approximately 18 carat – 75% weight in gold and containing copper, silver and small amounts of tin and lead. But Robert Wootton, the scientist who ran the tests, could tell more than that. He was able, with some degree of certainty, to identify where the gold had come from and when.

Gold from Gaul

The possibility of the gold being from Cornwall had to be considered. After all, though rare, there were known sources of the precious metal in Cornwall in prehistory. Cornish gold had been used to make objects such as the amazing Nebra Sky Disc or the Rillaton Cup which is on display in the British Museum.

But the composition of the gold led Wootton to conclude that the bars were in fact made from metal that had originated in Gaul, an area of western Europe that covers much of modern day France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and parts of northern Italy. The make up of the gold bars was identical to that of Gallic-Belgic coins, the currency of Gaul during the Iron Age, around 2000 years ago. (c800BC – 42AD.)

Gallo Belgic gold coins were the first ever coins to be used in Britain and they are known to have been imported regularly from the continent as a result of the trade between the Celtic nations. In this particular case however it appears that the original coins had been melted down and cast into little bars, perhaps so that the gold could be used to make something else.

“The bars were cast in rough hewn stone or sand moulds . . . the fact that so many of the bars are so similar in weight suggests that they were deliberately cast to be that weight . . . the mean weight of nine closely grouped bars is exactly a one-sixteenth part of a Celtic pound, thought to have been in use in the Mendips. The combined weight 361.9 grams is also close to one of these Celtic pounds, 353 grams. The mean weight of the nine bars is also exactly three times the weight of the Gallo Belgic ‘A’ coin.”

Robert Wootton, senior Metalurgist, Forensic Science Laboratory, Bristol. West Briton, 7th march 1974

The Coroner’s Court

In March 1974 a coroner’s court, headed by Mr Geoffrey Robins, was held in Helston to determine ownership of the gold. After speaking to the boys and their fathers and listening to the evidence given by Robert Wootton and the police, the jury decided to award the find to the lucky young lads.

pentreath

It was determined that the bars were not a ‘Treasure Trove’, which would automatically be the property of the Crown. There was no evidence that anyone had purposely buried the gold with the intention of returning for it later and under British law a Treasure Trove is defined as “valuables of unknown ownership that are found hidden”. In all likelihood the bars had simply been lost, dropped by someone walking along the cliff at Pentreath as much as 2000 years ago, and erosion or the cliff fall had revealed them to the lucky lads.

The coroner, Geoffrey Robins, told the boys “It’s yours!” much to their delight.

The Treasure Disappears

At this point I should warn you this story starts to drift a little into hearsay.

What we do know for certain is that after the verdict of the coroner’s court the gold was deposited in the boys names into a Helston Bank Vault for safe keeping. In 1974 the gold was valued at around £600 but 361 grams of 18k gold would today (2021) be worth around £15,000 and the value from a historical perspective would be even greater.

According to the West Briton at the time the boys were still deciding how they were going to spend the money. Although one had said he would like to buy a motorbike for scrambling around fields and the other had apparently promised his little brother a new bicycle.

Local gossip says that after the gold was found, and despite the coroner’s decision, a certain major landowner (I shall name no names for fear of libel and I am not referring to the National Trust, the present landowners) tried to claim that the treasure belonged to them and that these legal wranglings went on for years. I should add that I have not been able to find any solid evidence of this.

Anyway, more importantly, at some point in the 1980s it seems that the gold was being transported from Cornwall to London. It is unclear why or where exactly it was going but on the way the gold is said to have vanished.

And that’s it, the Pentreath gold has never been seen again.

pentreath

Final Thoughts

It is all a mystery from start to finish isn’t it! How did gold from Gaul come to be lying on a cliff top in Cornwall? Why it had been melted down? Where was it destined for? Was there really a legal fight to try and stop the boys keeping it? And ultimately who stole it in the 1980s and why? And of course, where is it now?

*Author’s Note: I am indebted to a kind reader of my blog for writing to me about this story after remembering a conversation he had had with someone on the Lizard around 10 years ago (2010?). He sent me down a rabbit hole trying to find out the truth of what he had been told. If anyone else has something to add to this story, especially with regards to what happened to the gold and where it might be now I would love it if you would get in touch. I can of course keep you anonymous if you would prefer. From what I understand there is a lot of gossip about what might have happened and who may have taken the gold but lets not name names or throw around allegations without proof I don’t want to be sued for libel!

Further Reading

The Rillaton Cup – A King & our lost Cornish Gold

The Trelan Bahow Mirror & Trelanvean Cross

A Potted History of Dollar Cove – treasure beneath the waves!

I provide all the content on this blog completely FREE, there's no subscription fee. If however you enjoy my work and would like to contribute something towards helping me keep researching Cornwall's amazing history and then sharing it with you then you can DONATE BELOW. Thank you!

Leave a Reply