Digging for riches

SWAFFHAM IS A SMALL town in Norfolk, west of Norwich. Two of its former inhabitants enriched their lives by digging. One of them is more widely known than the other. The lesser known one was a pedlar, who lived in the 15th century and was most probably called John Chapman.

The pedlar had a dream in which he was told to go to London Bridge to receive some good news. He ignored it at first but after it had recurred several times, he set off for London with his pack on his back and his dog at his side. When he reached London Bridge, he found nothing, and received no good news. After a few days of lurking on the bridge, one of the shopkeepers on that ancient crossing of the Thames asked him what he was doing. The pedlar related his dream and the shopkeeper replied:

“How foolish you are. You should not believe such dreams. Why, only last night I dreamt that I should go to Swaffham in Norfolk and dig under an apple tree where a pot of treasure was buried. Do you think I should believe that? Of course not, my friend. If I were you, I would go home and ignore such dreams.”

Hearing this, the pedlar realised that he had just heard the good news for which he had come to search.

Back in Swaffham, the pedlar dug beneath his apple tree and discovered a pot of gold. After emptying the pot, he added it to the wares he was peddling. The pot had a label attached. As the pedlar was illiterate, he asked a local priest to read it to him. The words on the pot said:

“Beneath me, thou shalt find even greater riches.”

The pedlar returned to his apple tree and began digging again. Lo and behold, he discovered another pot filled with gold, far more than in the first.

Whether or not this tale is true, there was a John Chapman in Swaffham, who lived in the town and was a church warden in 1462, at the time when the parish church was being rebuilt. He donated a huge amount of money towards building both the church’s tower and its north aisle.

The existence of the digging pedlar and his story might possibly be questioned by sceptics, but that of Swaffham’s other famous digger is beyond doubt. When we visited Swaffham recently, it was hard to miss seeing an eccentric looking café-cum-curio shop called ‘Tutankhamun’s Emporium’, with the subtitle  ‘Bar, Bistro, Gallery’. In addition to a Russian restaurant called Rasputin, the choice of an Ancient Egyptian’s name for a café in Norfolk struck me as odd until we visited the town’s small museum.

Samuel John Carter (1835-1892), a noted Victorian animal artist and illustrator, was born in Swaffham. After studying at the Royal Academy, Samuel lived both in London and Swaffham. He married Martha Joyce Sands, born in Swaffham, and the couple produced 11 children, the youngest of whom was named Howard. They lived most of the time in London, where Howard was born (in Kensington). Howard, a sickly youngster. Was sent from London to live with Samuel’s sisters in Swaffham.

Howard Carter (1874-1939) spent most of his childhood in and around Swaffham. Like his father, Howard had great artistic talent. He used to visit local country houses with his father when the latter was up in Norfolk. One of these was Didlington Hall near Swaffham. Its owner, William Amhurst Tyssen-Amhurst (1835-1909), an MP, was a great collector of books and antiquities. The collection included many Ancient Egyptian artefacts, which fascinated young Howard. In 1890, the Amhursts were visited by Percy Newberry (1869-1949), who worked for the Egypt Exploration Fund. Discovering Howard’s talents as an artist and interest in history, Newberry invited him to work at the British Museum, copying tomb and other wall paintings that had been discovered in Egypt. Soon, Carter was sent out to Egypt on archaeological expeditions to work alongside the archaeologists. In 1922, Howard discovered the tomb that contained the remains of the boy king (pharaoh) Tutankhamun (c1341-c1323 BC). This discovery brought great fame to Howard: a digger brought up in Swaffham.

The local museum in Swaffham has displays relating to Carter and Tutankhamun. Both might be flattered if they were to learn that a small town in Norfolk, many thousands of miles away from the River Nile, has a café named after the short-lived pharaoh. As for the pedlar, the town is full of images of him trudging along with a pack on his back. In the parish church, which he might well have helped to finance, there are woodcarvings of him and his dog.

We visited Swaffham whilst travelling around Norfolk because we had read that it has an attractive parish church and an unusual 18th century circular market cross. However, learning about the pedlar and the archaeologist, two famous diggers, were unexpected bonuses for us.


WALKING HAS ALWAYS been my favourite and almost only form of exercise. I do not enjoy games, gyms, or swimming, or any other sport, but I love to stroll through towns, villages, and rustic landscapes, exercising my body and especially my eyes. I always carry a camera to record anything I consider of interest or picturesque or curious. With the current (January 2021) restrictions on moving far afield from home to take exercise, I must confine myself to wandering around within a short distance of home. Luckily, the borough, within which I live, and its neighbours are full of fascinating places to see, photograph, and investigate. One of these is Justice Walk, a short (77 yards) passageway leading from Chelsea’s Old Church Street to Lawrence Street.

But first, let me tell you about number 46 Old Church Street close to the beginning of Justice Walk. This building has a sculpture of a cow’s head attached to its façade as well as two pictures made with coloured tiling. One of them, with the words ‘An early mower’, depicts a man holding a scythe and taking a drink from a small barrel. The other shows a milkmaid carrying a wooden pail on her head. An alleyway on the north side of the building leads to a modern gateway. On the north wall of the house there is a name plate that reads ‘The Old Dairy Chelsea’ and near this there is another tiled painting showing a milkmaid watching cattle standing in a stream with ducks and ducklings. Behind the gates, there is a larger brick building with a pediment bearing a cow’s head as well as the date ‘1908’ and ‘estd. 1796’.

The house and the building behind it were part of Wrights Dairies, which is well described in a blog article by ‘Metrogirl’ (https://memoirsofametrogirl.com/2018/11/14/wrights-dairy-cow-heads-chelsea-history-kings-road-old-church-street/) :

“The dairy was one of the first in Chelsea and was erected on Cook’s Grounds (the site of Glebe’s Place today) in 1796. Around 50 cows and two goats grazed nearby, providing milk for the dairy … A frequent visitor to the dairy was Scottish philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who lived a few minutes walk away on Cheyne Row … The Old Dairy was forced to move slightly west due to rapid redevelopment in the late 1800s, with Cook’s Ground and the nearby kitchen gardens of the Chelsea Rectory being swallowed up by housing. Wright’s Dairy set up their headquarters and a shop at 38-48 Church Street (now Old Church Street). The fields behind the dairy were used for the grazing cows.”

The cow’s head on the former dairy looks out at pictures of pigs across the road. These adorn a pub with the name ‘The Chelsea Pig’. Originally called ‘The Black Lion’, the establishment is said to date back to the 17th century.

Justice Walk is extremely picturesque. It is dominated by a large brick building, whose appearance is suggestive of authority, topped with a triangular pediment. This was formerly a Wesleyan chapel, which was built in 1841. It was used as a chapel and a Sunday school between 1843 and 1903 (https://chelseasociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/1997-Annual-Report-1.pdf). Many estate agents have misrepresented this building as a former courthouse, glamourising with words such as these (www.russellsimpson.co.uk/stylist-the-court-house/):

“A historic courthouse and jail that once held highway robbers and thieves before they were transported to the British penal colonies in the 18th Century has been transformed into a luxury £14.5 million home.

The Court House, on the aptly-named Justice Walk in Chelsea, is one of London’s last surviving courthouses and gaols and has been dubbed “Britain’s most expensive prison cell” after undergoing a designer restoration and makeover. Built in the early 18th Century, the majestic house of justice tried hundreds of criminals with highway robbery, drunken behaviour and petty theft – of a kind similar to legendary highwayman Dick Turpin (who was executed in 1739 for horse theft).”

So much for Dick Turpin and other exciting misinformation. Opposite the former chapel, there is a house whose front door is surmounted by a scallop shell and other ornate decoration. The door bears the name ‘Judge’s House’. Given what I have learnt about the so-called courtroom, which was really a chapel, I wonder whether a judge ever lived in the house. My doubt is increased when I read (in “The London Encyclopaedia, edited by B Weinreb and C Hibbert) that Justice Walk is most probably named after John Gregory, a Justice of the Peace, who owned property in nearby Gregory Place and in Kensington Church Street.

Several houses at the corner of Justice Walk and Lawrence Street stand where there was a factory and showrooms for the renowned Chelsea china. The china establishment was demolished at the end of the 18th century (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp84-100). Although the china works are long gone, the Cross Keys pub still exists, though closed during the ‘lockdown’. Established in 1708, it is Chelsea’s oldest pub. Its customers have included JMW Turner, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler, painters; Dylan Thomas, poet; Bob Marley, musician; and Agatha Christie, novelist.

Seeing all that I have described took about fifteen minutes, but you could easily miss it all if you walked past in a hurry. Although I did not perform much exercise looking at this tiny part of London, seeing it provided plenty of food for thought. After exploring this area, my wife and I walked out of Lawrence Street and began a vigorous stroll along the Thames embankment which provided lovely vistas in the hazy winter sunshine.

Extracting the truth

EXTRACTING TEETH IS still a significant part of the job of a dentist.

When I qualified as a dentist in 1982, I joined the practice in Rainham (Kent) run by Julian U. He was a generally competent dentist and very skilful when it came to extracting teeth. If, as it happened from time to time, I was having difficulty removing a tooth, he would come into my surgery to apply his skill and experience to the problem at hand. Whenever he did this, he would work on the offending tooth, but would stop when he knew I would be able to complete the operation.

Julian could have easily finished the job himself, but he left it to me to do this for a good reason. He knew that if I removed the tooth, the patient would believe that it was my skill that contributed to the successful conclusion of the operation and therefore would not lose confidence in me.

Later in the day, after the patient had left, Julian would explain to me why I  had had difficulties and how to avoid repeating the problem. He was a great mentor as I began my career in dentistry.

The NHS used to pay a standard fee for an extraction. If an extraction proved to be particularly difficult, involving bone removal for example, the practitioner could write to the NHS explaining why the operation was not simple and enclosing a radiograph (xray image) of the tooth in question. In these cases, the NHS used to pay a larger fee than the standard one.

On one occasion when I had not taken a radiograph prior to an extraction because I  had assumed it would be simple, the operation proved to be very difficult. After completing it, I  applied for the supplementary fee but did not receive it because I  had not submitted a preoperative radiograph.  I was furious not only because I had not been adequately remunerated for my effort but also because my word had been doubted.

Some months later,  a distressed couple brought their infant to my surgery. The child had chewed on a keyring and it had got stuck between two teeth. Carefully, I cut through the ring and thereby removed it from the kid’s teeth.

Still smarting from my failure to convince the NHS that my extraction of a few months earlier was truly difficult, I  wrote up my keyring removal and applied for a fee for this unusual procedure.  I explained that neither had I taken a radiograph (because it was unnecessary) nor was I  able to send them any evidence, such as the remains of the keyring because the parents had wanted to keep them. I waited patiently for the NHS to reply, which they did. To my great surprise,  they believed my story without me sending any evidence and paid me a decent fee. Nowadays, it would be unwise to perform any extraction without having taken a preoperative radiograph. This is not for the purposes of seeking enhanced remuneration but to protect the practitioner should the patient decide to make a complaint against the dentist. Sad to say, but by the time I retired, preventive dentistry acquired a new meaning. In addition to preventing dental disease in patients, it has also come to mean preventing the dentist from litigation and defending him or her when malpractice is alleged.