When most people think of buried treasure, the traditional image that springs to mind is of desert islands and pirate gold; of far-flung lands and tales of yore. However, an unusual treasure is buried much closer to home in central London. For students of SOAS, it is literally buried right beneath their feet.
It has long been a tradition for builders to place coins in a small cavity beneath the foundation stones of new buildings. It is a superstition, which is intended to bring good luck and prosperity to the build and to the future building.
Senate House in Popular Culture
The University of London’s Senate House building, the north block of which houses SOAS’s Paul Webley Wing, was constructed between 1932 and 1937. Its Art Deco design is much celebrated; has been immortalised in several classic works of fiction, including The Day of the Triffids, Put Out More Flags, The Ministry of Fear and Nineteen Eighty-Four; and now often provides the backdrop for movies and TV dramas, frequently standing in for Gotham City, and recently featuring in the Bodyguard series.
The World in 1933
However, at the time of its construction, Senate House was emerging into a world, which was in a state of change. The economic consequences of the Great Depression, which began in 1929, were still being felt around the world and, for Britain, one of the consequences was that there was a surplus of small denomination coins in circulation, to such an extent that the Royal Mint took the unusual decision to cease printing one-penny pieces during 1933.
The 1933 One-Penny Piece
But there was a problem. The ruling monarch of the time––George V––needed several new pennies to place under the foundations of some of the most important new constructions of the day: Senate House being one of them.
And, so, to get around the problem, it was decided to do a special print run of 1933 one-penny pieces purely for ceremonial purposes: a print run of just seven coins.
Seven coins: which makes the one buried beneath Senate House very rare. Very, very rare indeed. The last time that an original 1933 George V one-penny piece went up for auction in 2016, it fetched a world record price for a copper coin of $165,000.
SOAS into Senate House
Adam Waite, Project Manager, oversaw much of the excavations and building work when SOAS started renovations on the Paul Webley Wing between 2014 and 2016.
Regarding the 1933 penny, Adam speculates:
“I imagine that it would have either been in the South Block or underneath the main tower itself, in the middle of the building. The North Block was one of the last quadrants to be built, so I think it would be less likely that the foundation stone would have been laid there.”
Watch time lapse footage of the excavations of Senate House’s North Block.
Some of the items discovered during the excavations were included in SOAS’s Centenary Exhibition in the Brunei Gallery.
John Hollingworth MBE, Head of Galleries and Exhibitions recalls:
“During the construction works for the SOAS into Senate House North Block Project, a number of artifacts were discovered throughout the building. Some date from the original works in the early 1930s, whereas others were from later phases of works undertaken on the building.”
What Lies Beneath
But the last 1933 one-penny piece remained undiscovered. And, so, under Senate House, it remains.
Except… wasn’t there once that rumour about one of the building contractors who suddenly left the dig to buy a luxury villa on Antigua? No, must just be a coincidence. Only a coin-cidence, surely?
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