Since we started working with Iron Age torcs, we’ve always been fascinated by Ray Williamson and Tom Rout, the two East Anglian ploughmen who first found torcs at Snettisham. Usually mentioned as an aside in the original archaeology reports by Brailsford (1951), Clarke (1954) etc – and often with their names mispelt – Roll and I had always wondered who they were and what effect the finding of such treasures had on their day to day lives. A bit of online research and several newspaper reports from the time have helped piece together their torc finding stories.
On 12th November 1948, Ray Williamson (no relation to Roll…we looked – his ancestors were pigeon rustling in Leicestershire then) was ploughing a field on the Ken Hill Estate of Sir Stephen Lycett Green in Snettisham, Norfolk. The field had previously been under lavender, but following the war, was being deep ploughed for the first time so that barley could be grown.
Ray’s tractor brought up several tubular torcs, coins and other items (now known as Hoards A, B and C) but, having reported these to his foreman, they were deemed to be unimportant (rumour has it, they were thought to be part of a bed stead) and were piled in a corner of the field and forgotten.
At the end of the ploughing, the director of the lavender company, who had previously worked the field, collected up the artefacts and, realising their significance, reported them to Norwich Museum, who then informed the coroner. In late 1948, excavations were carried out and further discoveries made. By January 1949, the press had got hold of the story and it received national coverage, with the Illustrated London Gazette running a full spread feature on the torcs in their 1st January 1949 issue.
At the end of January 1949, the Coventry Telegraph also discussed the finds and Ray’s likely reward.
On 20th April 1949, it was reported in the Coventry Evening Telegraph and Gloucester Citizen that the British Museum’s claim to the treasure had been dropped, in favour of Norwich Museum, but Ray’s fee had yet to be settled –
However, in May 1949, the Evening Telegraph reported that the Coroner had established that Ray would be given £400, clearly a huge sum for a plough boy, and Ray’s response was touching: he would purchase a small car or motorbike, or perhaps have a long awaited holiday with his parents!
And with that, the newspaper trail on Ray ends, but one can’t help wondering if the plough boys of Ken Hill Estate now kept a close eye on the ground as they were working!
Mid-November was clearly the time allotted for ploughing what would become known as ‘The Gold Field’. In the following year, on 17th November 1950, Tom Rout was doing exactly as Ray had been doing the year previously. Sure enough, Tom’s tractor (a Fordson E27N no less… with a Ransomes plough!) soon dragged up another torc – this time a plainer twisted ring terminal torc, with an attached ring ingot (Hoard D).
This time, in full knowledge of what he had found (and perhaps mindful of Ray’s previous award!) the find was immediately reported to Norwich Museum and was pronounced Treasure Trove at a Coroner’s inquest on 23rd November 1950 (Clarke 1954). Tom was given £120 for his find. Just the day after the inquest, on 24th November, Tom was back ploughing, and again uncovered more finds – this time the spectacular gold Great torc and associated bracelet, broken torc, etc (Hoard E).
To say there was Gold Fever would be an understatement: just a day later the Daily Herald was comparing Snettisham with the Klondyke, and the Ken Hill plough team were apparently fighting over who should get to plough the field. This even led Sir Stephen to decry the inconvenience of having to give days off so the men could attend Treasure Trove inquests! Again, in December 1950, the Illustrated London Gazette published the finds in their full glory –
Meanwhile, Tom awaited the official Coroner’s findings but he didn’t have to wait too long. If Ray’s reward of £400 in 1949 had been life changing, then Tom’s reward would be like winning the lottery:
For a man earning a weekly salary of £5, the award of £1850 was clearly a huge amount: for an apparently still shocked Tom, it meant a first bank account and perhaps even a new tweed suit!
By 1965, the Gold Field had become infamous and it was reported, in the Coventry Telegraph in 1965, that sixteen farm workers were involved in ploughing the field that winter!
However, only a handful of finds were made in the 1960s and 1970s. It wouldn’t be until August 1990, when detectorist Charles Hodder discovered Hoard F, and set in train the British Museum excavations of 1990-1992, that the majority of the Snettisham hoards were discovered. But that is another story for another time.
This story is about two plough boys, Ray Williamson and Tom Rout, who had their lives almost certainly changed by their findings. We hope it brought them happiness – and perhaps even a nice holiday and a natty tweed suit.
Brailsford, J.W. 1951. The Snettisham Treasure. British Museum Quarterly 16(3), 79–80
Clarke, R. R. 1954. The early Iron Age treasure from Snettisham, Norfolk. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 20, 27–86