Evening Standard, 4 October 1999
A dustman spent five years tracking down the owner of a small treasure trove that he found in the rubbish. But virtue did not bring its own reward…
BY ALL accounts, Terry Cook’s modern-day fairy tale of lost treasure should have a happy ending, but real life simply isn’t like that. First, we must start at the beginning. For Mr Cook, that was one morning five years ago, when he was a refuse collector in Wandsworth.
He was slinging bags of rubbish on to his dustcart and, like most dustmen, keeping an entrepreneurial eye open for the occasional hidden gem. When he heard the clinking of metal inside one of the bags, he decided to take a look.
“Practically every day there was at least one bag worth opening up,” he recalls. “You’d go by the sound it makes when you lift it up. It’s amazing what people throw out. I’ve got a shed full of first-class tools from opening up bin bags, and perfectly good tins of paint – even a brass bell from a Second World War battleship, which makes a great doorstop.”
But when he investigated the contents of this particular bag, he found something more extraordinary than anything which had come his way before. It was a collection of personal mementoes – a glittering array which had clearly belonged to a family of wealth and privilege.
There was a gold cigarette case engraved with the initials A D C F and the year 1944; a gold matchbox; several ribboned medals – including a First World War serviceman’s medal; a set of elegant monogrammed playing cards in a leather case; a small gold locket containing a woman’s photograph and lock of her hair; a box of dress cufflinks designed to be worn with a military uniform; a gold crucifix engraved with the message “Alec from Pam; 9.9.44” and a young boy’s photo album of Eton College, dated 1906, inscribed with the name Noel Charles Fitzroy Francis.
Mr Cook was instantly captivated. The son of a lorry driver from Battersea, and one of seven children who
all left school at 14, the little cache of treasure represented another, alien world to him.
“I’ve always been interested in how the other half lives,” he admits ingenuously. Now, unexpectedly, a little chunk of the life from someone in the “other half” had fallen into his hands.
He took his find back to the suburban terraced house in New Malden where he lives with his wife Una, and put it away carefully in a box which he kept in the loft.
Mr Cook found himself wondering about the people to whom it had belonged, and how it had ended up inside a dustbin on his round. He suspected it had been stolen and for some reason, or perhaps inadvertently, disposed of by the burglar. After all, which owner would deliberately bin possessions with both sentimental and intrinsic value?
When he retired in 1995, he turned his attention more fully to the items, and embarked upon a self-imposed mission to trace their rightful owner and give them back. Some people, no doubt, would have simply sold the stuff, pocketed the proceeds and forgotten all about it. Finders keepers, and all that. But not Mr Cook.
He explains: “It’s someone else’s property, isn’t it? Those medals were earned by somebody, the cigarette case and the crucifix were gifts engraved by a loved one, and that locket with the lady’s picture and lock of her hair obviously meant a lot to somebody once. They’re heirlooms and should go to the children of the family, those who would value them. I knew I’d get a real buzz out of handing them back.”‘
Informed by the “uninterested” police that no items of that description had been reported stolen, Mr Cook turned amateur genealogical researcher. At first, all he had to go on was the name inscribed in the photograph album. With his pensioner’s free travel pass, Mr Cook journeyed all over London and beyond, to public records offices, museums, archives and historical societies, in an effort to discover who Noel Francis, the Eton schoolboy of long ago was – or is – and to whom the treasures now belong.
Gradually, Mr Cook began to piece together a hazy picture of Noel’s life and times.
“I learned that he was born in 1892, and that his family owned property in East Molesey, Surrey, as well as in central London,” he said. “Also, that he only spent one year at Eton College. He was a lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery, then later joined the RAF Special Reserve and served in France during the First World War. He was demobbed in 1920, and married a woman called Gwendolyn van Raalte.”
Things hotted up when research at Kew Records Office unearthed an aristocratic connection: it turned out that Noel’s grandmother, Lady Rose Somerset, was the daughter of the 7th Duke of Beaufort. “From the beginning I had a feeling Noel was an aristocrat,” says Mr Cook, “a man who never had to struggle for a penny. But he was no idle toff. He must have been a bright spark to have been shipped out of the Army and into the RAF.”
But who was A D C F, the initials engraved on the cigarette case, together with the year 1944? Was he the same person as the “Alec” to whom “Pam” had engraved the crucifix in the same year? What happened in 1944? Some of the items were stamped with the names of exclusive London jewellers.
The gold matchbox came from Asprey, and the cufflinks from Tessier’s – both on Bond Street. Wearing his old anorak, Mr Cook turned up to inquire whether they still had records of the purchases.
Mr Cook says: “The man at Asprey said to me, ‘I’ve never heard of anyone returning gold to people; usually it just gets stolen.’ And the commissionaire at Tessier’s – where the door is always kept locked – didn’t want to let me in at all.” Neither shop could help him.
Mr Cook’s awaydays on the buses and trains, trying to glean information, often ended in defeat. He says: “Some record offices charge a fee for doing a search, as much as £15 or £20. I’m only a pensioner, I can’t afford that. So I’d go away empty-handed.
“The other thing, of course, is that I’m hardly a professional at this. It’s been enjoyable and exciting, to think I might bring the story to a conclusion, but it’s hard work and tiring. After the best part of a year, I finally reached a dead end.”
As a last resort, Mr Cook contacted me and together we continued the hunt. Employing the services of a professional genealogist, it took only one morning to bring the story to a conclusion.
Noel Francis was a descendant not merely of the Dukes of Beaufort, but also of the Plantagenet kings. In addition, he was descended from a bastard son of Charles II.
He died in 1937, leaving a son, Alec Francis – the Alec whose name and initials adorn several of the mementoes – who married Pamela Morgan-Grenville … in 1944. One of Pamela’s ancestors was no less than the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce.
Alec served in the Second World War as a captain in the Welsh Guards. He died a widower in a nursing home in 1993. Shortly after his death, his son Nigel Francis, who lives in Wandsworth, went through his personal belongings. The family heirlooms which Mr Cook had been studying and caring for all these years were never stolen; they had simply been thrown away by their rightful owner.
Mr Francis, a 50-year-old commodity trader married to an estate agent called Julia, has no children of his own. But his sister does. Priscilla Wills, whose husband is a captain in the 11th Hussars, has three children. Nevertheless, Mr Francis did not give these long-cherished mementoes of his parents’ marriage and his grandfather’s Eton schooldays and First World War involvement to any of them.
He wasn’t interested in selling them and he did not donate them to a charity shop. So they ended up in the bin.
Mr Francis was embarrassed and annoyed about the rescue mission. “This is all highly unfortunate,” he said. “When you throw things out, you don’t expect anyone to go through your black bags. One has a right to dispose of things.”
He admitted, however, that he had learnt a valuable lesson: “I now realise that I should have incinerated them.”
For his part, Mr Cook was baffled. He could not comprehend how anyone could seem to care so little for such “lovely old things” handed down through the generations. His own busy house is filled with shelves and tables crammed with family photos and knick-knacks. “You’d never catch me throwing any of my mother’s stuff out,” he says.
There is a postscript to this tale of discovery and disillusion, however. Just as Mr Cook was wondering what to do with the box of Francis family treasures in his loft, his telephone rang. It was Mr Francis. He asked whether he could drive over to New Malden to examine the items. Would the following Sunday afternoon be convenient?
And so, when Sunday arrived, and after having carefully laid everything out on the dining table, the former dustman received the descendant of the Duke of Beaufort. Privately, he hoped he would be allowed to keep the mementoes he had cherished for years. They were, at the very least, souvenirs of an extraordinary project.
But he was wrong. After inspecting the items in silence, the visitor scooped them up, said thank you very much, and took them away. And suddenly, for Mr Cook, life seemed rather empty.