The building that houses the Cotswold Outdoor chain store in the southern English city of Brighton is believed to have a long and prestigious history. Indeed, it is thought to have once been a tailor to the stars. But that doesn’t mean the renovators were expecting to find a long-buried fortune hidden deep under its floorboards. The discovery also raises new questions that now have to be answered – who does it belong to, and why was it buried?
Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September, 1939, in response to the latter’s invasion of Poland. The main conflict, however, took a while to get going, and the first few months became known as the Phoney War, as a stalemate developed in Western Europe. Indeed, Britain and its ally France spent their time preparing for the true fight to come, as Hitler’s Germany continued with its violent conquest of Poland.
So France and Britain built up their land forces, and the Allies instituted a naval blockade around Germany. Britain also adopted new defensive procedures in case of a German air attack on its mainland. These included conscripting men into the army, evacuating children away from the big cities, ordering night-time light blackouts and instituting rationing for essential goods.
Darkness fell on Britain two days before the war began, and lasted until 1945. Streetlamps were switched off, car headlights were covered and special curtains were hung in domestic homes, with brown paper fastened around the edges to block light. The aim was to confuse German bombers and prevent them finding their targets. Sadly, it also led to an increase in road deaths, with over a thousand people dying in the first month of the war alone.
Meanwhile, Britain had taken measures in the months before the war to try and strengthen its military. In numbers, however, its nearly 900,000 men were far below the five million France had mustered. So a new law was passed introducing conscription for all able-bodied men between 18 and 41. And by the end of 1939 the British Armed Forces had conscripted 1.5 million more men. Indeed, a form of National Service would continue to be compulsory until 1963.
Within three days of the German invasion of Poland, 1.5 million British children had been evacuated from the cities and towns that were considered likely targets of Nazi bombing. They were moved to the countryside, away from their parents, and thousands of volunteers were needed to organize the evacuations and to host the relocated children.
However, as the Phoney War continued with no major attacks, many children returned home. But when Germany invaded France in May 1940 and Britain became a target of bombings, many were evacuated yet again, staying away until the conflict ended. Others, however, stayed on at home to provide help for their families.
Then in June 1940 food rationing began, and every man, woman and child was issued a ration book. This would contain coupons to be used for buying even basic food products such as cheese, sugar and meat. It was a way to ensure everyone could have a fair share at a time when supplies were limited.
But there were exceptions in the rationing system – vulnerable groups such as children and pregnant women were prioritized for products such as milk and eggs. For their part, fresh fruit and vegetables weren’t rationed, but availability was still limited. Indeed, people were encouraged to grow their own as it was difficult to import. And food rationing lasted past the end of the war, not coming completely to an end until 1954.
And it wasn’t just food that was in short supply. Petrol was rationed even before edibles, in 1939. It was followed by clothes rationing in 1941, then soap in 1942. Meanwhile, a black market existed where “spivs” would sell goods outside of the rationing system for their own profit.
The textile industry was under huge pressure because of the need to produce uniforms not just for the growing army, but for various other organizations that supported the war effort. Fabric was also needed for other military purposes, such as tires and tarpaulins. And consequently, civilian clothing and shoes fell by the wayside.
Indeed, clothes rationing was a way to conserve limited supplies and ensure what existed was fairly distributed. Different items of clothing were awarded a “points value” depending on the effort involved in its production. And for their part, children were allowed extra clothing coupons to allow for growth spurts. Even the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, had to save up her coupons to have a proper wedding dress, just a few years after the war ended.
But rationing didn’t stop people from dressing their best, and they were encouraged to do so to keep up morale. Indeed, Britons became creative with how they made and repaired their own clothes. Parachute silk was a popular material in underwear, wedding dresses and night clothes. And women would stain their legs with gravy powder so it looked like they were wearing stockings. They would even draw a line up the back in pencil to look like a seam.
Meanwhile, the Phoney War came to an end in May 1940, when Germany invaded Western Europe. May also saw Winston Churchill become the new British Prime Minister. His wartime efforts would lead to him being voted the Greatest Ever Briton in a 2002 BBC poll, ahead of the likes of William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton. Indeed, many think his leadership was essential to the eventual Allied victory.
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born in Oxfordshire in 1874. His father’s family traced back to the first Duke of Marlborough, who had won his renown in the early 1700s during British conflicts with the French. Meanwhile, Churchill’s mother was an American, the daughter of a New York financier.
In 1908 Churchill married Clementine Hozier, and the couple remained together until the former’s death 56 years later. She was also from an aristocratic family, though she had grown up poor. They would have five children together, and Hozier would offer vital support to her husband even at his lowest points. She also campaigned for the humanitarian causes that were important to her, even when Churchill was opposed
Churchill began his career in the army, before entering politics in 1899. And his parliamentary career saw him switch sides between the Conservative and Liberal parties and then back again. He became a controversial figure, and after taking the blame for the failure of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in WWI, he temporarily resigned from government to serve on the frontlines.
Meanwhile, Churchill continuously warned of the dangers of Hitler in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until the policy of appeasement practiced by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain failed miserably that Parliament looked for a leader who could unite and inspire the country in its darkest hour. Indeed, it was Churchill’s time to shine.
But what does Winston Churchill have to do with the money found beneath the floor in the store in Brighton? Well, a favored tailor of Churchill and his wife was called Bradleys, and Bradley Gowns, believed to be a branch of the company, was based in the seaside city. Today, sandwiched between two other stores, even the elaborate Art Deco decoration gives no hint of what was once there. And the building that once housed Bradley Gowns is now a Cotswold Outdoor store.
In 2018 the owner of the Cotswold Outdoor store, Russ Davis, was doing renovation works on the building. He tore up the rotten carpet, broken tiles and ancient floorboards – and there was a lot to lift, suggesting it had been there a long time. Then, deep underneath, Davis found something odd. At first he thought it was just a lump of wood. So he broke it in half, not expecting anything to be inside.
It was hard to make out details because the block was stuck together, but Davis soon identified a £1 bill, which haven’t been used in Britain since 1988. Even rarer, the bill was blue, rather than the usual green. Blue was the color chosen by the Bank of England for its emergency currency in 1941. And it belongs to that very specific period in British history when the whole country was turned upside down, and Churchill was in charge.
During the war, the Germans had a plan that they called Operation Bernhard. It was an attempt to forge and distribute the British £5 bill to destabilize the economy. As the design and security measures used in British currency hadn’t changed in nearly a century, they were easy to copy. And subsequently, millions of fake bills were produced.
So the Bank of England had to step up security, and in 1941 they created the emergency £1 bill. Blue in color and containing a metallic thread, it was a breakthrough in design. Two years later, bills higher than £5 were withdrawn from public circulation altogether to prevent them being forged. And it would be the 1970s before the £20 bill was seen again.
Meanwhile, Cotswold Outdoor store owner Russ Davis soon realized that there was much more than one WWII bill under his shop. Indeed, he found around 30 bundles of £1 and £5, each worth around $1,300 each. And though some of them were heavily damaged with dirt covering them, the metal watermarks were clearly visible. But that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable.
In modern terms, the £30,000 worth of bills are valued at more than £1 million, or nearly $1.3 million. But it’s a mystery how so much money ended up under the floor. Davis told the BBC that he though the money “could have come from a bank robbery, or been stashed during the war by someone who died.” There may, however, be another answer, and it lies in Bradley Gowns.
For its part, Bradley Gowns operated the Brighton site between 1936 and 1973. And, as previously mentioned, the shop was believed to be a subsidiary of Bradleys. This was the company credited for creating the “guinea gown” for people who could not afford more expensive clothing, but still wanted to look smart. As well as Winston and Clementine Churchill, the latter company’s famous customers included Brigitte Bardot and members of the royal family. So could this business have been the origin of such an impressive stack of money?
Samuel Bradley senior founded the first Bradleys store in the 1860s, in Chepstow Place, London, and it primarily stocked ladies furs. The name changed in 1896 to become Bradley and Sons Arctic Fur Store, the again in 1912 when it became just Bradleys. At the time, the company was Europe’s biggest fur specialist, and The Financial Times even ran an article on the relaunch.
During WW1, Bradleys helped make uniforms for the troops. And in the 1920s it expanded to have around 600 staff, including its own fashion designers. And its popular coats came with a hefty price tag, costing over $100,000 in today’s money.
Meanwhile, Bernard Bradley’s family became heavily involved in WWII. He had two sons, Eric and Victor, and the former turned 18 on 3 September, 1939, the day that war was declared. Eric joined the Royal Air Force, while his brother served as a pilot, and neither returned home until 1944.
Meanwhile, shortly after the Bradley brothers went to war, things started looking bad for the Allies. British, French and Belgian troops had to try and escape from the French port of Dunkirk as the Germans had them surrounded. So a fleet of privately owned “little ships” set sail from England to help the soldiers escape. And by this point, the Nazis occupied most of Europe.
Alone against the Nazis, Britain felt the full weight of the German assault. And as the summer of 1940 began, the skies became full of dueling aircraft as the Battle of Britain began. Fearsome skirmishes ensued in the air, which saw Britain eventually victorious that October. However, Germany’s Luftwaffe then launched a bombing campaign over Britain which lasted until May 1941. Indeed, this period of air raids resulted in the deaths of nearly 44,000 civilians and left numerous cities in ruins.
Sadly, the Bradley house was one of many family homes destroyed during the war. Howard Bradley, the only heir of the family, told The Argus in 2018, “My grandmother even had to be rescued from under a pile of rubble after a [a German V1 rocket] hit the building she was in.” Meanwhile, the family had some Jewish roots, and they must have been aware their situation was precarious, as British victory was not assured. Indeed, Bradley even said that the money could have belonged to the family, adding, “Maybe it was part of a getaway plan.”
During the German bombing campaign over Britain, banks were often attacked. So a clothes shop in a smaller city like Brighton would serve as a less likely target. Maybe the Bradleys had owned that money, and had decided that burying it under the floorboards would the best way to preserve their cash? After all, that secret stash could have become a form of protection for them, their family and friends if a potential Nazi invasion was successful.
Meanwhile, like many other textile firms, the Bradleys had to cope with clothes rationing. Then, as well as the house, the Bradley’s hat-making facilities were destroyed by bombs. The guinea gown may have been invented by Bernard Bradley, but he had failed to patent it. This all lead to things becoming difficult for the company, especially in the austerity of the post-war years.
After Bernard Bradley died, the business transformed again, this time into the realms of dry cleaning and repair. A dry cleaner in Milton Keynes, 115 miles from Brighton, is the last outpost of the Bradley family and is run by Eric’s son, Howard Bradley.
However, Howard Bradley isn’t even completely sure that Bradley Gowns was part of the wider Bradley network. And he doesn’t know for certain why the money was buried, or who owned it in the first place, adding that there are no family legends about the money. But he thinks that if it did belong to his grandfather, it could have been part of the aforementioned escape plan for if the Nazis ever did invade.
However, the theory of Howard Bradley owning the money and stashing it still doesn’t explain why no one returned for it after the war. Theoretically, if someone took it to the Bank of England, it could be exchanged for modern bills and make its owner a millionaire. But for the moment, local police are holding onto the money.
Elsewhere, Churchill himself now appears on the £5 note, which began circulation in 2016. He joins Jane Austen on the orange-brown £10, economist Adam Smith on the purple £20 and Matthew Boulton and James Watt, key figures of the Industrial Revolution, on the red £50 note. And for its part, the £1 is now only available as a coin.
Meanwhile, 2018 saw a number of other stories about valuable currencies hit the headlines. For example in August that year, a rare coin – one of only five produced and known as the Eliasberg 1913 Liberty Head Nickel – sold for $4.5 million at a Philadelphia auction. Also, in April that year an anonymous man from New England was reported to have a gold coin with a $5 denomination from the San Francisco Mint. Incredibly, the coin, which is from the height of the California Gold Rush, is believed to be worth millions of dollars.