16th-century English shilling found in Gorge

Bruce Campbell was just looking for a way to get off the couch and out of the house. He had no plans to help rewrite history.

The 59-year-old Victoria man retired last year from installing security systems and took up metal detecting as a hobby.

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So it was that he and a friend were out on the Gorge in early December looking for treasure.

“He went one way and I went the other, and I ended up on the mud flats on the Gorge, just down by Curtis Point,” Campbell said.

It was midday and the tide was low and Campbell’s metal detector was working overtime.

First, he found an 1891 Canadian nickel.

“That was well over 100 years old and I was pleased as punch,” he said.

Then he found a silver dime from the 1960s and an early Canadian penny.

By the time he dug down in the blue clay and pulled out an unusual black coin, it had already been a pretty good day. It was getting dark and the tide was coming in, so Campbell headed home and posted photographs of his finds on the Official Canadian Metal Detecting website.

“I thought everybody was going to ooh and ah over the 1891 nickel, and it turned out I’d made a discovery that was a little more important than that,” he said.

Under a picture of the black coin, he wrote: “Not sure what it is so calling all the experts. Please chime in.” He didn’t have long to wait.

“Some of the guys started saying, ‘That’s not just any old coin. That’s an English hammered silver coin,’ ” Campbell said. “And as I was doing cleaning on it, I posted updated pictures.”

Over in Port Coquitlam, Bill Herbst took one look at the coin and his jaw dropped. He recognized it as a rare English shilling from 1551-53, issued during Edward VI’s brief reign.

Herbst said he has been on numerous metal-detecting trips to England and never found a shilling, let alone one as rare as that.

“You don’t find things like that in Victoria,” he said. “The fact that it was found in a layer of mud on the foreshore, to me, I recognized that that was probably an ancient aboriginal village down there. … I knew it was possibly significant.”

Herbst alerted historian Samuel Bawlf, who has long argued that Sir Francis Drake explored the B.C. coast on a secret mission in 1579 — 200 years before the arrival of Capt. James Cook.

A former provincial cabinet minister, Bawlf points to discoveries of early English coins in Oak Bay and on Quadra Island and now, on the Gorge, as proof of Drake’s voyage north.

“It makes perfect sense that as [Drake] went along the coast, he would give out English coins to the Indians he met as evidence … to later visitors that England had already been here and laid claim to the coast,” said Bawlf, author of The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake.

“I just think that it’s an exciting discovery. It further corroborates the evidence that Drake discovered and claimed British Columbia’s shores for England 435 years ago.”

Not everyone is convinced. Skeptics, including some on the metal-detecting website, point out that coins can be traded and transported and dropped long after their issue date, and say it will never be known for certain how a rare English shilling ended up in the Gorge.

Still, Campbell hopes to get the Royal B.C. Museum interested in his find. He believes the coin’s historical significance far outweighs its potential monetary value of $500 to $1,000.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s the pièce de résistance to my collection at the moment,” he said. “I just love finding old things.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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