Friday, 12 August 2022

Caversham Heights Society

APRIL marked the end of this season’s formal lectures for the society with two fascinating talks.

These were all the better because a new sound system made everything so much clearer.

The first talk, entitled “Treasure beneath our feet”, was given by James Mather, a keen metal detectorist.

He took us through how he became interested in metal detecting 25 years ago, how the hobby is regulated by the Treasure Act of 1996 and how any finds of significance have to be recorded by one of 38 government appointees.

Most of the time finds consist of odd coins, some of which may be centuries old, some relatively recent, axe heads, agricultural equipment and the like.

If gold or silver is found this must be reported to a coroner within 14 days to assess its value and to see if any museum is interested. If not, the finds are returned to the finder.

What sets our speaker apart is that one day in October 2015, as he was thinking of packing up and going home after five hours of walking up and down a farmer’s field near Watlington, his detector suddenly went wild.

He realised that he had discovered a large hoard of silver coins. He covered his find, alerted the farmer and made contact with a government assessor.

It turned out that the find was not only valuable (about £1.5 million) but of great historical importance.

The find consisted of 200 Anglo-Saxon silver coins, 15 silver ingots and seven items of jewellery. They were dated to between 875AD and 880AD and are the first Viking hoard to be found in Oxfordshire on the edge of King Alfred’s Wessex and Mercia.

The Watlington Hoard can be viewed at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

The final talk was also based around Oxford as Dr Simon Wenham enthralled us with “The history of Salter’s Steamers” dating back to 1836.

Simon had taken a summer vacation job working for Salter’s when he discovered a mass of documents of all sorts hidden away in boxes.

As he began to look into these, he became so intrigued that he went on to write his doctoral thesis on the Salter family, which is still involved with providing passenger boat trips on the River Thames, though less so than in earlier years.

Salter’s is one of the oldest family firms in Oxford. The firm made its name by providing the boats used in the Boat Race from its inception in the mid-1800s.

Between 1857 and 1976 Salter’s had the most successful wooden boats on the Thames and in 1893 it owned more than 900!

Many of these were used by Londoners going up the river for a weekend’s leisure of camping. Such activities were made famous by Lewis Carroll and Jerome K Jerome.

At one stage more than 300 boats were being built each year. These ranged from skiffs to passenger barges, paddle steamers to boat houses, some of which can still be seen.

Some vessels were used as ambulance ships in both world wars.

Such was the firm’s reputation that it began exporting to Europe and the Empire, especially India.

One large paddle steamer was even used by the Baptist Mission Society in the Congo.

The firm also developed hydroplanes in the Twenties and Thirties as well as a regular timetable and a guide to the Thames.

Simon’s enthusiasm and range of knowledge left the audience much wiser and eager to learn more.

The society will be running a mini-holiday to Derbyshire in mid-May and a trip to Woburn Abbey in July. There are still vacancies for this trip. Further details can be found at or email contact@caversham

The next season will begin in September and details should be ready later in the summer. New members are always welcome.

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