W J Ford’s Engineering Works, circa 1906. George Butcher (centre with white shirt and cap) is possibly the father of the ploughman who uncovered the Mildenhall Treasure of Roman silver in January 1942 or 1943

Roald Dahl (1916–1990) in the preface to his book The Mildenhall Treasure, explains how, in 1946, he read a newspaper article about the remarkable find of a hoard of 4th century Roman silver unearthed by a ploughman in a field in Suffolk, England. Dahl writes that, “The newspaper article said it was the greatest treasure ever found in the British Isles, and it had now been acquired by the British Museum. True stories about the finding of really big treasure sent shivers of electricity all the way down my legs to the soles of my feet… I leapt up from my chair without finishing my breakfast.” Dahl immediately drove to Mildenhall to interview the ploughman involved. The man, one Gordon Butcher, eventually agreed to tell Dahl what had happened on the day of the find and, based on the ploughman’s account, Dahl used it as the basis for his story. The story was subsequently published in America in The Saturday Evening Post and Dahl, as promised, sent half the money he received from its publication to Butcher.

The Mildenhall Treasure by Roald Dahl. Illustrations by Ralph Steadman

Dahl’s story was first published in Great Britain in 1977 in the collection The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. It was published again by Jonathan Cape in 1999, this time with numerous stunning illustrations by Ralph Steadman (see Illustrating the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure by Ralph Steadman ). It tells how Gordon Butcher, the Suffolk ploughman who, working alone one cold winter’s morning, uncovered the greatest hoard of Roman silver ever found in the British Isles; a hoard unparalleled in beauty and value. And how, not appreciating what he had discovered, was cheated out of the fortune that should rightly have been his. Instead, the hoard remained hidden by a man called Ford (who Butcher was working for at the time but not on whose land the treasure was found) until it was rediscovered four years later in Ford’s home.

The Mildenhall Treasure was subsequently secured for the nation and is now on display at the British Museum. A special exhibition entitled Silver service: Fine dining in Roman Britain is currently running at the Museum until 4 August 2013. Admission is free.

See also our earlier feature Focusing on the smaller museum: The Mildenhall Museum here.