Who IS the se­cret Santa of Black­hall Col­liery?

Wads of £2,000 mys­te­ri­ously left around a pit vil­lage. Up­lift­ing tales of the lucky find­ers’ gen­er­ous philanthro­py. And one tan­ta­lis­ing ques­tion...

Scottish Daily Mail - - News - by David Jones

£26,000 has been found in 13 bundles of notes

GAz­ING down at a back­street pave­ment strewn with crushed beer cans and dis­carded cig­a­rette pack­ets, Teresa Combey points to the place where she made her ex­tra­or­di­nary find. A find that has placed the pit vil­lage of Black­hall Col­liery, County Durham, at the cen­tre of surely the most heart-warm­ing — and mys­te­ri­ous — story of the year.

It hap­pened on Septem­ber 26, a Thurs­day morn­ing, when the 73-year-old wife of a for­mer coalminer went do her weekly shop­ping.

Walk­ing to­wards the Co-op, she spot­ted what ap­peared to be a soggy ban­knote ly­ing in the gut­ter. ‘When I picked it up, I saw that it wasn’t just one £20 note, it was a whole bun­dle wrapped in an elas­tic band,’ she told me.

‘To be hon­est, I was hor­ri­fied. Pet­ri­fied. I thought it might be drug money be­cause you get these young drug­gies in the cen­tre of the vil­lage at night. Or maybe it was some­thing to do with a crime. So I put it in my shop­ping bag and went home to ask my hus­band, Bill, what we should do.’

Un­rav­el­ling the rain-sod­den wad, they counted out 100 notes to­talling £2,000; a colos­sal sum in this com­mu­nity, where wel­fare ben­e­fit claims are 25 per cent above the na­tional av­er­age, jobs are scarce, and a ter­race house was on sale this week for £5,000.

Mr and Mrs Combey are not on the bread­line, but they are by no means well-off. They have lived in the same mod­est, three-bed semi for 52 years and sub­sist on their pen­sion. They have a Vaux­hall saloon car. For a hol­i­day, they might spend a week in York­shire or Scot­land.

Yet they still ad­here to the up­right moral code that has been the bedrock of Black­hall Col­liery since its men­folk marched arm-in-arm to the pit­head and toiled at a dan­ger­ous coal­face that stretched four miles out un­der the North Sea. So there was sim­ply no ques­tion of their keep­ing the money.

‘When we thought about it, it could have been dropped ac­ci­den­tally — per­haps by some­one go­ing to the garage op­po­site where I found it,’ says Mrs Combey. ‘How­ever it got there, we are hon­est folks, and it didn’t be­long to us, so we took it to the po­lice sta­tion.’

When they did so, they were made privy to an ex­tra­or­di­nary se­cret; one po­lice had been guard­ing so closely that, even in a vil­lage where gos­sip blows around like the coal dust that once whis­tled off the black­ened shore, it was un­known to the pop­u­la­tion of 4,700.

For the past five years, it tran­spired, an uniden­ti­fied per­son had been plac­ing these bundles of cash around the grid­iron streets of Black­hall Col­liery at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals.

They were al­ways left where they could eas­ily be found, within about a mile ra­dius of the cen­tre, and all con­tained £2,000 in £20 notes. Ac­cord­ing to De­tec­tive Con­sta­ble John Forster, who is in­ves­ti­gat­ing this bizarre case, po­lice opted against re­veal­ing this cu­ri­ous busi­ness for sev­eral years, for fear of at­tract­ing hoax­ers and false claimants. Those who came for­ward with money they had found were urged not to tell friends or neigh­bours.

Last Mon­day, how­ever, when yet an­other £2,000 bun­dle was dis­cov­ered — be­side the huge pit-wheel that stands in Mid­dle Street, as a mon­u­ment to Black­hall Col­liery’s proud her­itage — and the hon­est fin­der again handed it in, Durham po­lice de­cided it was time to go pub­lic.

For as they have now dis­closed, this was the 13th such sum to have been turned over to them since 2014, and the fourth this year alone.

Now, find­ing the phan­tom Black­hall Bene­fac­tor and dis­cov­er­ing the mo­tive for this blitz of gen­eros­ity is be­com­ing an im­per­a­tive.

So far the face­less phi­lan­thropist has handed out at least £26,000, seem­ingly at ran­dom and without know­ing into whose hands the money might fall. Yet per­haps the most up­lift­ing as­pect of this cu­ri­ous story is that it proves old-fash­ioned hon­esty pays.

For in all 13 cases where the money has been given to the po­lice, they have kept it for just a few days to see if any­one claims it, then, when no one comes for­ward, handed it back to the fin­der, to be spent as they please.

In Mrs Combey’s case, this meant do­nat­ing most of the money to a char­ity for Alzheimer’s dis­ease, which has af­flicted her two sis­ters. ‘We have no need for it, and wanted it to go to a wor­thy cause,’ she told me.

She also gave £500 to Ol­wyn Daw­son, a friend whom she met in the vil­lage, a few mo­ments af­ter mak­ing her find. The way 69-year-old Mrs Daw­son, also a for­mer miner’s wife, chose to use the money is sim­i­larly ad­mirable and poignant.

In 2008, she and her hus­band Terry, 71, lost their daugh­ter Ge­orgina, who died from a brain tu­mour, aged 20. Enor­mously grate­ful for the care she re­ceived at New­cas­tle’s Royal Vic­to­ria In­fir­mary (RVI), they have given their share to the hos­pi­tal’s Teenage Can­cer Unit.

‘We went to hand over a cheque for £500, but they had no idea how we came about the money,’ Mrs Daw­son told me, smil­ing wist­fully. ‘We just said we’d had a windfall. The nurse said it would be put to­wards new fa­cil­i­ties, out­ings for the pa­tients and a Christ­mas party.

‘The hos­pi­tal was really mar­vel­lous for Ge­orgina and our en­tire fam­ily when she was ill, so giv­ing this money to the RVI was the per­fect way to spend it. It’s pleas­ing to think that the per­son who left the money in the street might read this, and see that they have done some good.

‘It’s so nice to have a good news story for a change, isn’t it?’

It is. In­deed, this is such an in­spir­ing, and thought-pro­vok­ing real-life para­ble that Black­hall Pri­mary School (where a teach­ing as­sis­tant’s sis­ter found a £2,000 bun­dle out­side her gate) has made pos­i­tive use of it.

‘All the chil­dren live in Black­hall and walk to school ev­ery day through the streets where the money was found, and this has caused a real buzz around the school,’ says head teacher Joanna Clark. ‘So we have used it as an assem­bly theme about hon­esty, and how it is the right thing to do.

‘We’ve also held dis­cus­sions about what they (the pupils) would do if they found the money. As it has been given back to peo­ple, they can see how hon­esty brings re­wards. The find­ers can en­joy that money without feel­ing guilty.

‘We talked about all as­pects of this and ex­am­ined the moral­ity of it. How some peo­ple might not hand it in and feel ashamed; why the money might have been left here.

‘One pop­u­lar the­ory was that it was some­one who was brought up in Black­hall when it was a min­ing com­mu­nity, and has be­come suc­cess­ful. Per­haps they had happy child­hood mem­o­ries and want to give some­thing back to the com­mu­nity.’

The school, of course, is not the only place where spec­u­la­tion is rife. In the shops and pubs, the talk is of lit­tle else. ‘Found your­self a nest-egg yet?’ shouts a workman, as I walk along Mid­dle Street.

Some be­lieve Black­hall Col­liery will be­come a mag­net for bounty-hunters; that the ‘New-Age Robin Hood’, as an as­sis­tant in the butcher’s po­et­i­cally called him, might spark a tourist bo­nanza, re­viv­ing an econ­omy that died when the pit closed in 1981.

Then there are cyn­ics who point out that hav­ing re­cently seen a grisly mur­der (the al­leged per­pe­tra­tors of which are soon to face trial) and other crimes, the vil­lage is no more a paragon of virtue than any­where else.

Home Of­fice sta­tis­tics sug­gest they may be right. In Septem­ber, it says, there were 69 ‘street level’ crimes in Black­hall Col­liery — in­clud­ing 19 vi­o­lent of­fences, 12 in­ci­dents of an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour, 12 thefts, four bur­glar­ies and three cases of shoplift­ing. Clearly not ev­ery­one is as kindly as Mrs Combey.

Many life­long res­i­dents blame the demise in stan­dards on ‘in­com­ers’ who, they say, have moved into the di­lap­i­dated, dirt-cheap for­mer min­ers’ houses. The ethos of in­tegrity and salt-of-the-earth neigh­bourli­ness, they say, sur­vives only among old min­ing fam­i­lies.

True or not, the po­lice are in lit­tle doubt that — hu­man na­ture be­ing as it is — not ev­ery­one who has found a £2,000 pack­age has handed it in.

Some must surely have squir­relled the money away without say­ing a word. They there­fore as­sume the

‘Money handed in has really gath­ered pace’

to­tal amount could be far higher than £26,000.

So, the ques­tion re­mains, who might the al­tru­ist be?

In a vil­lage where no one I spoke to this week could name a lo­cal mil­lion­aire, there are no ob­vi­ous an­swers.

Tuck­ing into their £4 lunchtime ‘spe­cials’, the cus­tomers at Blondie’s Diner started their own game of Cluedo, ex­pound­ing who­dun­nit the­o­ries across plates laden with casseroled liver and corned­beef hash.

Scrap-metal dealer John James named his chief sus­pects as a lo­cal prop­erty mag­nate, a mo­tor-trade en­tre­pre­neur, and a char­ac­ter known as ‘the Coal­man’, who made his pile own­ing lo­cal coal-yards.

In the next breath, how­ever, he dis­counted one of these three. ‘Nah, he wouldn’t give a quid to a man with no shoes, him,’ he de­clared in his thick North­East of Eng­land ac­cent.

An­other sur­mised that the donor might live in nearby Cas­tle Eden, an af­flu­ent vil­lage pop­u­lar with lo­cal foot­ballers (in­clud­ing the dis­graced con­victed pae­dophile

Adam John­son), and home to the Eng­land cricket hero Ben Stokes.

Then there was the man in a woolly hat, who sug­gested vaguely that it might be ‘some­one with a guilty con­science who wanted to re­pay the com­mu­nity’.

Oth­ers haz­arded that we might be hunt­ing some­one with de­men­tia — though if that is the case, they have been suf­fer­ing from it for five years.

Cafe owner Jean Dean re­peated a com­mon the­ory that it was an un­known Lot­tery win­ner. But it was pointed out to her that, if there were a se­cretly wealthy do­gooder in their midst, the only sure way of giv­ing money to a wor­thy cause would be to hand it di­rectly to char­ity.

And in Black­hall Col­liery there is no short­age of char­ity shops. One is the head­quar­ters of the Bradley Low­ery Foun­da­tion, the or­gan­i­sa­tion founded in mem­ory of the six-year-old Sun­der­land foot­ball fan whose fight against a rare form of can­cer touched the na­tion’s heart.

Bradley died in 2017. As sev­eral peo­ple re­marked, why hasn’t the rich pim­per­nel posted a wad of notes through its door?

The man tasked with un­mask­ing him or her is De­tec­tive Con­sta­ble John Forster, based three miles away at Peter­lee. Ear­lier this week he gave the Press some de­tails but held oth­ers back.

How­ever, he di­vulged more in­for­ma­tion to me. The money is not al­ways left in a plas­tic bag, as he said orig­i­nally. As in Mrs Combey’s case, it is some­times loosely tied with a band.

And not ev­ery bun­dle has con­tained ex­actly £2,000. One only had £1,960. ‘Maybe it was de­ducted for trav­el­ling ex­penses,’ he says wryly.

DC Forster’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­gan ‘al­most like a lit­tle hobby’. It wasn’t a pri­or­ity, he says, be­cause, with near cer­tainty, he ruled out the pos­si­bil­ity that the money might be linked to a crime, such as money-laun­der­ing or a drugdeal ‘drop’. Nonethe­less, he has de­voted con­sid­er­able en­ergy to it, study­ing the times and dates when the 13 bundles were found, and plot­ting the lo­ca­tions on a map in the hope of de­tect­ing a pat­tern. But there doesn’t ap­pear to be one.

‘One year, only one lot of money was handed in, but this year it has really gath­ered pace.’

The anony­mous an­gel was es­pe­cially ac­tive last sum­mer, when two finds were re­ported on con­sec­u­tive days.

Some of the notes have been fin­ger-printed but, as they are al­ways used, this has also proved in­ef­fec­tive.

At one point it oc­curred to the de­tec­tive that the donor may be con­duct­ing ‘a so­cial ex­per­i­ment’. They might be plant­ing the money, then watch­ing, per­haps from a parked car, ‘with a lit­tle smile on their face’, to see who picked it up. How­ever, he’s now in­ter­viewed all the known find­ers and none can re­call see­ing a sus­pi­cious on­looker.

Ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that this is the work of some­one el­derly, and per­haps con­fused, he has con­tacted lo­cal nurs­ing homes and so­cial ser­vices. This proved fruit­less.

He has also made in­quiries at the vil­lage bank and post of­fice. Again, a blank.

The only ten­u­ous clue ap­pears to be that, with the ex­cep­tion of one ‘suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man’, the find­ers have been older res­i­dents of Black­hall Col­liery; peo­ple who ‘could use the money’.

But then, as DC Forster points out, in a vil­lage where the av­er­age age is above the na­tional av­er­age, and peo­ple are gen­er­ally less well-off and less healthy, this is un­sur­pris­ing.

Fur­ther­more, it is pos­si­ble that some younger peo­ple have found money and kept it. He is ‘mas­sively im­pressed’ that so many peo­ple have handed money in. ‘It just shows the sort of char­ac­ters they are here,’ he says.

His hope is that the huge pub­lic­ity created by the story will fi­nally solve the mys­tery, though he is equally aware that it might frighten the bene­fac­tor away.

Whether or not this boun­teous per­son’s iden­tity is re­vealed, how­ever, their amaz­ing gen­eros­ity, and that of the 13 find­ers, has proved one thing: the milk of hu­man kind­ness still ex­ists in this coun­try.

Nowhere more so than in Black­hall Col­liery, where the coal mines have closed but the peo­ple’s hearts re­main very much open.

Mys­tery: De­tec­tive Con­sta­ble John Forster with cash found in the streets of Black­hall Col­liery

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