It’s easy to miss the retailer Cotswold Outdoor, sandwiched between inexpensive women’s clothing stores in Brighton, England. Yet elaborate detailing at the top of the building’s Art Deco facade offers clues to its history. Long before it sold outdoor supplies, the building was home to Bradley Gowns, one of Britain’s top tailors and furriers—who counted Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine among their clients.
Construction workers recently stumbled upon treasure beneath rotten tiling and floorboards of the historic location. It was a stash of about 30 wads of grubby World War II-era banknotes, eaten away at the edges by decay. The face value is around £30,000, or around $40,000, with some notes of just a single pound. These days, however, this pile of dirty papers is worth about £1.5 million (just over $2 million), taking into account the Bank of England’s official inflation rates.
When shopfitter Russ Davis found the first block of cash, he initially mistook it for a piece of moldy wood. It was only when he snapped it in half, he told the BBC, and found a £1 note, that he began to realize what he had in his hands. “All the notes were stuck together, you couldn’t separate them, and they were caked in dirt,” he said. “Some of them were really bad where you could see the metal water marks that run through the notes.”
Precisely how the money wound up beneath the shop floor remains a mystery: Davis himself wondered if such vast sums were the product of a bank robbery. But Howard Bradley, the last remaining heir of the Bradleys name and business, told CNN it might have been an act of precaution.
There’s no family folklore about any hidden cash, Bradley said, but there was ample reason to be prudent. Both of the family sons, energized by the war efforts, had signed up for the Royal Air Force shortly after war was declared. His father, Eric, had turned 18 on that very day. Moreover, the family has Jewish roots, which may have worried them. “Obviously during the Second World War, during the ’30s, with what was happening in Germany, they would have been concerned,” he said. “And the Dunkirk evacuation was going badly, sons were out fighting … I would imagine they were thinking the worst — that nobody would come back. I don’t blame anyone for taking precautions.”
Over the course of the war, he said, their family home was destroyed. The threat of Nazi attack must have loomed large. “They would have had to have something to help family and friends, I suspect,” he added, continuing that the money would likely have funded an escape as “they would have been on Hitler’s kill list.” But after the war ended, whoever had hidden the money did not come back to claim their spoils.
What happens to the money now remains unclear. It would technically be possible to exchange these withdrawn banknotes for fresh ones, but who has a claim to it is still unclear. For the time being, they’re in Sussex police custody. Having come from a hiding place so secure it took nearly 80 years to be found, officials will be taking no chances with the millions contained within these moldy notes.