‘Masquerade’ is an illustrated story book written by Kit Williams and published by Jonathan Cape in August 1979. It went on to become an international best seller with hundreds of thousands of copies being sold in the UK alone. The book sparked an ‘armchair’ treasure hunt craze, which survives to this day.
Somewhat ironically, the story of the book is far more interesting than the story contained within the book.. ..it brought the author/illustrator unwelcome fame and a little controversy at the time, contributing to him shying away from the public gaze for 20 years before being reunited with his ‘prize’.
Masquerade – the story of a story
It seems hard to believe that this story starts with Kit Williams and renowned TV presenter Bamber Gascoigne (a credible witness) secretly burying a bejewelled golden hare in the grounds of Ampthill Park in the middle of the night on the 7th August 1979. Although, the actual story, of course, starts somewhat earlier.
In the early 70’s Kit Williams had been challenged by his publisher, Tom Maschler, of the publishing firm Jonathan Cape, to “do something no one has ever done before” with a picture book. William’s accepted the challenge and wanted to create a picture book where the reader would be encouraged to study the pictures in detail instead of giving them a passing glance. To do this he decided that the book, and in particular the pictures, would provide the clues to the location of a buried treasure that he would also hand craft from gold.
As such ‘Masquerade’ features fifteen beautify detailed paintings which serve to illustrate the story of a hare named Jack Hare, who is asked to carry a treasure from the Moon (depicted as a woman) to her true love, the Sun (a man). On reaching the Sun, Jack finds that he has lost the treasure, and the reader is left to discover its location.
Kit Williams has been quoted as saying “If I was to spend two years on the 16 paintings for Masquerade I wanted them to mean something. I recalled how, as a child, I had come across ‘treasure hunts’ in which the puzzles were not exciting nor the treasure worth finding. So I decided to make a real treasure, of gold, bury it in the ground and paint real puzzles to lead people to it. The key was to be Catherine of Aragon‘s Cross at Ampthill, near Bedford, casting a shadow, like the pointer of a sundial.”
My first introduction to ‘Masquerade’ was at my cousin’s house in the winter of ’81. They had a lot of books, very unlike the situation at my parents’ house, ‘Masquerade’ was one of their favourites. I was immediately enthralled with ‘Masquerade’ and my cousin and I were convinced (along with probably the rest of the UK) that we could work out where the treasure was buried.. ..suffice to say, we couldn’t!
The treasure hunt
The treasure in question was a marvellous 18 carat gold hare on a segmented chain, fashioned as a large filigree pendant, bestowed with jewels.. ..it was estimated (at the time) to be worth c. £2,500 and would eventually sell for more than ten-times that amount.
Williams encased the hare in wax, sealed inside a detailed ceramic hare-shaped casket (both to protect it from erosion and to foil metal detectors). The casket was inscribed with the legend “I am the Keeper of the Jewel of MASQUERADE, which lies waiting safe inside me for YOU or ETERNITY“.
Soon after Williams buried the treasure, with Gascoigne as a witness, he publicly announced his forthcoming book. Revealing that it contained all clues necessary to locate the treasure’s precise hiding place in Britain to “within a few inches.” At the time, the only additional clue he provided was that the hare was buried on public property that could be easily accessed. To ensure that readers from further afield had an equal chance of winning, Williams also announced that he would confirm the first precisely correct answer sent to him by post.
For three years after the books publication Williams was inundated, on a daily basis, with post from treasure hunters who claimed to be close to finding the location.. ..nearly all were nowhere near finding the actual solution and hence location of the treasure.
Treasure hunters often dug ground on public and private property acting on hunches.. ..indeed ‘Haresfield Beacon‘, unsurprisingly, became a popular site for searchers with Williams eventually paying for a of a sign to be erected notifying them that the hare was not hidden on the premises. Real-life locations reproduced in the paintings were also routinely searched by treasure hunters, including Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire.
The golden hare is found!
Two physics teachers, Mike Barker of William Hulme’s Grammar School and John Rousseau of Rossall School, correctly deciphered the clues within the book to discover the location of the golden hare in March 1982. However, they could not find it when digging at Ampthill and were subsequently disappointed to discover, upon contacting Williams, that another hunter had just sent in the location and successfully claimed the prize from underneath their noses.
Just a few weeks prior to Barker and Rousseau’s contact with Williams he had received a letter and location map from a ‘Ken Thomas’. Williams realised that although Thomas had not solved the puzzle as intended, seemingly blundering in with a lucky guess, he was indeed in the right location. As such, Williams immediately phoned him to tell him where to dig.. ..amazingly it is reputed that Thomas eventually found the clay casket containing the hare in one of the earth piles left by Barker and Rousseau, who had not recognised it as the prize!
It seems that Barker and Rousseau were the only people to ever correctly decipher the clues as Williams had intended.
Upon reflection, it may seem that Williams was a little too hasty to award the prize to Thomas, who had not correctly deciphered his clues.. ..however, by then the book had been out for more than two years, sold over a million copies world-wide, with very few even coming close to solving the main puzzle. Williams was immensely relieved that someone was finally at least in the right location.. ..by this time both the press and public were becoming sceptical that there was actually a prize! Indeed, William’s publisher even received a letter accusing him of fabricating the artist, arguing that ‘Kit Williams’ was simply an anagram of ‘I Will Mask It’!
The golden hare was eventually removed from its casket and wax for the first time since it’s burial by Kit Williams himself, at the behest and in the presence of Thomas.
The solution to the puzzle
‘Masquerade‘ presents an overly elaborate puzzle, it’s no wonder the majority were either way off course or had no idea whatsoever what was going on (including me)! As a result of the puzzle being so complex, Williams made his next treasure hunt book (‘The Bee on the Comb’, 1984) much easier to solve.
Of course, to fulfil Williams’s desire for people to examine his exquisite pictures in detail, several clues are hidden within the fifteen illustrations; the actual text in the book is largely irrelevant to the solving of the puzzles. The main clue is revealed by correctly interpreting both the 4th “Miss Penny Pockets” and 12th “Isaac Newton” paintings in the book. The colours in the magic square pinned to the wall in the 12th painting correspond to the numbers in the magic square on the 4th painting. This colour sequence also matches the rings on the puppets in painting 12.. ..like strings connecting to a puppet, if you draw a line in each painting, running from each creatures (including humans and any ‘hidden’ animals) left eye, through the longest digit on its left hand it will point to one of the letters on the border legend (as per the clue on the book’s title page, about using your eyes and pointing to the prize). This is then repeated, from the left eye through the longest digit on the left foot; the right eye through the longest digit on the right hand; and finally the right eye through the longest digit on the right foot (this is only done for eyes and digits that are visible in the painting). The letters in the frames of the pictures that these lines point to can be made to form words; either by treating them as anagrams or by correctly applying the sequence of animals and digits described in the 12th painting.
Following this method reveals fifteen short phrases, which when collated form the following nineteen-word message/instruction:
“CATHERINE’S LONG FINGER OVER SHADOWS EARTH BURIED YELLOW AMULET MIDDAY POINTS THE HOUR IN LIGHT OF EQUINOX LOOK YOU”
The acrostic of these words and phrases then reads “CLOSEBYAMPTHILL“. Properly interpreted, this tells the reader that the treasure is buried near the cross-shaped monument to Catherine of Aragon in Ampthill Park. The precise spot to dig is revealed by the tip of the monument’s shadow (literally a cross marking the location) at noon on the day of either the Spring/vernal or Autumnal equinox.
The irony of this for me personally is that I first read Masquerade at my cousins house and we imagined the golden hare buried somewhere remote; a vast distance from where we were sitting. They lived in Luton.. ..the elusive treasure we sought was a mere 14 miles away!
Many additional hints, or ‘confimers‘ using Williams own prose, are scattered throughout the book. For example, in painting 2 “The Sun and the Moon dance“, the hands of the two figures are clasped together, crossing and pointing at the date of the spring equinox; this is ‘balanced’ at the bottom of the picture with the scales pointing to the date of the alternative autumnal equinox. In painting 3 “The day begins” the rather obvious Hare is standing on a stone which resembles a frog.. ..in Ampthill park there is a weathered stone know as the ‘Frogstone’. There is a picture of a football field in painting 5 “Tara Tree Tops” indicting the location is near a football field and the clock in painting 10 “Jack in the green” is very similar to the one in Ampthill itself (unfortunately, this latter clue is slightly obscured by the centrefold of the book itself). Surprisingly for such a complicated puzzle book, the 1st painting “One of six to eight” and the associated text instantly presents one of the biggest clues within the entire book, hinting at a link to Catherine of Aragon. This page also states, “In the earth am I”, confirming that the treasure is indeed buried in the ground somewhere, and not inside a building, vehicle, or other man-made structure.
Clues in the book are presented at various levels of obscurity, for example one of the more unnoticed clues is one that confirms the critical link between paintings 4 and 12.. ..this is indicated by the so-called ‘hare bell’.. ..it is mentioned a few times in the story, and appears a few times in the paintings… but there are only two story/painting combinations where it is both mentioned and pictured – namely, paintings 4 and 12!
However, there are also many red herrings. For example, painting 13 “Jack meets the fish” is of a rather obvious red fish which reveals the word ‘IN’, not essential to the solving of the riddle. In addition, painting 5 “Tara Tree Tops” whilst revealing the football field clue also contains a red herring number square within it; the numbers in the football field are atomic numbers, and when translated into their elemental abbreviations, spell out “FALSE NOUU THINK AGAIN“.
Some letters in the borders of the paintings also have small barbs on them or are coloured red; they’re quite easy to spot. By rearranging these letters you can form secret words.. ..they are not related to the main riddle but they do refer to the paintings they surround, so they’re simple self-contained puzzles. Finally, a hare is also ‘hidden’ in each of the paintings for the reader to spot.
As the main puzzle was so difficult to solve, Kit Williams printed a completely separate illustrated clue (including the familiar hidden hare, a ‘red herring’ and a self-contained secret ‘Merry Christmas’ message) in the Sunday Times on December 21st 1980.. ..which largely seemed to confuse everyone even more!
The controversial and mysterious winner
The announcement of the winner was strange from the start as ‘Ken Thomas’ proved to be a very secretive individual. He did not want any publicity surrounding him and was very reluctant to appear on photos or give interviews, indeed he often hid his face from view and only agreed to an interview on an a related BBC Omnibus programme (in 1982) by being allowed to sit obscured behind a reeded glass window.. ..there seemed to be more to his secrecy that just wanting to simply stay out of the lime-light.
On December 11th 1988, The Sunday Times accused ‘Ken Thomas’ of fraud. Firstly, his name was revealed to be a pseudonym of Dugald Thompson. They then went on to state that Thompson’s business partner, John Guard, had been the boyfriend of Veronica Robertson, a former live-in girlfriend of Kit Williams. Guard had allegedly convinced Robertson to help them find the buried jewel because both were said to be animal rights activists and Guard promised to donate any profits to the animal rights cause.
The Sunday Times alleged that while living with Williams, Robertson had learned of the approximate location of the hare, while remaining ignorant of the proper solution to the book’s master riddle. After supposedly finding out from Robertson that the hare was in Ampthill, Guard and two assistants were said to have started searching for it using metal detectors. After searching for some time with no success, they drew a crude sketch of the location, which Thompson then submitted to Williams as ‘Thomas’, and it was this that Williams acknowledged as the first correct answer.
Williams, understandably, was shocked to discover the scandal and is quoted as saying: “This tarnishes ‘Masquerade’ and I’m shocked by what has emerged. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to all those many people who were genuinely looking for it. Although I didn’t know it, it was a skeleton in my cupboard and I’m relieved it has come out.”
Dugald Thompson has rarely spoken about these allegations, but did surface in 2009 to tell the BBC that the Sunday Times account of things was wrong; but was unable to reveal how he actually found the jewel for “legal reasons“.
Robertson has always maintained her innocence in the finding of the original treasure, insisting that she never knew the location of the jewel or even which part of the world it had been buried.
Insight – a continued deception?
However, the apparent deception by Thompson and Guard may not have simply stopped with the claim on the jewel.. ..shortly after ‘locating’ the golden hare they founded a software company called “Haresoft” (which had at least two different PO Box addresses, see the cassette inlay images below). The company offered £30k or the actual golden hare as a prize for a new contest which took the form of a two computer games, under the ‘HARERAISER‘ moniker; ‘Prelude‘ and ‘Finale‘. The games, heavily advertised and released on nearly every single 8-bit platform of the time, were very simple (each being only c. 8 kilobytes in size) but cost an eye-watering £8.95 each.. ..rather suspiciously you were forced to purchase both to complete the puzzle.
Indeed the winner would have been required to send both of their game cassettes back to Haresoft (to which of the two PO Box’s being somewhat unclear) as proof of purchase !
It seems highly unlikely, based on the dubious nature of Thompson and Guard, that a solution actually exists for the games. Even when examining the underlying code, both seem to be little more than a collection of meaningless text and simplistic graphics intended to relinquish hopeful treasure-hunters of their hard-earned cash.. ..but surely, if this was a scam, it was too obvious, too easy to prove?
Well not really.. ..if pressed, it would have been fairly simple for Haresoft to concoct a spurious solution to the competition to prevent any further investigation or accusations of a ruse.
Fortunately, the public were indeed sceptical and the company and its games, were unsuccessful; ‘Haresoft’ going into liquidation shortly after launching ‘Finale‘ – which due to very poor sales is now, ironically, quite rare and collectable.
Unsurprisingly, no winner of the ‘HARERAISER’ competition was ever announced.. ..even although, Thompson and Guard reputed that TV star Anneka Rice (of ‘Treasure Hunt‘ fame) had spontaneously given a clue to complete the game at an unrecorded and undisclosed time in Hamley’s of London?!?
So, did the games present a genuine solvable puzzle and a chance to win £30k or was this a complete scam? I’ll let you decide that one for yourself!
What happened to the golden hare?
The golden hare was later auctioned at Sotheby’s in December 1988, selling for £31,900 to an anonymous buyer. Williams himself went there to bid, but dropped out at £6,000. It was put up for sale to compensate for the losses incurred by the collapse of “Haresoft”.
The treasure’s whereabouts then remained unknown for over 20 years, until it again came to light in 2009.
The BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘The Grand Masquerade’, broadcast 14th July 2009, told the story of the creation and solution of the puzzle. Williams was interviewed and presenter John O’Farrell claimed that this was the first time Williams had talked about the scandal for 20 years. During the interview Williams expressed the desire to see the hare again. Hearing this, the granddaughter of the current owner arranged for Williams to be reunited briefly with his work, which was featured in a television documentary, ‘The Man Behind the Masquerade’, which aired on BBC Four on 2nd December 2009.