You might have heard that the streets of London are paved with gold. Dick Whittington certainly thought so. I didn’t see any the last time I visited, but there may just be a grain of truth behind that story.
On this day in 1577 Martin Frobisher set sail from Harwich for the New World. Frobisher was a bit of a chancer, basically a pirate with a letter from the Queen saying that he could get on with his job. Ostensibly he was looking for the same Northwest Passage that everyone was looking for. Portugal controlled the shipping lanes all along the coast of Africa, so it was difficult for anyone else to trade with the Far East. They were hoping to find a northern route to China and India by finding a way to sail along the north coast of Canada. But Frobisher had a secret mission. He was looking for gold.
An earlier journey in 1576 to the same spot had not gone well. He set off with three ships but lost two of them on the way and five of his crew were captured by Inuit and never seen again. However, he was so confident that he has found the route, he named his landing place ‘Frobisher Passage’. They returned with a few bits and pieces they’d picked up, tokens of possession, including a small black stone “as great as a halfpenny loaf” if you can imagine such a thing. They didn’t think it was worth much to begin with. There is a story that one of the sailors was given a piece of it in payment for his services. His wife was so disgusted by it that she threw it into the fire, where it changed colour and sparkled “with a bright marquisette of gold”. Then, it was examined by experts and most of them thought it was pretty useless. Two men though, named Burchard Kranich and Jonas Schutz thought that it contained gold.
This was enough to send them on the second, much bigger, voyage. They scoured the West Country for miners to take with them and seem to have found only five. Arriving at what is now named Frobisher Bay in Canada, they spent twenty days mining ore and loading it onto their ships. They collected two hundred tons of ore. Significantly, they worked until their baskets wore out and their tools broke. This rather suggests that the men they brought may not have been miners at all, since they didn’t know how to repair the tools of their trade.
Oddly, they returned with only one hundred and forty tons of ore which was locked up in a castle in Bristol. Schutz claimed to have smelted some of the ore and found it to contain £40 worth of gold per ton. Most of it though, he told them, was trapped in the slag and what he really needed was a ‘great workes’ – a really big smelting plant to really, properly get at the gold.
Everyone was pretty excited and set off on a third voyage, this time returning with one thousand three hundred and fifty tons of ore. The smelting works were built at Dartford and everyone thought they were going to be very rich. Sadly, when the ore was treated it was found to yield very little gold. Everyone blamed Schutz for designing such a rubbish furnace but eventually it turned out that the actual problem was that there wasn’t really any gold in the ore in the first place. What it most likely contained were crystals of iron pyrite, which is also called ‘Fools Gold’ and clearly not without reason.
Surprisingly, both Frobisher and Schutz survived the debacle. Frobisher was later knighted for his services in the battle against the Spanish Armada and Schutz went to work for the king of Scotland. His ‘great workes’ were sold and eventually became England’s first paper mill. As for the ore, once it was found to be valueless it was smashed up and used as gravel to pave the streets of London.