Kit Williams’s Golden Hare, Part 1: The Contest

20 May
Kit Williams with a hare -- not the famous golden one.

Kit Williams with a hare — but not the famous golden one.

Fair warning: there is an image below that may be Not Safe For Work!

On a gray Saturday morning in March of 1976, two nattily dressed London sophisticates left the city, driving west toward the decidedly unfashionable environs of rural Gloucestershire. One of the two was Eric Lister, owner of a quirky art gallery called the Portal. The other had a much higher profile. At age 42, Tom Maschler was already something of a living legend in the world of publishing. He had become the chief editor of the storied but musty publishing firm of Jonathan Cape back in 1960, and promptly made his name by purchasing the British rights to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for all of £250 and turning the book into a literary sensation in Britain well before it struck a nerve in Heller’s own homeland of the United States. The list of authors he proceeded to published in the next 27 years reads like a who’s who of late-twentieth-century literary fiction: Thomas Pynchon, Roald Dahl, John Fowles, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez, Bruce Chatwin, Ian McEwan. In the late 1960s, he played an instrumental role in establishing the Man Booker Prize, the most prestigious award in modern British literature. Coincidentally or not, a disproportionate percentage of Maschler’s writers won the award in the years that followed.

But it wasn’t all high-toned literature for Tom Maschler. He first demonstrated his knack for the populist as well as the prestigious early on, when at the height of Beatlemania he procured for Jonathan Cape two books of John Lennon’s prose, poetry, and drawings. They both become bestsellers, cementing Lennon’s popular reputation as “the smart Beatle.” A pattern had been established, of Maschler as not just a curator of fine literature but a curator of books that sold. He possessed a gift for identifying just the right book to suit the popular zeitgeist of any given instant — or, alternately, for bending the zeitgeist to suit whatever he happened to have on offer.

It was more his role as a publisher of popular books than of fine literature that sent Maschler out to Gloucestershire in March of 1976. During the years immediately previous to the trip, he had sniffed out a market for lavishly illustrated children’s books — both classics and originals — which could find a home on the coffee tables of adults as well. Books like The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast had done very well for Jonathan Cape; indeed, The Butterfly Ball had been turned into a double-album rock opera by Roger Glover of Deep Purple fame. After visiting the Portal Gallery for a show by an artist named Kit Williams, Maschler had either suggested to Lister or Lister had suggested to Maschler — the two men’s memories would forever diverge on this question — a children’s book featuring Williams’s fantastic paintings. Thus this trip to visit the artist, who lived like the hermit he was in a moss-covered cottage in the middle of nowhere.

Kit Williams outside the Gloucestershire cottage where Masquerade was proposed, conceived, and executed.

Kit Williams outside the Gloucestershire cottage where Masquerade was proposed, conceived, and executed.

For most of its duration, the lunch-time meeting, conducted around Williams’s kitchen table whilst munching on the homespun country fare he served up, wasn’t especially productive. Williams was polite, but was fundamentally uninterested in the idea of a children’s book. He’d taken the meeting at all only as a favor to Lister. He was a painter, not a writer, he patiently explained. Fair enough, came the reply from Maschler; we can partner you with a writer. But no, no, that wasn’t how Williams worked; he worked alone on his art, doing absolutely everything himself.

Knowingly or accidentally, Maschler finally said the words that would make the book a reality just as he and Lister were walking out the door: “I still think you could do something that no one has ever done before.” The parting shot was perfectly pitched to strike its target just where it counted. Kit Williams, who could come across upon first meeting like one of the timid creatures of the forest he so delighted in painting, wasn’t quite what he seemed. His psyche harbored unexpected seams of stubbornness, pride, competitiveness, and even showmanship. Maschler’s words sounded like a challenge, and a challenge was something he found very hard to resist. Out of the blue some weeks later, long after Maschler had written off the meeting as a bust, Williams called his office to tell him he’d do the book after all. Just like that, Masquerade, soon to become the greatest mass treasure hunt of all time, was begun.

Born in Kent in 1946, Kit Williams had spent his life defying expectations. Take, for instance, the first thing any new acquaintance must remark about him, even if she’s too polite to say anything about it: the fact that his eyes point in different directions. What first seems a classic case of an untreated lazy eye is something much more unusual. Williams actually enjoys, or has cultivated, a peculiar ocular ambidexterity. When driving in traffic, admittedly not a frequent occupation for this lifelong hermit, he keeps one eye on the mirror, the other on the road in front of him. When he’s feeling tired, he might close one eye, getting it some literal shuteye while the other continues about its business, much to the alarm of his passengers if he happens to be driving. Far from being a handicap, his “lazy eye” is sort of like… well, it’s sort of like a superpower really. That’s just the way things are with Kit Williams.

Williams was a maker virtually from the moment he could walk, tinkering endlessly with machines and electronics. At age 12, he made for his family their first television set, using an orange crate for the case and a pair of knitting needles for the control knobs. He thought for a while that he wanted to be a scientist. Yet his talents never translated into success at school; his peculiar genius for making things, if genius it be, would always be intuitive, not intellectual. He counts as a defining moment the one in which he realized that he didn’t really want to be a scientist at all; he wanted to be a mad scientist, like the ones he saw on his homemade television. So he dropped out of school and ran away to join the Royal Navy.

That didn’t go any better than had his schooling. Once again, Williams realized he’d been attracted to the romantic notion of sailing, as seen on his orange-crate television, rather than the reality; he had wanted Horatio Hornblower, not the workaday grind of being an enlisted seaman aboard a modern aircraft carrier. He spent most of his time as a sailor trying to convince the Navy they’d made a mistake in signing him to a six-year stint. After four years, they finally came to agree with him, letting him buy himself out of the rest of his enlistment for £200. Free at last, Williams settled down to the life he continues to live to this day: dwelling in rural seclusion, painting and building things when not tramping through the forest communing with nature. In 1973, Eric Lister’s Portal Gallery hosted the first public exhibition of his art.

"Penning Wedding," a typical example of Kit Williams's art: intricate, idiosyncratic, fantastic, and a little transgressive.

“Penny Wedding,” a typical example of Kit Williams’s art: intricate, idiosyncratic, fantastic, and a little transgressive.

Kit Williams’s paintings weren’t (and aren’t) the sort to win much traction with the scholars, critics, and tastemakers of contemporary fine art. Representational and literal when the abstract and the conceptual were all the rage, they seemed blissfully if not defiantly ignorant of every contemporary trend. Williams is rather part of a deeper, far older tradition in British and Irish culture. It’s a pastoral tradition, imbued with the sunlit beauty of hedges and hills, fields and streams, but also keenly aware of the darker, dangerous sides of nature and life. You can find it in Shakespeare, particularly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest; you can find it in Tolkien, particularly in the Old Forest and its inhabitant Tom Bombadil; you can find it in Watership Down; you can find it in the music of Anthony Phillips and the Canterbury scene. Like those works, much of Williams’s art is vaguely disturbing in a way that distinguishes it from the paint-by-numbers pablum that is most fantastic art. He loves to pepper his meticulously constructed pastoral imagery with jarring obscenities and frank eroticism. He especially loves to show fully clothed older men in the company of nubile young female nudes. Whether you find the motif alluring or simply creepy, it’s not quickly forgotten.

Surprisingly, it was the reclusive artist Kit Williams rather than the master popularizer Tom Maschler who came up with the idea of turning his children’s book into an elaborate puzzle and a treasure hunt — truly a publicity stunt for the ages. The idea arose, like most brilliant masterstrokes, from a mishmash of source material. Williams hated the way most people tended to flip through picture books quickly rather than lavish on the images the sort of attention they gave to words. He therefore wanted to give people a reason to spend some time lingering over his pictures. He fondly remembered the Victorian puzzle books he had enjoyed in his childhood, which challenged the viewer to find smaller pictures hidden inside larger. He less fondly remembered the cereal boxes which had promised him a hunt for “Buried Treasure” that proved to mean only a random drawing for some useless trinket. And, while Williams would always downplay the commercial motivation, he must have been keenly aware that a literary treasure hunt held the potential to sell a lot of books and make his chosen lifestyle of rural seclusion a much more worry-free one.

The Kit Williams who phoned Tom Maschler to tell him about his idea was a very different character from the reticent one the latter had met over lunch weeks before. A tangled torrent of words about riddles and hidden treasure tumbled over themselves in their rush to get out. Maschler didn’t fully understand it, but didn’t really feel he needed to. He heard the germ of a brilliant concept more than well enough, and told Williams to by all means get on with it. He issued only one stipulation, born of his awareness of his new author’s usual artistic predilections: there could be no profanity, no nudity, and no sex. This was, after all, at least ostensibly still to be a children’s book.

Masquerade was first a puzzle, then a collection of pictures, and finally a story, which corresponds pretty well to the importance of its various elements in the mind of Williams. After working out the puzzle, he embedded its clues into 15 largely unrelated paintings that were probably not all that different from what he might have created had he been painting them for his next Portal Gallery exhibition rather than the book (minus Maschler’s family-friendly stipulations, of course). Executed by Williams with his usual fussy meticulousness, these absorbed the vast majority of the three years it took him to deliver the finished book. Finally, he bound the paintings together with some 4000 words of rambling nonsense improvised to fit the pictures, about a hare named Jack who must carry a token of the Moon’s love to the Sun. Capped off with a title that bore no relation to the story, Masquerade wasn’t exactly a children’s classic. But, judged Williams and Maschler alike, it would do. The real point of it all was the treasure hunt.

The first of the book's pictures. The "one of six to eight" around the border is one of the few clues to the real puzzle transmitted in the clear, and the one that came to be understood by just about everyone who got close to the hare's resting place.

The first of the book’s pictures. The “one of six to eight” around the border is one of the few clues to the real puzzle transmitted in the clear. It’s also unique in that it came to be understood by just about everyone who got close to the hare’s resting place.

I don’t want to spend too much time here dwelling on the structure of the puzzle. In the years since Masquerade‘s publication, it’s been spoiled many times in painstaking detail, and there’s little I can add to that body of work. Its solution hinges on following the gaze of the various characters in the pictures through the angles formed by their fingers and toes to pick out individual letters from the poetic phrases that frame the paintings. Suffice to say that, created in complete isolation by a man who lays claim to no intrinsic interest in solving or creating puzzles, it’s not a very good one. While there is a definite logic to its solution, that logic is all but impossible to divine except after the fact. To complete cluelessness as to the nature of the puzzle, its starting point, or what parts of the book are important to it — the entirety of the 4000 words of text, for example, is completely meaningless — must be added the dozens of false trails and red herrings that Williams, sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently, sprinkled through his pictures. Small wonder that not a single one of the tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who would soon be earnestly poring over Masquerade would ever solve it without outside help.

Looking back on Masquerade today, the most striking thing about its gestation is how much faith Tom Maschler and Jonathan Cape as a whole placed in their unproven puzzle-maker. Williams explained the puzzle to no one at Jonathan Cape prior to the book going to press. Maschler’s entire operation simply assumed that Williams’s puzzle would hang together, assumed Williams was operating in good faith. As a book publisher rather than a publisher of games or puzzles, they were equipped to do little else. Their editors knew how to correct Williams’s atrocious spelling and straighten out his grammar, but they had no idea how to measure the quality and solubility of his puzzle. If the end result has its problems, it could have been much, much worse. At least there was a solution, and the after-the-fact logic used to arrive at it hung together. A less fortunate Jonathan Cape might have been hauled into court on charges of fraud.

Kit Williams and Bamber Gascoigne set off to bury the hare on the evening of August 7, 1979.

Kit Williams and Bamber Gascoigne set off to bury the hare on the evening of August 7, 1979.

The first and last person to whom Kit Williams ever explained his puzzle in detail was Bamber Gascoigne, a well-liked and well-respected television presenter. Maschler recruited Gascoigne to serve as a witness and honest broker for the night of August 7, 1979, when Williams set off in his battered old plumber’s van to bury Masquerade‘s treasure. Said treasure took the form of a five-inch hare made out of gold, turquoise, ruby, and quartz, created by Williams himself in his home workshop and worth at least £3000 in raw materials alone. The burial spot was Ampthill Park, near the small Bedfordshire town of the same name in central England, a place Williams had become familiar with when he had lived nearby before moving to Gloucestershire. A reader who solved the puzzle would be able to find the hare by digging at the tip of the shadow cast by a stone cross — a memorial to Catherine of Aragon, first wife to Henry VIII — at noon on the spring equinox. Williams had long since marked the spot by shallowly burying a magnet whose location could be detected with a compass.

The Golden Hare

The Golden Hare

Williams explained the entirety of the puzzle to Gascoigne on the drive up. The latter was immediately concerned that the puzzle was “infinitely more complex than Kit realized,” that “Kit’s judgment was distorted by the fact that he himself had thought of the riddle and its answer.” He felt himself in a very uncomfortable position, to the point of regretting having taken the assignment at all.

Kit had explained to me the basis of his puzzle, but even with that privileged information I was unable to make it work out. The cause of my growing uneasiness was the thought that if it was in fact impossibly difficult, then I was the only person in the world in a position to form that opinion. Kit considered it very possible, even perhaps dangerously easy, because he himself had invented it. The publishers considered it possible because Kit had told them it was. But if my hunch was right, and if people all over the world were beating out their brains and emptying their pockets in pursuit of the unattainable, what should I do? Insert a notice in The Times to the effect that Masquerade was insoluble? I would not have been popular in 30 Bedford Square [home of Jonathan Cape]. Yet clearly the one passenger who believes that a train is hurtling off the rails has an obligation sooner or later to pull the communication cord.

In the end, Gascoigne judged there was nothing for it but to let the show go on. For the next two and a half years, only he and Williams would know the location of the most sought-after pinprick of ground in Britain.

As publication day drew near, Maschler pulled strings in the media to ensure a splashy launch, including a full-color write-up in the Sunday Observer magazine and a segment on BBC News. The latter falsely claimed to show Williams leaving his cottage to bury the hare, then returning after having done the deed. Judging from the quality of the light, very little time seemed to have passed between his departure and his return. Many a treasure hunter would thus conclude that the hare must be buried close by in rural Gloucestershire — just one more red herring among many.

The publicity worked. Demand quickly exceeded Jonathan Cape’s initial print run of 60,000 copies, considered quite ambitious for a children’s book from an unknown author. Bestseller charts from the Christmas season of 1979, when Masquerade‘s sales reached their British peak, show it outselling Frederick Forsyth’s latest thriller as the most popular book in the land. After Williams and Maschler made it clear that anyone who simply wrote in to describe precisely where the hare was buried would be considered the winner — traveling to the spot and actually digging it up beforehand weren’t required — foreign editions pushed sales beyond 1 million copies. Sales in the United States alone may have equaled those in Britain, while readers in non-English-speaking countries struggled with the untranslated text surrounding the pictures but persevered anyway. Only Masquerade‘s Italian publisher sought and was granted permission to make a proper translation, devising their own puzzle and making their own hare, a clone of Williams’s original. Much more merciful than Williams’s puzzle, the Italian puzzle was solved and the hare found by a reader in relatively short order in comparison to the English edition.

The Italian version of the hare -- or rather, a message in a box telling the finder whom to contact to collect it -- was hidden beneath the heel of this striking statue of Neptune that is carved into a cliff near the village of Monterosso al Mare.

The Italian version of the hare — or rather, a message in a box telling the finder whom to contact to collect it — was hidden beneath the heel of this striking but little-visited statue of Neptune carved into a cliff near the village of Monterosso al Mare.

Like so many of Maschler’s earlier masterstrokes, Masquerade seemed to strike precisely the right cultural nerve at precisely the right moment. While there have been plenty of superficially similar public treasure hunts since — virtually all of them inspired by this one — none have ever enjoyed participation on anything like the same scale. For two and a half years, Britain and to some extent the United States as well had Masquerade fever. Rod Argent, former leader of 1960s hit-makers the Zombies, composed a musical based on the book that played to packed houses at London’s Young Vic theater. An enterprising charter airline called Laker Airways started running “Masquerade tours” from the United States to Britain; passengers were presented with a commemorative spade to aid their digging as they stepped off the plane.

Kit Williams became an international celebrity, courted by every newspaper, magazine, and talk show in the Western World. In later years he would come to speak of his fifteen minutes of fame in nightmarish terms, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that he wasn’t above enjoying his celebrity on occasion as well. By the time of a two-week promotional tour of the United States in September of 1980, he had taken to wearing bright green leprechaun shoes below a kaleidoscopic wardrobe and prancing about like the magical little forest sprite his hosts on the morning-show circuit so dearly wanted him to be, complete with bushy red hair, bright red beard, and that disconcerting wandering eye. As Maschler could have told him (and perhaps did), sometimes you just have to give the people what they want.

If the naivete of Jonathan Cape in not bothering to make sure that Masquerade‘s puzzle was viable is striking, equally so is their failure to plan for the thousands of mailed solutions that flooded their post box, especially after the announcement that treasure seekers could win without ever having to venture forth with spade in hand. With no one at Jonathan Cape having the first clue about the puzzle, all of the mail was packed up and shipped off to Williams’s cottage in sacks, hundreds of letters at a time. It’s here that we come to the real nightmare of the thing for Williams: forced to go through the letters one by one, making sure none contained the correct solution, he had no time left to do his art. He quickly noticed a difference between British and American treasure hunters — a difference into which you can read whatever cultural implications you will. British puzzlers tended to send in detailed, carefully worked-through solutions — albeit breathtakingly wrong ones — sometimes running to more words and pages than Masquerade itself. Americans, meanwhile, just guessed, throwing every British landmark they could think of at the wall in the hope that one would stick. When that failed, there were always abstractions like Love, Life, and Peace to be tried, which rather left one wondering whether these answerers had even understood the question.

Thanks to its name and its location in Kit Williams's known home of Gloucestershire, the protected area around Haresfield Beacon became one of the most popular spots for digging. The National Trust finally felt compelled to put up a sign warning treasure hunters away. They billed Williams £50 for their efforts.

Thanks to its name and its location in Kit Williams’s known home of Gloucestershire, the protected nature preserve around Haresfield Beacon became one of the most popular spots for digging. The National Trust finally felt compelled to put up a sign warning treasure hunters away. They billed Williams £50 for their efforts.

Children, supposedly the intended audience for the book all along, sent some of the most entertaining answers.

I am ten. Your puzzle is easy. The hare is in the Isles of Scilly. I think they are in England. It is hidden on the island of Samson. There are two hills on the island. The treasure is on the north hill. In an old grave. It is a moldy old grave. It is only a little island, so you know the one. Please send it to me. Your hare is very pretty. Thank you.

P.S. My mom said she will send this to you. I hope you will write another book and let me hide the hare. I think I could do better than you.

P.S. I am almost ten.

I hereby demand that to the solution of Masquerade the answer is that the Hare lost the precious jewel when he jumped into the fire.

I am 8 years old. But please would you tell me if Masquerade is in the Lake District or not.

P.S. My love is for a pony. But I have no money at all. I have no clue where it is. I don’t think I will ever find it.

Many of the adult treasure hunters drew elaborate, invariably false connections to British history, literature, culture, from Samuel Coleridge to Lewis Carroll, Isaac Newton to Francis Drake. The one important clue referencing British history in the book, the phrase “one of six to eight” on the border of the first picture, was thunderingly obvious in comparison to the connections devised by some of his correspondents: it referred to Catherine of Aragon, first of the six wives of Henry VIII, near whose memorial in Ampthill Park the hare was buried. Hare seekers could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they’d just known Kit Williams. Again, his was an intuitive mind, not an intellectual one. He had absolutely no idea what most of his more erudite correspondents were on about.

But then, some refused to believe that Kit Williams himself was whom he said he was. One of the more persistent hunters continued to believe even after the hare was claimed and the puzzle revealed that it had all been cover for another, deeper puzzle devised by none other than Agatha Christie, the queen of British mysteries, on her death bed.

Numerological theories were very popular. One hunter spent 16 months working his way through the slim book, devising ever more complex theories by assigning values to and performing mathematical operations on groups of letters. Like the Agatha Christie fan and a distressing number of others, this hunter continued to believe in and pursue his theory even after the hare had been claimed. “I’m not bright enough to have made up the things I’ve been finding,” he said. His stubborn belief is one more aspect of Masquerade as psychological experiment, proof of the human mind’s determination to see patterns in everything. Masquerade became a new, far more compelling version of the Rorschach test; the most dedicated seekers saw exactly what they wanted to see therein.

Some hunters were convinced that Kit Williams was traveling around the country like the mischievous leprechaun he played on television, making clues — smoke signals were a popular possibility — erasing them, and/or just generally screwing with people’s heads. At least one began to suspect his drinking buddies down at his local pub, who kept trying to dissuade him from his obsession and advance their own theories to replace his, of being secret agents employed by Williams to throw him off the scent. The same gentleman caused some consternation in his village when he pulled some fifty yards of municipal cabling out of the ground, convinced that if he traced it to its end he’d find the hare.

Others decided the puzzle could be solved by replacing inspiration with perspiration. One practical-minded soul reasoned that all he had to do to find the hare was to scour every likely spot in Britain with a metal detector. He “wore a complete brand new car out, knocked out a complete brand new Audi” trying to do just that.

A woman in Wyoming hit upon the idea of sending off every single pairing of latitude and longitude in Britain, stated in degrees and minutes, one after another in letter after letter. She holds the record as the most prolific of all Williams’s correspondents, having sometimes mailed off dozens of letters in a single day. Even had she stumbled upon the right location — impossible in actuality, as Williams was looking for a much more precise answer and had little idea himself where the hare lay in terms of latitude and longitude — one has to wonder whether the hare’s value would have been enough to offset her postal bill.

But then, one could similarly question the effort-to-potential-reward ratio in the case of many of the treasure hunters. The hare was undoubtedly a pretty bauble, and undoubtedly worth a pretty penny, but there was clearly something more than the desire for material gain motivating its most dedicated seekers.

As Masquerade passed the one-year anniversary of its publication and Williams continued to report that no one had yet come within a mile of the methodology behind the puzzle, much less begun to solve it, Tom Maschler was starting to get nervous. An undercurrent of suspicious grumbling was starting to surface among both treasure hunters and the media. It seemed impossible to many that so many people could have been on the case for so long without managing to crack it. The unexciting but accurate explanation for the situation, that of a bad puzzle created in good faith, eluded those primed for outrage. The only possible explanation, they reasoned, must be skulduggery. Did Masquerade contain a real puzzle at all? Had the golden hare ever really been buried? Had someone (or many someones) solved the puzzle months ago, only to be hushed up or ignored by Kit Williams and/or Jonathan Cape, who were making lots of money selling books and wanted the contest to continue?

The thirteenth clue that appeared in The Times, and that would allow a pair of physics teachers to crack the puzzle wide open.

The thirteenth clue that appeared in The Times, and that would allow a pair of physics teachers to finally crack the puzzle wide open. If you fold the bottom three lines of the scroll up over the top three, shine a light on the paper from behind, and read it in a mirror, you reveal a (cryptic) secret message.

Perhaps becoming concerned himself about the veracity and solubility of a puzzle he still understood not at all, Maschler proposed to Williams that he use an upcoming feature interview in The Times to reveal a new clue that would hopefully push some people toward the solution before the grumbling reached a fever pitch. Williams, who was starting to wonder if he would ever again be able to paint pictures rather than spend his days opening envelopes, readily agreed. Thus in the December 21, 1980, edition of The Times, a new picture was revealed, much rougher than the ones in the book but containing, if you worked at it long enough and thought about it laterally enough, a vital piece of information about the puzzle’s central premise of following the gazes of the figures to find certain letters along the borders of the pictures. Doling out the additional clue in this way wasn’t quite fair, for The Times was widely available only to British readers. Treasure hunters in the United States and elsewhere largely never even knew of the additional clue’s existence.

One could make similar accusations against plenty of other aspects of the haphazardly run contest. Kit Williams could be far from the ideal neutral arbitrator, as is amply illustrated by the story of Peter Ormandy of Cumbria, the failed puzzle solver who came the most tantalizingly close to his goal.

Ormandy had, somewhat oddly, fixated on only the “six to eight” in “one of six to eight,” deciding that it must refer to the sixth and final of Henry VIII’s wives, Catherine Parr, rather than the first. Legend has it that it was Catherine Parr who convinced Henry to found Trinity College, Cambridge. Therefore, Ormandy reasoned, the hare must be buried at Trinity College. (If the logic sounds strained, know that Ormandy’s reasoning is practically scientific in comparison to the theories of many other hare hunters.) When he sent his reasoning and his solution off to Williams, the latter couldn’t resist adding something to the standard form-letter rejection: “One day you’ll kick yourself.”

The insertion of Isaac Newton into the twelfth picture sent heaps of seekers scurrying in the wrong direction. The "plank" at the far left with the bell attached sent Peter Ormandy scurrying in the right direction, albeit for reasons never intended by Kit Williams.

The insertion of Isaac Newton into the twelfth picture sent heaps of seekers scurrying in the wrong direction. The “plank” at the far left with the bell attached sent Peter Ormandy scurrying in the right direction, albeit for reasons never intended by Kit Williams.

Realizing he must be getting warm, Ormandy managed to get hold of Williams’s phone number. He called him up for a chat, wheedling him for whatever further hints he might let drop. He came away with a strong impression that he had the wrong wife of Henry VIII. Another reading of “one of six to eight” gave him a pretty good idea which wife he really ought to be focusing on. He began researching all of the places in Britain connected with Catherine of Aragon.  With his list of such places in hand, he connected the book’s frequent references to morning — “A.M.” — and evening — “P.M.” — to AMPthill. Noting that “thill” means “plank” in Old English, he believed the rest of the name to be provided by a picture that included a plank. And to the plank was attached a bell, which Ormandy optimistically concluded would likely be rung at morning and evening — thus yet another reference to A.M. and P.M. By entirely erroneous reasoning, he had arrived at the correct location of Ampthill Park.

Peter Ormandy sent in with his solution this picture of the Amtphill Part Memorial and the hare's possible resting place beneath it.

Peter Ormandy sent in with his solution this picture of the Ampthill Park memorial and the hare’s possible resting place beneath it.

On September 6, 1981, he sent Williams his solution. Still unaware of exactly where the hare might be buried in the vicinity of the Ampthill Park memorial, he included a drawing showing it at the farthest rightward extent of the cross’s horizontal bar. As it happened, his guess was within twenty feet of the real burial spot. Williams, perhaps made nervous by the help he had given Ormandy, perhaps wanting to actively throw Ormandy off the scent in light of that help and the scandal it might cause, now did something that seems a little inexplicable by any other logic. He sent a form letter to his fifteen or twenty most persistent correspondents, including Ormandy.

Unfortunately, your recent solution is incorrect. Because there has been a solution submitted that was as little as twenty feet from the exact spot, I am unable to comment upon any solution that is not absolutely precise. I was unable to help that person and therefore feel it only fair that I should not help others.

Ormandy quite understandably read this missive to indicate that he was not in fact “that person” whom Williams refers to in the third person, but rather one of the “others.” He shifted his attention elsewhere, focusing next on Bournemouth, and that was that.

Even as Ormandy was coming so tantalizing close through luck, intuition, and social engineering at poor Kit’s expense, two physics teachers named Mike Barker and John Rousseau were also homing in on Ampthill Park by following a much more rigorous line of inquiry. The two came late to the game, on New Years Day 1981, when they spent an afternoon looking at the book that Rousseau had originally bought for his daughters. “We’ll be the ones to do this,” said Rousseau to his friend. “It needs a couple of physicists.” After following many false leads, the two became convinced, correctly, that the key to the puzzle lay in the phrases surrounding each picture. They noted the odd spacing of the bordering messages, as if Williams was sometimes crowding and sometimes elongating the text to make sure that certain letters wound up in exactly the right spot. They decided, again correctly, that there must be a way to use angles in the pictures to pick out individual letters from those phrases.

Right about the time that Ormandy was sending in his answer, they were decoding the additional Times clue, becoming the first and possibly only people ever to independently discover the full methodology of the puzzle — albeit, of course, only with the help of that one outside clue. By year’s end they had completely solved the puzzle, deducing that the hare must lay at the fullest extent of the shadow cast by the Ampthill Park memorial on the spring equinox. But, scientists that they were, they decided they needed to verify their discovery by actually digging up the hare before sending the conclusion of their research off to Jonathan Cape and Kit Williams. And to do that, they needed to wait for the spring equinox.

John Rousseau with (Mike's wife) Celia Barker and Mike Barker at Ampthill Park with Mike's homemade inclinometer.

John Rousseau with (Mike’s wife) Celia Barker and Mike Barker at Ampthill Park with Mike’s homemade inclinometer.

Or did they? They were, after all, physicists. After an initial investigatory trip to Ampthill Park on January 4, 1982, Mike Barker retired to his Manchester garage to construct an “inclinometer,” a device that would let him pinpoint the position where the tip of the shadow would be come the equinox. On February 18, he returned to Ampthill Park to dig at what he calculated with the aid of his new gadget to be the correct spot. He didn’t find the hare.

The question of why he didn’t find the hare is a mystery that will never be satisfactorily resolved. We know that he and Rousseau had completely and correctly unraveled the puzzle’s logic. We also can feel reasonably certain, based on events that would follow, that the inclinometer worked, that he was digging in the correct spot. We’re thus left with two possibilities. One is that Barker did in fact dig up the hare, but missed it. Williams had sealed it inside a small clay-colored pottery container, which would have been easy enough to miss amidst the mounds of earth extracted from the hole on a bleak February day. On the other hand, the idea that Barker could have been so careless at this final instant as not to thoroughly sift through the earth does contrast markedly with the dogged methodicalness he and Rousseau had demonstrated at every previous stage of the hunt. Television, newspapers, and magazines had many times shown Kit sealing the hare inside its earthen container; it’s not as if Barker could have been expecting to see the glint of gold inside the hole.

We must therefore consider another possibility, much as Kit Williams and the principals behind the contest undoubtedly wish we wouldn’t: the possibility that Williams buried the hare in the wrong spot, the wrong distance from the memorial. He was after all not a scientist himself — or at any rate only a mad one. Williams later admitted that the sun hadn’t actually been shining on that equinox of years before when he’d buried a magnet to mark the hare’s future position, that he’d dead-reckoned the right spot based on the shadow’s position shortly before and shortly after noon. Did he dead-reckon correctly? We’ll never know.

A deeply disappointed Barker and Rousseau were left to wonder if their whole chain of reasoning had been incorrect, if they’d fallen victim to another of Kit Williams’s cruel red herrings. Barker decided to return to Ampthill Park on the spring equinox, due a little over a month hence, to see if his inclinometer had somehow led him astray. If it had, he would dig again at the correct spot. If it hadn’t, he’d write to Kit Williams at last — such a letter would mark Barker and Rousseau’s first actual correspondence with the man behind Masquerade — outlining all of their discoveries and reasoning, just to see where it got them.

But by the time the equinox arrived, the point was moot; the hare had been dug up and the contest declared finished. Barker and Rousseau’s insistence on confirming their solution with their own spades proved their undoing. While they sat on their answer, constructing inclinometers and puzzling over the nonexistence of the hare where it was supposed to be, another, less scrupulous character was dashing in to snatch the prize away from them.

It’s at this late stage, then, that the villain of Masquerade appears at last. We’ll call him “Ken Thomas” for today, the name under which he first introduced himself to Kit Williams.

"Ken Thomas"'s original letter to Kit Williams, with its rough (and incorrect) depiction of the hare's position in relation to the Ampthill Park memorial. Although the letter is dated February 5, it wasn't posted until February 17 -- just one more of the unanswered questions surrounding the whole affair.

“Ken Thomas’s” original letter to Kit Williams, with its rough (and incorrect) depiction of the hare’s position in relation to the Ampthill Park memorial. Although the letter is dated February 5, it wasn’t posted until February 17 — just one more of the unanswered questions surrounding the whole affair.

On February 19, the day after Barker had gone out digging at Ampthill Park, Williams received a letter from Thomas. In the interests of security in case anyone should open the letter ahead of Williams, the park itself wasn’t named, but Thomas included a drawing that clearly showed the monument and surrounding landmarks, with the location of the hare marked in what looked to be approximately the right place. Eager as he was by this point for the contest to just be over, Williams leaped to the phone to inform Thomas that “You’ve got it!” All that remained was to go out to Ampthill Park and dig it up. To his shock, the man at the other end of the line sounded grumpy at having been disturbed, and informed him in no uncertain terms that he had a cold that day and certainly didn’t plan to go digging in this weather, thank you very much. That was Williams’s introduction to the sketchy, confounding, deeply unsatisfactory winner of the greatest public treasure hunt in history. Subsequent impressions would do nothing to improve on the first.

The story that Thomas begrudgingly told never did quite add up; he was either the luckiest man in Britain or something important was being left out. By his testimony, he had first come to Bedfordshire on the trail of the hare the previous summer. Aware that Williams had once lived there, he was looking for something, anything, that might parallel something from the book. Driving by Ampthill Park, he stopped to take his dog for a walk. He first noticed the memorial to Catherine of Aragon in the most banal way possible: his dog lifted a leg to pee on it. His thoughts, he claimed, immediately turned to the phrase “one of six to eight.”

Many months later — the delay, like so much else about Thomas’s story, went unexplained — he returned to Ampthill Park with a spade. This time he noticed a line of five neat holes that had been dug on a line running northward from the cross. Who might have dug these holes was a mystery, but Thomas decided they were worth further investigation. He visited Amphill Park on every one of the next eight nights, just days before Barker would arrive for his dig. He dug all along the line between the holes, but found nothing. At last, frustrated, he decided to send his crude sketch of the area and his best guess of where the hare might lie to Williams. Maybe it on its own would be good enough. Much to everyone but Thomas’s regret, Williams’s snap judgment declared it to be just that.

Even if we accept Thomas’s entire story at face value — something that’s very difficult to do — he should never have won the contest. The line on which he and his unknown other digger (assuming he existed) dug was oriented to the magnetic north of the memorial, not the true north of the sun at noon on the spring equinox. Barker had seen what may have been the remnants of Thomas’s dig on his February visit, noting the trench as a worrisome “slight depression” in the ground that might indicate someone else was hot on the same trail as he and Rousseau. In the end, though, he had put the depression out of his mind because it was in the wrong place. Thomas was little closer to his quarry than Peter Ormandy had been five months previously. Like Ormandy, he had solved virtually nothing of the real puzzle beyond “one of six to eight.” Like Ormandy, all the other connections he tried to make with Ampthill were accidents never intended by Williams. If Thomas’s answer was good enough, so should have been Ormandy’s.

None of this, it seems safe to say, was entirely lost on Kit Williams. When it began to dawn on him during that first unpleasant phone conversation how little Thomas really knew, he tried to step back from his declaration of a victor. Thomas would, of course, still have to dig up the hare before the whole thing was finalized, said an increasingly guarded Williams. Not quite sure what to do next, Thomas returned to Ampthill Park on February 20, the day after talking to Williams. There he immediately noticed a fresh hole, dug in the correct place by Mike Barker two days before. He spent the next three nights digging inward from Barker’s hole, toward the memorial, without success. He then contacted Williams again, who was flummoxed himself. If the hare really isn’t there, Williams said, the press must be contacted, as someone had apparently dug it up without telling anyone. With that statement, he confirmed once and for all for Thomas that he was digging in the correct place; he clearly wouldn’t have made a good poker player. On February 24, Thomas returned to Ampthill Park one last time, this time by daylight in the company of a friend. He found the hare, snug inside its bed of pottery, among the already turned-up earth. Whether he himself had dug it up and missed it or Mike Barker had done so earlier is, like so much about these final days of the contest, impossible to ever really know.

Ken Thomas wasn’t the winner that Kit Williams or Tom Maschler wanted, but, given the sloppy naivete with which they’d handled the whole contest, he was perhaps the winner they deserved. After informing Williams that he had found the hare, Thomas suddenly disappeared for a week, throwing everyone into a tither. When he surfaced again, he told Maschler that he would, on the condition of strict anonymity — “Ken Thomas,” everyone now learned, was a pseudonym — agree to do exactly one newspaper and one television interview in addition to appearing at the public unveiling of the hare. In every other respect, he was as uncooperative as could be. When the Victoria and Albert Museum asked if they might borrow the hare to display it publicly for a while as a memento of what had become a significant episode in British cultural history, he refused absolutely. At the unveiling, he appeared clothed like a homeless man, a cap pulled down low over his eyes, his back turned whenever possible to the camera, and refused to say a word. His single television interview took place, at his demand, behind a frosted pane of glass, his voice electronically distorted, like a Mafia kingpin turned state’s evidence.

A very reticent "Ken Thomas" with Kit Williams and Tom Maschler at the hare's unveiling.

A very reticent “Ken Thomas” with Kit Williams and Tom Maschler at the hare’s unveiling.

No one was more disappointed by Thomas than Tom Maschler, whose well-oiled publicity machine had been all primed to make an instant celebrity of whoever first solved the puzzle. The blow was felt all the more keenly about a week after Thomas’s anointment as winner, when Mike Barker and John Rousseau belatedly contacted Williams with the complete and correct solution. These two personable schoolteachers, who had solved the puzzle the way Williams had intended it to be solved, would have made a vastly preferable alternative to a sullen weirdo who dressed in rags. With such a vortex of anti-charisma now at center stage, Masquerade, for so long an ongoing media obsession, petered out about as quietly and anticlimactically as imaginable. The only thing left was the grumbling, of which there was plenty, and for good reason. Everyone knew this “Ken Thomas” was a cheat. Even if one accepted every word of and put the best possible spin on his story, he had still used guile rather than smarts to claim the hare.

But, as so many suspected, his true guile ran much deeper than his own story would have one believe. He was a cheat, and the full depth of his cheating would only come to light some six and a half years later. The Masquerade contest had ended in anticlimax and dark talk of scandal, but the full story was as yet far from told.

Next time, we’ll try once again to figure out this Ken Thomas character, and while we’re at it we’ll also tackle the less juicy but ultimately more important mission of understanding just how much Masquerade came to mean for our special interest around these parts: the world of computer gaming.

(Sources: The Quest for the Golden Hare by Bamber Gascoigne; Publisher by Tom Maschler; the paperback edition of Masquerade itself, which includes a foreword by Kit Williams and the complete solution to the puzzle in an appendix; “Talent Spotter” by Nicola Wroe from the March 12, 2005 issue of The Guardian; “Unmasked: The Masquerade Con” by Barrie Penrose and John Davison from the December 11, 1988 issue of The Times; the website Masquerade and the Mysteries of Kit Williams; “Hare-Brained: Kit Williams’s Masquerade” by Paul Slade; the BBC documentary Kit Williams: The Man Behind the Masquerade.)



33 Responses to Kit Williams’s Golden Hare, Part 1: The Contest

  1. Jayle Enn

    May 20, 2016 at 5:17 pm

    I remember my Dad bringing a similar book home from the library, ‘Treasure: In Search of the Golden Horse’. Its treasure was apparently donated to charity long before anyone actually managed to solve it. I don’t think I’d have any more luck with it now, than pre-teen me did then.

  2. Brian Moriarty

    May 20, 2016 at 5:53 pm


  3. Sniffnoy

    May 20, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    Huh, I could have sworn you had already written an article on this, but apparently not! Just the mention in your Fool’s Errand article, and the similar (and Masquerade-inspired) story of the Golden Sundial. Presumably it’s the latter I was thinking of…

    • Andrew Hickey

      May 21, 2016 at 6:08 pm

      Weird, *I* remember there being an article on this already on here — I have a very distinct memory of posting a comment on it, because Mike Barker was a teacher at my school…

      • Nate

        May 28, 2016 at 5:41 am

        Add me to the list of people with deja-vu. When I started reading this article I was ‘wait, what? Masquerade again? Didn’t you cover this extensively several years ago, back in the early 80s section?’

        I’m glad to have this article but… I know I’ve read all these details! And especially the part about the ‘Haresoft’ games in the next article!

        Where did I read about Masquerade and Haresoft, if it wasn’t on this site?

        • Jimmy Maher

          May 28, 2016 at 7:55 am

          Masquerade did come up in passing in several other articles (mostly linked to part 2 of this article), and there was a fair amount of discussion of the story and controversy in the comments sections to some of those articles. That’s probably what you folks are thinking of.

  4. Lisa H.

    May 20, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    Salmon Rushdie

    There’s something fishy about that spelling. (Salman)

    While they sat on their answer, constructing inclinomoters

    Misspelled that instance of inclinometer.

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 21, 2016 at 7:08 am


  5. james

    May 20, 2016 at 10:56 pm

    wonder article! one of your best! love the detail and the story. can’t wait for the second part.

  6. Brendan

    May 21, 2016 at 12:05 am

    Great stuff, as usual!

    A point: ‘Cumbra’ should be Cumbria, I fear – the county which contains Barrow-in-Furness, where I believe that chap lived (and still might).

    Williams mentions him in this 1982 episode of Omnibus at about 5:15 and shows us an enormous stack of the poor guy’s fevered correspondence:

    • Jimmy Maher

      May 21, 2016 at 7:09 am

      Right you are. Thanks!

  7. Angel Miranda

    May 21, 2016 at 8:51 am

    Great story! Just waiting for the second part…

  8. Andrew

    May 21, 2016 at 9:06 am

    That was a fun read! And it seems like a lot of people spent a lot of time looking at art. So the painter accomplished his mission, no?

  9. Chris Floyd

    May 21, 2016 at 8:41 pm

    So glad you’re writing about this. I stumbled across a copy of Masquerade around 1990 and was fascinated by it but had no way to know what had happened with the treasure hunt (or even that it was ever a big deal). Years later, I found a book they published explaining the answer and got a glimpse of the history of the whole thing (albeit not going into the shadiness of Ken Thomas). Curious to read the rest of your story.

  10. Peter Piers

    July 25, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    That first child’s letter, the ten year old, is just too cute for words. :)

  11. Jonny on Hold

    February 25, 2017 at 11:39 am

    Was give this book for Xmas as a child, and got absolutely nowhere. Think the book is still in the attic, doubtless like many other copies. This is a great blog btw, thoroughly enjoying ploughing through and reliving my screen adolescence.

  12. DZ-Jay

    April 21, 2017 at 10:39 am

    >> “… he had wanted to Horatio Hornblower…”

    I think you a verb there. Unless you Horatio Hornblower it on purpose. ;)

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2017 at 3:49 pm


  13. DZ-Jay

    April 21, 2017 at 10:54 am

    >> “… a place Williams had become familiar with when he had had lived nearby…”

    Double “had” in there.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2017 at 3:49 pm


  14. DZ-Jay

    April 21, 2017 at 11:15 am

    >> “… Peter Ormandy of Cumbria, the failed puzzle solver who came the most tantalizing close to his goal.”

    As an adverb, I believe it should be “the most tantalizingly close.”

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 21, 2017 at 3:50 pm


  15. DZ-Jay

    April 21, 2017 at 4:41 pm

    Very interesting article. I must say, it may be purely a British thing, because I’ve never heard of the book nor its controversy (except when mentioned in previous articles, as suggested by other above).

    Nonetheless, I am intrigued enough now that I can’t wait to read the next article.


  16. Steve Pitts

    November 3, 2022 at 6:04 pm

    “Maschler had either suggested to Lister or had suggested to him”

    Is the implication that Lister may have suggested to Maschler or that Williams, or indeed a third/fourth party, was involved? I don’t feel it is clear from that wording

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 4, 2022 at 3:11 pm

      No, not a good sentence. Fixed. Thanks!

  17. AS

    March 14, 2023 at 3:01 am

    “there could be no no profanity“

    Double “no” here.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 15, 2023 at 2:08 pm


  18. Ben

    September 8, 2023 at 9:44 pm

    Amtphill -> Ampthill

    United State -> United States

  19. Ben

    September 8, 2023 at 9:44 pm

    Amtphill -> Ampthill

    United State -> United States

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 9, 2023 at 1:44 pm



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