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.
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
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.
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 [File photo]
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 coal-face 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.
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
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.
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. The village is pictured above in a stock image
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