Kit Williams' Masquerade, the Children’s Treasure Hunt Book That Captivated England

    A golden hare, a multi-step pictorial code, and a country on the hunt. What could go wrong?

    The story of Masquerade, a children’s puzzle book from 1979 by artist and writer Kit Williams, is a literary tale unlike any other. When legendary British editor Thomas Maschler challenged Williams to do something never done before with a picture book, Williams had a rather brilliant idea. In so doing, he created a story about a book that’s possibly more interesting than the book itself.

    Masquerade’s central character was Jack Hare, who’d unfortunately lost a precious jewel. But unlike a typical children’s book that guides the reader to its rousing conclusion, it was the reader’s job to unravel the clues. And at the end of the puzzle? Actual, genuine treasure.

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    Author Kit Williams

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Williams wanted his readers to make an effort and be thoroughly engaged with his creation. If they were prepared to make that effort, he believed, then they should have something worthwhile to show for it.

    The prize was a handmade golden hare carefully buried at a secret location somewhere in the English countryside. Made of 18-carat gold, it certainly had monetary value, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to produce a singular literary creation, something that would engage, confuse, confound and excite a reader far more than the average hardback. It succeeded beyond all expectations.

    Masquerade set out to be a one-off, something nobody had ever done before. A children’s puzzle book, readers were invited to solve a series of cryptic clues similar to those found in newspaper crossword puzzles. Nothing so unusual about that, you might think, but the clues were a form of treasure hunt and a genuine prize awaited whoever could solve the puzzles and crack the codes.

    Related: 7 Fun and Informative History Books for Kids 

    The clues themselves were real brainteasers, the kind normally enjoyed by people who complete a crossword puzzle in a matter of minutes–using a pen. Having solved all the other clues (assuming they could, of course) the reader would have to decipher this little gem: “Catherine’s Long Finger Over Shadows Earth Buried Yellow Amulet Midday Points The Hour In Light Of Equinox Look You.”

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    This Isaac Newton painting was used as an illustration in Masquerade

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Having gotten that far, it would be no surprise if puzzlers gave up. But there was one step more. Looking only at the first letters, you’d find another message: “CLOSEBYAMPTHILL”. Of course, to get that, you’d also need to know to skip the words finger, of, equinox, and you.

    The longer clue, while holding the answer in its letters, also gave subtle hints to the final destination of Bedfordshire’s Ampthill Park. Ampthill Park is home to a monument in honor of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The rest of the clue, referring to Catherine’s “finger” explains exactly where to look. If you visit the park at midday on the vernal or autumnal equinox, the tip of the monument’s shadow will lay exactly where the Golden Hare was buried.   

    Related: 10 World History Books That Will Give You a New Perspective 

    Cryptic indeed, but, for an 18-carat gold hare that today would be very valuable, it’s hardly surprising that Williams created a true challenge. Besides, the harder the challenge, the greater the interest. The greater the interest, the better the sales–which suited the publishers perfectly. Every reader wanted to be the one who solved the riddles and found the Golden Hare. It would be years before anyone did.

    Published in 1979, Masquerade was a runaway success, a smash hit. It sold 60,000 copies (its entire first print run) almost immediately, was Britain’s best-selling book of 1979, and sold very well abroad especially in America and Japan. Another version was even created specifically for Italy. The hare, however, remained resolutely underground. It wouldn’t be found until 1982, safely buried within Ampthill Park.

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    Ampthill Park

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Its finder, Ken Thomas, disliked publicity. Even when interviewed he asked that his identity and face be obscured. When the legendary golden hare was publicly unveiled, Thomas appeared, doing his best to avoid photographers and the general media. Asked by London’s prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum if they could publicly display his now unburied treasure, Thomas refused. 

    It later came to light that “Ken Thomas” was really two people: Dugald Thompson and John Guard. Guard had been seeing Veronica Robertson, an old flame of Kit Williams, and had persuaded her to divulge the hare’s location. Upon receiving the hare, the pair used it as collateral to found a software company Haresoft. They then released a spin-off computer game called “Hareraiser: Prelude” based on Masquerade’s popularity. They hid the hare once again, and claimed to have hidden its location in the game itself.

    Related: FBI Surveillance: Why the Bureau Investigated Famous Writers 

    Unfortunately, “Hareraiser: Prelude” was widely seen, even for the early 1980s, as one of the worst computer games ever created.  Reviews universally panned it except for one single reviewer, a Mrs. Widdowson. “Widdowson” later turned out to be yet another sockpuppet of the game’s developers. 

    Its sequel, “Hareraiser: Finale”, fared even worse. After the “Prelude” debacle, most of the games industry wouldn’t touch “Finale” with a bargepole. It would be the end of Haresoft and spelled doom for the company’s owners. 

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    Cover of of Hareraiser

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    When Haresoft went bankrupt in 1988, the golden hare was sold at auction for £31,900, a huge sum at the time–and much higher than the expected £3,000-6,000. Williams, by now aware of Thompson and Guard’s chicanery, was there, but withdrew from bidding when the price reached £6,000. He wouldn’t see the golden hare again for another 21 years.

    Years later, the hare’s ownership was unclear. After being sold to an unknown buyer, it was sold at least once more unofficially. In 2009, Williams, hoping to lay eyes on the item that had once brought him so much fame and trouble, made a plea on BBC Radio to see it again. The granddaughter of the current owner happened to be listening. She got her grandfather to allow Williams entry, and in the summer of the same year, Williams at last got to see and hold his creation once more.

    The scoundrels of our story, Thompson, Guard, and Robertson, have long since vanished from the public eye. Williams has returned to his first career and still paints, although he no longer publicly exhibits his work. He has also continued his obsession with puzzles and design, creating a maze made of yew trees and elaborate clocks alongside his paintings.

    Featured photo from cover of "Masquerade"



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