Finding treasure is something nearly everyone dreams of when they’re children. As adult collectors, it’s a dream we relive whenever we’re on the hunt for precious antiques. So imagine the surprise of finding a whole treasure chest full of medieval jewellery. This is the story of how a significant hoard of jewellery was found underground during construction of London’s Cheapside, not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral.
During construction in 1912, three tenement houses were slated for demolition in Cheapside. Digging down into the cellar of these wooden structures, one of the builders found a large chest full of jewels, gemstones and curios. When he made the announcement to his crew, what happened next was a free-for-all, as the workmen ravaged the chest, stuffing their pockets full of the precious items.
Some 500 pieces of rare beauty survived the theft, thanks to antiquities trader and pawnbroker George Fabian Lawrence. Stony Jack, as he was known, made a deal with the workers that he would pay cash for any items they discovered amongst the hoard. The payment of beer was also on offer and the workmen couldn’t refuse.
"I taught them that every scrap of metal, pottery, glass, or leather that has been lying under London may have a story to tell the archaeologist, and is worth saving," Lawrence (Daily Herald 1937).
In that same year, Stony Jack was promoted to the Inspector of Excavations for the recently opened London Museum. He was in charge of procuring archaeological finds and trading with other museums around the world. In his first year, he acquired an incredible 1,600 artefacts for the museum. The 500 pieces that made up the Cheapside Hoard was Stony Jack’s most significant acquisition, both in terms of size and historical context.
Senior curator of medieval and post-medieval collections for the London Museum, Hazel Forsyth explains in the video:
"This collection is unique in the world. It is the largest hoard of its kind, dating from the very late 16th to the early 17th century. Part of the reason why it’s so important is that jewelry tends to be broken up, refashioned, reworked, and so therefore doesn’t survive. Because this was buried and lay undisturbed for the better part of 300 years, it survived in the condition that it has. And it covers a huge spectrum of jewelry designs and types, but also gem material from many parts of the world, which really underlines London’s role in the international gem and jewelry trade in this period."
To illustrate this point beautifully is one of the most iconic pieces of the hoard – an emerald and diamond enamelled salamander brooch. It tells the whole story of London’s international jewellery and gem trade during the 1600s. With emeralds from Colombia and diamonds from Burma, this pendant would’ve been crafted, set and enamelled in Europe. The brooch contains stones from the new world and stones from the old world, placing England at the centre of the international gem and jewellery trade industry for that period.
There is proof that this astonishing jewellery hoard survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 that ravaged the city, burning 13,000 buildings and missing Cheapside by only a few streets. This fact helps to date the hoard that predated the fire and was likely hidden in the cellar somewhere between 1640 and 1666.
To help narrow down the exact dates of this hoard, the team studied the jewellery pieces and compared them to paintings and portraits of the time. For instance, in a miniature portrait of Queen Anne of Denmark (1574–1619), the monarch wears a blue sapphire and spinel ornament in her hair that bears a striking resemblance to a similar piece found in the hoard. This discovery sheds a little more light on the owner of the hoard, likely a jeweller working in Cheapside.
A counterfeit spinel found among the hoard is further proof that the collection belonged to a jewellery trader. Upon further investigation into counterfeiting of the time, Forsyth and her team came across an incident involving a goldsmith working at the Goldsmiths’ Company in 1610. He was charged with producing imitation spinel gems and selling them abroad, bringing international disgrace to the British East India Company.
It’s no surprise that this hoard was found where it was, as the area in the latter part of the 1500s became a thriving jewellery manufacturing district. It was even named Goldsmith’s Row and numbers 30-32, where the hoard was found, was home to the Goldsmiths’ Company. However, no documentation exists as to its exact habitants and so the hoard cannot be pinned down to one owner. The reason why the hoard was buried in the first place remains a mystery to this day.
It might seem odd in our time that someone would choose to bury such a treasure chest, but this was a time before commercial banks existed and safe deposit boxes were not yet a thing. Hiding the jewels underground may have been a regular occurrence, considering its owner was a trader and travelled the world exclusively on the lookout for gemstones. Forsyth explains:
"It could be that the jeweler did this regularly—that he had a hole in the floor where he kept his stock in trade. It could also be that he was facing a calamity or emergency that required him to take desperate action. Possibly he planned to go abroad for a period of time. We know that almost 60% of the jeweler goldsmiths in London were immigrant craftsmen, and that they traveled."
One of the most remarkable and stunning pieces among the hoard of jewels is an oversized Colombian emerald pocket watch. This further helps with dating, as watches were popular in England from 1540 on and emeralds from Colombia first graced European shores in the latter part of this century.
This piece is absolutely stunning. Working with the gem’s natural shape, the timepiece consists of three moving parts and a cutout section for the mechanical movement. Green enamel and precious metal work sheds light on the kind of craftsmanship taking place at this monumental time in history. It also illustrates the kind of clientele this jeweller would have catered to, nothing less than royalty.
It’s a truly remarkable collection that highlights the story of international trade, immigration, skills of the trade, tradesmanship, the artisans and guilds of London, and a whole socio-economic human history of the time.
You can see all 500 pieces of the Cheapside Hoard at the London Museum. Read more by visiting the Gemological Institute of America (GIA).