Stoney Jack and The Cheapside Hoard
By Dale King
The Cheapside Hoard isn’t just a collection of nearly 500 exquisite pieces of jewelry unearthed in 1912 by pick-and-shovel workers who were demolishing a cellar in a building on the corner of London’s Cheapside and Friday Street. It is the rarest of finds, an inestimably valuable ensemble found encased in the clay of a crumbling basement dating back to the mid-1600s.
“The pieces are priceless, no question about it,” said Hazel Forsyth, curator of the exhibition, The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels, at the Museum of London through April 27, 2014.
While the Hoard is beautiful to the eye, it is also shrouded in mystery involving men of questionable repute, the possible murder of a traveling gem merchant and a passionate antiquarian known as “Stoney Jack” whose timely intercession prevented thousands of historical pieces from ending up on the mucky bottom of the Thames River.
“The intrigue surrounding this whole collection is who buried it, when and why was it buried and what does it signify?” said Forsyth. “The Stafford intaglio (an engraved gem) with the heraldic badge of William Howard, the only Viscount Stafford, allowed researchers to date the Hoard to the period between 1640 and the Great London Fire of 1666.”
A local goldsmith may have buried The Hoard for safekeeping during the Civil War among England, Ireland and Scotland. But Forsyth also acknowledges another theory involving a Dutch merchant named Gerard Polman who was traveling from Persia to England with his stash from a lifetime of trading in the east. He died when the ship reached the Comoros Islands – perhaps poisoned by a crewman who stole his jewelry and hid the loot when he reached shore.
Keeping The Investigation Alive
“There’s a lot of scope for research, and I hope the exhibition will prove a catalyst to launch it on the international stage, and get scholars from around the world – where the gems came from – working on it,” said Forsyth. But she doesn’t expect every query to be expunged.
“It may be impossible,” she said. “There were five cellars under the properties at Cheapside and Friday Street razed 101 years ago. We don’t know which one the Hoard was found beneath.”
From researching deeds for the buildings that stood in what was once London’s busiest mercantile area, “we have identified 18 possible jewelers connected with these properties. It’s going to be hard to pin it down to anyone in particular.”
The Hoard includes necklaces, rings, Byzantine cameos and a one-of-a-kind watch inside a hollowed emerald from Colombia, says Forsyth. Clearly, the precious items come from many corners of the globe – Sri Lanka,
Burma and India, among other trade-heavy places, during the Elizabethan and early-Stuart eras.
How the jewels reached England is not exactly certain. But one thing is clear. Assistance from George Fabian Lawrence – known to the shovel-ready diggers as “Stoney Jack” – saved many pieces of jewelry-makers’ art from being lost forever.
From roughly 1895 to his death in 1939, Stoney Jack, a passionate antiquarian who sometimes personally raided construction sites for precious items, bought gems and other treasures that excavators – called “navvies” – spotted in the strata of soil they worked by hand. They had full access to what the ground yielded – and often helped themselves, knowing Stoney Jack was an eager buyer.
Each Saturday, they would bring their finds – hidden in pockets, caps or handkerchiefs – to Stoney Jack’s shop at 7 West Hill. He paid well, even “generously,” says Forsyth, for the items he later sold to museums. Among the hard-drinking
navvies, “he was renowned for his honesty,” said H.V. Morton, a journalist who often visited Lawrence’s shop in the 1920s and 1930s. “He never turned away a visitor empty-handed. He rewarded even the most worthless discoveries with the price of half a pint of beer.”
Morton, who was 19 at the time, said the Cheapside Hoard was found in “a ball of congealed mud and crushed metalwork resembling ‘an iron football.’ ” Workmen carried it in a sack to Stoney Jack’s shop and when they were gone, Jack took it to the bathroom and turned on the water. “Out fell pearl earrings and pendants and all kinds of crumpled jewelry.”
Stoney Jack paid the Hoard’s discoverers about 100 English pounds each, said Morton. With their fists full of drinkin’ money, “they disappeared, and were not seen again for months.”
Before the time of regulated archaeological digs, Stoney Jack took it upon himself – gladly and unabashedly – to preserve history. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, keeper of the Museum of London in the
1930s, said of Jack: “Important prehistoric Roman, Saxon and medieval collections of the museum are largely founded upon his work of skillful salvage.”