The wonderful thing about living in a city which has been a city for thousands of years is that, every time you dig seriously in your garden, there is just a chance that you might turn up anything from a Roman coin to a broken Victorian teacup. Not that if you live out in Hampstead the chances are very high – but, if you happen to live right in the City of London, the odds go up exponentially!
Indeed, City of London archeologists are the bane of developers’ lives as, so rich in treasure is the dirt beneath the city’s streets that almost every new build gets delayed at some point while archeologists sift through its foundations for precious evidence of the everyday lives of previous generations.
Most such finds are interesting but not, to most of us, earth shattering. Not so the Cheapside Horde – a truly extraordinary collection of 17th century jewellery which emerged just over a hundred years ago when a builder demolishing a house in Cheapside, just behind St Paul’s cathedral, drove his pickaxe into a rotting wooden box buried in the cellar floor. Inside was a veritable treasure trove of nearly 500 pieces of jewellery made of gold, enamel and precious stones from around the world.
The builder and his mates, understandably, stuffed what they could into their pockets and made straight for a man known as Stoney Jack. Stoney Jack was well known for hanging around building sites and picking up anything that he found lying around and thought was of interest. However, despite appearances, he was not just the local fence. Not only was he the respectable owner of an antique shop in Wandsworth but he was head of acquisitions for the brand new London Museum which had also opened in 1912. And so he acquired! In fact, with the exception a few pieces which went to the British Museum and one chain which went to the V&A, he acquired the lot for his London Museum.
And what a truly amazing lot it is. You really do not know what to wonder at most – the quite extraordinary workmanship, the incredible collection of gemstones, the imagination of the jewellers, or the exquisite size of the pieces. The salamander at the top of the page, for example (you may have seen him featured on hoardings and in advertisements for the exhibition) is actually little bigger than my thumb nail!!! The emerald grapes are only half the size they are in the picture. And as for the emerald watch – set in a whole Colombian emerald… Yes, it too is even smaller than the picture.
I know I only have pictures of emeralds here but there are also rubies galore, amethysts, sapphires, pearls and a host of other precious and semi precious stones – not to mention endless chains of tiny enamel flowers set in gold, scent bottles, brooches and rings.
Whose were these jewels? Nobody knows! Cheapside was the Bond Street of the 17th century, lined with jewellers and goldsmiths so the cellar where the horde was found could easily have been the cellar of a jeweller’s shop. We do know that they were buried after 1640 as, in the horde, is a red seal carved with the arms of Viscount Stafford – the one and only Viscount Stafford, who was only created viscount in 1640. And it must also have been hidden under the cellar before the Great Fire of 1666 or the wooden box would not have survived. But why was it hidden? Well, the best guess is that it was hidden by the jeweller himself during the Puritan interregnum when luxuries such as jewellery were seen as deeply sinful. No doubt he hoped that Puritanism would pass (as indeed it did) and that he would be able to retrieve his goods – but he never did….
If you want to see these amazing treasures for yourself – you still have three weeks to do so as the exhibition closes on the 27th April. But be warned, it is very popular, so if you want to actually see the pieces, get yourself there as the museum opens at 10am.
Check in to the Museum of London here to book tickets.