“When the first world war broke out, the treasure went into storage, and the whole collection never again came out of its bank vault, until the new exhibition – where visitors enter through a barred gateway, and which is watched over by 24-hour security.”
For the first time since it was found more than a century ago, the entire glittering Cheapside Hoard has gone on display at the Museum of London – together with the skulduggery, forgery, fraud and even murder that lie behind the gleaming gems.
The largest hoard of Tudor and Jacobean jewellery ever found – almost 500 pieces of extraordinary rarity and beauty – was unearthed in 1912 by the pickaxes of London workmen demolishing an old jeweller’s premises on Cheapside in the City of London, a stroll from the present site of the museum.
They stuffed the loot – emeralds, diamonds, rubies and sapphires – some dating back 1,500 years to Byzantium, into pockets, hats and knotted handkerchiefs and took it to “Stony Jack”, George Fabian Lawrence, an enigmatic character who ran a pawn shop and acquired objects for museums. He was known to pay workmen cash down, no questions asked, for any interesting finds.
After a dust-up between several London museums about who should get the treasure, most of it went to the new London Museum, and there was a sensation when it opened in 1914 displaying some of the pieces, including a watch set into a single emerald the size of a small apple.
When the first world war broke out, the treasure went into storage, and the whole collection never again came out of its bank vault, until the new exhibition – where visitors enter through a barred gateway, and which is watched over by 24-hour security. Many of the pieces, including pendants, earrings, and the exquisite chains, are displayed suspended in the cases, glittering in lighting intended to emulate the candlelight in which many of them would have been worn.
Contemporary portraits include Queen Elizabeth – studded with the jewels she adored – and Margaret Cotton wearing a rope of gold chain as thick as a ship’s hawser.
The curator, Hazel Forsyth, has been researching the collection for years, and has now written a book to accompany the exhibition, which solves some of the mysteries surrounding the hoard.
In 1637 a gem dealer called Gerrard Pulman made the very bad decision to pay the East India company £100 for safe passage on the Discovery from the Orient back to England, taking with him a crate it took three men to lift, a great sea-chest and smaller boxes all full of diamonds and other gems valued at £150,000 (worth many millions now).
He lost a walnut-sized diamond from a purse around his neck when bathing on the voyage, and a fortnight later he was dead – poisoned by the ship’s surgeon an inquiry found – his body stripped and “heaved over boorde”. By the time the chests were officially opened in London, they were half empty: the missing gems, stolen by both officers and crew, were offered to jewellers across London, and some Forsyth believes ended up in the Cheapside Hoard. One particularly cack-handed crewman pulled a pocket full of his loot out at the Three Tun Tavern in Fleet Street, and dropped an enormous pearl through a crack in the floorboards.
The remaining mystery that she has not managed to solve is who buried the treasure, and why it was never recovered – although the Great Fire of London, which reduced the shops of Goldsmith’s Row to ashes but left the treasure untouched in the cellar, may be the explanation.
She is also certain that not all the pieces ended up in museums. In 1914 some of the workmen went on such epic pub crawls that they “were not seen again for months”. Stray pieces continued to turn up for decades, including rings mysteriously owned by a former staff member of the London Museum. She is sure more pieces are out there, and hopes some may even resurface as a result of her book and exhibition.
The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels, is at the Museum of London until 27 April
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