The Cheapside Hoard is one of the great treasures of the Museum Of London. A vast collection of Tudor jewellery, it was found by two workmen in the cellar of a house on Cheapside in 1912 and eventually made its way into the museum’s collection.
The story is a fascinating one, outlined in HV Morton‘s seminal London history ‘In Search Of London’.
Morton, a journalist and insatiable London enthusiast with the knack of knowing not so much the right people as the really interesting ones, begins by describing GF Lawrence, ‘or Stoney Jack as he was known by every navvy who worked in the City’.
Stoney Jack was an asthmatic antiques dealer with a shop on West Hill, Wandsworth. He also had a job as Inspector of Acquisitions at what was then called the London Museum, based in Lancaster House, St James’s.
Since the 1970s, every building site in the UK must by law be visited by a team of archaeologists to ensure no great treasures are missed, but in Lawrence’s time there was no such requirement. Lawrence’s job then was ‘to haunt every demolition site in the City and make friends with the navvies, so that they would bring to him anything that had been found during excavation’.
Morton writes that there was a lot of building work taking place at this time and Lawrence knew it may be the last chance to find any antiquities that might still be hidden in the soil. In his not entirely public-spirited determination to ensure nothing crucial was lost, workmen received rudimentary archaeological training during ‘mysterious transactions behind hoardings and in the tap rooms of City public-houses’.
In this way, Lawrence was able to purchase items from ‘a procession of navvies with mysterious objects wrapped in spotted handkerchiefs’ and flog them on to the London Museum, earning himself a tidy profit. Anything the museum didn’t buy, went into his shop. And even if the navvies brought him something worthless, he always gave them enough cash to buy a pint of beer. In this way, he built up much of the Roman and Medieval collection that is now in the Museum of London.
I cannot count the times I have been present when navvies have appeared and passed their treasures across the counter with a husky, “Any good to yer, guv’nor?” I have seen handkerchiefs unknotted to reveal Roman pins, mirrors, coins, leather, pottery and every kind of object that can lie concealed in old and storied soil.
I was with him one day when two navvies handed over a heavy mass of clay found beneath a building in Cheapside. It was like an iron football, and they said there was a lot more of it. Sticking in the clay were bright gleams of gold. When they had gone, we went up to the bathroom and turned the water on to the clay. Out fell pearl earrings and pendants and all kinds of crumpled jewellery. That was how the famous hoard of Tudor jewellery, the Cheapside Hoard, was discovered.’
Morton recalls that for this great find, now worth millions, Stoney Jack received a thousand pounds. For their part, the navvies were rewarded with ‘something like a hundred pounds each, and I was told that these man disappeared, and were not seen again for months!’
Morton is really savagely under-rated these days. I stumbled across him after a mention in a Michael Wood essay (in which he re-examines Morton’s visit to a wood bodger outside High Wycombe, to discover that the bodger was working in the equivalent of an Anglo-Saxon sunken house, it’s wonderful) and then went on to read him by the yard. He has an eye for things that we’ve forgotten already – the omnipresence and newness of war memorials in the 1920s ,or the cloud of office cats which haunt the City of London at night. And he deserves better.
Brilliant story Peter, thanks for bringing this to light. When I did the City guides course one of the more fascinating lectures we had was from Sophie Jackson of Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). She introduced us to a character called Peter Marsden who ran what was then called then the City of London Excavation Group for the Guildhall Museum from 1961-73. He had pretty much nothing in the way of resources, staff or legislative framework behind him and had a not dissimilar strategy of diving in among the developers to see what he could find and purloining what he could to carry it away (often in old sacking suspended on abandoned scaffolding poles apparently). Great men to whom we owe a huge debt in terms of our understanding of the history of the City of London.
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A recent biog has belittled HV Morton, saying he invented much (what newsman hasn’t!) but I still think he was a great writer, perhaps it was sour grapes! Dave
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Morton is indeed highly readable and has left much behind of value although he is now known to have made up more than his fair share of what he wrote. He famously scooped the official Times correspondent covering the opening of the Tutankhamun’s tomb but unfortunately he was a very unpleasant human being, even by the standards of his own time. Documents show that he saw a lot of good in Nazism, he loathed America (“that craven nation of Jews and foreigners”) and probably retired to South Africa because as life in Britain changed after the war he found that apartheid suited his own lifestyle very nicely.