Cheapside hoard © Museum of London, David Parry/PA Wire

The Cheapside Hoard

The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels from Tudor and Jacobean  times are exhibited at the Museum of London this fall

In 1912 a group of London workmen were demolishing an old jeweller’s house on Cheapside in London, when they literally struck “gold”. No one knows, however, exactly how many pieces of Tudor and Jacobean jewellery were found, since the workers immediately stuffed their pockets, caps and handkerchiefs and went to a character out of Dickens, “Stony Jack”, who ran a pawnshop and was known to pay cash for any interesting finds, no questions asked. Some of these he sold on to the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert and the nascent museum of London, which received the mother load. All these institution started a very unseemly squabble to lay their hands on the entire treasure. Accordingly it was only shown to the public for a short while just before WW1, when it went into a bank vault – where it has basically been lying around until a brand new exhibition opened this week.

“The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels showcases the very best of the Museum of London”, says Sharon Ament, Director of the Museum of London and continues: “Our vision is to create a revitalised, world-class museum through state-of-the-art galleries and exhibitions jam-packed with ground-breaking research and historical objects. The Museum of London tells the story of the world’s greatest city and its people. And, as London’s most exciting stash of buried treasure, the Cheapside Hoard tells a thrilling tale of mystery and discovery, with every jewel and gemstone unlocking a story”

For the first time since 1912 the scattered pieces have been reunited. The new exhibition shows almost 500 pieces of unique jewellery – rings, brooches, pendants, chains and bracelets. Many of these are suspended in dark cases with a glittering light intended to emulate the candlelight, in which many would have been seen. Also exhibited are portraits and other objects from the collections meant to provide context for the jewels.

Foul Play

The Cheapside Hoard © Museum of London
The Cheapside Hoard
© Museum of London

But what is the story behind the hoard. How come it was hidden and later forgotten for 300 years? The curator Hazel Forsyth has worked to unravel this part of the story and published it in a catalogue accompanying the exhibition. She can tell an even more lurid story of murder, skulduggery, fraud and foul-play. It appears that part of the collection might have come to England in 1637, when a Dutch jeweller, Gerrard Pulman went on the Discovery, a ship, which sailed from India back to England. With him he brought a large sea-chest and several smaller boxes filled with a king’s ransom – diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and other gems later valued at £150.000. Inside a fortnight he had been poisoned by the ship’s surgeon, stripped and heaved overboard, while officers and crew had helped themselves to his massive fortune. By the time the chests were officially opened in London they were found to be half empty!

Later some of these gems were offered up to London jewellers and – it is believed – were partly acquired by a new gang of criminals, the Sympsons. One of these – Thomas Sympson had a lucrative side-business, flogging counterfeits and it is exactly this knowledge, which has led Hazel Forsyth to conclude, that the Cheapside Hoard might have been connected to this family. In the collection is found two counterfeit balas rubies cut from rock crystal, polished and dyed to represent the real thing.

Yet Thomas Sympson wasn’t the only Cheapside jeweller, who engaged in foul play, and he was only one of 18 jewellers, who leased a property at 30 -32 Cheapside, where the hoard lay buried underground for nearly 300 years. Who the owner was, thus remains an enigma. Part of crucial clue to why it was buried, has however, recently been uncovered, stemming from a previously overlooked intaglio (a gemstone with an engraved design), blazoned with the heraldic badge of William Howard, the first and only Viscount Stafford, (1612-1680).

  He left England in 1641 during the Civil War and it is believed that the stash was buried during the following decade, when its owner must have died without having occasion to divulge the hiding place.

“The 16th and 17th century jewellery trade was clandestine by its very nature and skulduggery was rife, tells Hazel Forsyth, exhibition curator and continues: “Jewellers couldn’t shout about what they were up to or the precious gemstones that they were dealing with. That in itself would make them walking targets for theft, corruption, or worse. Yet thank goodness that some of those jewellers and their underhand dealings were caught out and made to feel the long arm of the law. The level of detail found in contemporary court documents, witness statements and other archive material has proved a veritable treasure trove to delve into. It has brought about many juicy findings that we would not have known about had the trade been transparent and squeaky clean.”

The Cheapside hoard is a priceless collection of jewels and the City of London’s most exquisite stash of buried treasure. And it is the single most important source of our knowledge on early modern jewellery worldwide. The exhibition is sponsored byFabergé, Gemfields and Coutts and supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels
Museum of London
150 London Wall
London EC2Y 5HN
11.10.2013 – 27.04.2014.

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