For over 300 years, buried treasure lay undisturbed below one of London’s busiest streets. No one knew it was there until builders demolished a timber-framed building in Cheapside near St Paul’s Cathedral, in June 1912. The building had stood on the site since the 17th century, but the cellars were older and lined with brick.
The workmen were using a pickaxe to excavate in a cellar at 30–32 Cheapside in London, on the corner with Friday Street. They were in for a surprise. In a brick-lined cellar under a chalk floor, the workman cleared the debris and saw what appeared to be a decayed wooden box containing a hidden treasure. In the dank, long-forgotten cellar, the gems spilled onto the muddy floor and experienced their first light of day after 300 years of concealment.
The hoard included large amounts of jewellery crafted with gemstones from around the world, including rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. The pieces were intricate and varied—the emerald items alone included a carving of a parrot, bunches of grapes, a lizard, and a completely unique carving of a clock.
There were 500 items, making the collection easily the most significant find of its type. Yet no one knows who it belonged to or why it was left there.
The hoard has been dated to the middle of the 17th century, perhaps during the English Civil War. The area was home to several jewellers and goldsmiths, and it’s entirely possible one of them buried the goods for safekeeping while he went off to fight, then never made it back. It was a dreadful time in England. The outbreak of civil war in 1642 ultimately resulted in an overthrow of the monarchy and the execution of King Charles I in 1649.
Unrest and political upheaval may have caused the hoard’s owner to hide his prized possessions, as many jewellers took up arms to fight. More uncertainty followed, including the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the return from exile of Charles II, son of the former king. Over the centuries, the bubonic plague had swept through Europe and Britain in waves, culminating in 1665–1666 with the Great Plague of London, which killed about 15% of the population. Those who had the means fled the city to avoid the deadly epidemic.
In 1666, a fire that started in a bakery spread quickly through the city. In less than three days it consumed over 13,000 buildings, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, about a block away from the hoard. The Great Fire of London, as it came to be known, destroyed most of the city’s wooden structures, including those above the site of the treasure. Evidence of fire damage found during the Cheapside excavations led experts to conclude that the jewels were buried no later than 1666. It is unlikely that the owner of the hoard perished in the fire, as very few casualties were actually recorded.
The workers that found the items took them, still covered in mud and dirt, to a jewellery dealer known as Stony Jack. Jack had made it known to the labourers of London that he was more than happy to look at anything they dug up. He bought the pieces for a tidy sum and negotiated in secret to give them to the newly opened London Museum. The treasures continue to be shown today.
Many unanswered questions surround this extraordinary find. Who was the owner? Why did he hide the treasure, and why was it never claimed?
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