Son of a pawnbroker and initially a pawnbroker himself. The standard objects of failed enthusiasms (musical instruments) or changing tastes (mustache cups) or romance gone bad (old wedding rings) held only so much interest for him. He had a taste for the unusual and put word out among the mudlarks who scoured the Thames at low tide and the navvies who dug the foundations of new construction over old that he would pay cash and ask few questions if they had anything of interest to show him.
By his early twenties he had set up on his own West Hill, Wandsworth, and the bits and pieces of prehistoric England onwards began to flow into his shop. London having a more or less continuous existence from prehistoric times to now, there are layers and layers of detritus waiting to be dug up, and he was determined to be the clearing house for whatever turned up, from prehistory to Romans to dark ages, middle ages, renaissance and so forth – lots of lost and abandoned property in a city that size, and lots of industrious scavengers working to find it.
He got to know the navvies who dug down to the foundations, and undertook to show them what to be on the lookout for. Glass, metal, pottery, whatever – if it could be re-sold, he paid cash on the barrel (and more besides if he underestimated what he could get an object for), and a pint of beer if the object proved more interesting than valuable.
So effective was he that the Guildhall Museum hired him to prepare the catalogue for their collections and to poke about any city excavations that might yield “objects of interest” to the museum. He did much the same for the newly founded London Museum, for which establishment he was named Inspector of Excavations, and it was because of his efforts that the museum was as fully stocked as it was to become. He bought odds and ends from the sappers and sold them to the museum, presumably to the satisfaction of both.
And then there was the Cheapside Hoard.
Cheapside was the center of the jewelry trade, the 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue of its day. Dozens of small hole in the wall shops dealing in anything you like (The security detail must have been extraordinary.) No surprise then that one of these shopkeepers should have stashed his stock in a safe place and for whatever reason been unable to recover it. Civil War? Great Fire of London? Who can say? The best estimates come from the material itself. One small seal has been identified as belonging to William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford, a man who died in 1680, which at least gives you a start date
H.V. Morton happened to be present in June of 1912 when two navvies walked into Lawrences and “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.”
It was the starting point of 230 objects found under floor boards of a an old shop. Emeralds from Colombia, rubies from Burma, gold from who knows where. Jewelry was more a thing back in the day, both for men and women. Great wealth will find something to buy, and if personal yachts or high-end electronics or villas in Majorca are not in the cards, well, something else needs to be found. Gold and jewels filled the gap. Small brooches, gold chains encrusted with jewelry, gold and enamel perfume snifters, trifling things that in quantity showed just how important one was.
The hoard is still there, still on display, perhaps in its entirely, perhaps a few things sitting in someone else’s closet against the day that Antiques Roadshow comes to town.
Stoney Jack died of heart failure in 1939, in time to not witness the havoc that the war would do to London.
(Turns out Scientific American has gotten there before me. Worth the read.)