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ABOUT STONEY JACK

Son of a pawnbroker, George Fabian Lawrence was Inspector of Excavations at the Museum of London, with a taste for the unusual. Between 1890 and 1930 the City of London underwent redevelopment at a pace unheard of since the Great Fire of 1666, it was a golden age for excavation!  He 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. 

 

This “genial frog” of a man would haunt London’s building sites each weekday lunch hour, sidling up to the laborers who worked there, buying them drinks and letting them know that he would purchase any curios—from ancient coins to fragments of pottery—that they uncovered in the course of their excavations. Lawrence became universally known as “Stoney Jack.”

 

Stoney Jack kept his pockets full of half-crowns to reward contacts, and was renowned for his honesty. If a find sold for more than he had estimated it worth, he would track down the discoverer and make certain he received a share of the profits. Even the most worthless discoveries would be rewarded with half a pint of beer.

 

Stoney Jack owned the ‘strangest shop in London’ at 7 West Hill in unfashionable Wandsworth.

 

The shop sign over the door have a Ka-figure from an Egyptian tomb, now split and worn by the winds of nearly forty winters. The windows are full of an astonishing jumble of objects. Every historic period rubs shoulders in them. Ancient Egyptian bowls lie next to Japanese sword guards and Elizabethan pots contain Saxon brooches, flint arrowheads or Roman coins… There are lengths of mummy cloth, blue mummy beads, a perfectly preserved Roman leather sandal found twenty feet beneath a London pavement, and a shrunken black object like a bird’s claw that is a mummified hand… all the objects are genuine and priced at a few shillings each.

 

From Mondays to Fridays the place stayed locked, but on Saturday afternoons he would settle himself behind the counter,  light a cheap cigar and wait patiently for laborers to bring him treasure. 

 

Stoney had an almost clairvoyant attitude to the Past. He would hold a Roman sandal—for leather is marvelously preserved in the London clay—and, half closing his eyes, with his head on one side, his cheroot obstructing his diction, would speak about the cobbler who had made it ages ago, the shop in which it had been sold, the kind of Roman who walked the streets of the long-vanished London it had known.

 

Saturday, June 18, 1912 Workmen showed up to the shop, declaring they had “struck a toyshop” on Cheapside. Tipping open a sack, the men disgorged an enormous lump of clay resembling an iron football, declaring there was more of it. When they had gone, Stoney went  to the bathroom and turned the water on to the clay. Out fell pearl earrings and pendants and all kinds of crumpled jewellery. 

 

The “Cheapside Hoard” was a priceless 500-piece collection of gemstones, broaches and rings excavated from a cellar. The greatest trove of Elizabethan and Stuart-era jewelery ever unearthed, and the chief triumph of his career. 

 

Without Stoney Jack, the hoard might well have ended up as landfill. He’s an accidental hero, and a flawed one, but nevertheless a hero.

 

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