08 June 2023

Rough diamonds, bleeding hearts,
a Star of David, bluecoat scholars
and a walk around Hatton Garden

‘Ingot, 2006’ by Tom Dixon on the Johnson Building tells the many stories of Hatton Garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Hatton Garden in London last week for the first time. Charlotte introduced me to the area that is home to the highest concentration of jewellery shops within a single area.

Famous jewellers, goldsmiths, diamond sellers, gemstone specialists, bespoke designers, watchmakers, jewellery value experts, and insurance companies can all be found in this small area.

There are family-owned jewellery shops that have been around for a long time, contemporary boutiques, repair services, and buyers of second-hand jewellery. All can be found in Hatton Garden in the Holborn district of the Borough of Camden, close to the narrow precinct of Saffron Hill which then abuts the City of London.

A ‘Great Robbery in Hatton Garden’ occurred in 1678, when 20 men turned up at the house of a wealthy gentleman claiming to have a warrant to search the house for dangerous persons. They were apprehended two days later while trying to dispose of the stolen property. George Brown, John Butler, Richard Mills, Christopher Bruncker and George Kenian were hanged at Tyburn on 22 January 1679.

Thieves stole £7 million worth of gems belonging to the jewellers Graff Diamonds in 1993 This was London’s biggest gem heist of modern times. An underground safe deposit facility in the Hatton Garden area was burgled in the Hatton Garden safe deposit burglary in 2015. The total stolen may have had a value of up to £200 million, although court reports referred to £14 million.

Today there are almost 300 businesses in Hatton Garden in the jewellery industry and over 90 shops, representing the largest cluster of jewellery retailers in the UK. The largest of these businesses was De Beers. The area is now home also to many media, publishing and creative businesses.

Hatton Garden takes its name from Sir Christopher Hatton, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, who built his mansion in the area and gained possession of the garden and orchard of Ely Place, once the London palace of the Bishops of Ely.

Saint Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place is all that survives of the old Bishop's Palace and one of only two remaining buildings in London dating from the reign of Edward I. It is one of the oldest churches in England and since 1879 has been used as a Roman Catholic church.

All the local streets have stories to tell, and ‘Ingot, 2006’ by the sculptor Tom Dixon, a large bronze Ingot on the newly refurbished Johnson Building, on the corner of Hatton Garden and Saint Cross Street, to help to narrate some of these stories through a piece of public art.

A large rectangular slab of metal is in a recess above the entrance to the Johnson Building. Down the left side of the slab is a row of ten icons on top of one another, resembling hallmarks that would appear on a real ingot. The icons depict a mitre, a strawberry, a rose and haystack, a tree trunk, a bleeding heart, a gin bottle, a diamond, a star of David and a computer cursor, representing various historical aspects of the area.

This work is inspired by the gold trade and also shows the creation of a new hallmark for the building. Working with Mind Design, the Ingot features a series of symbols, each representing a certain historic aspect of the local area.

The Mitre represents the old palace of the Bishop of Ely, founded ca. 1300, which once stood here. The palace boasted a vineyard and an orchard, as well as gardens, fountains and ponds. The symbol also refers to the Ye Old Mitre nearby, dating from 1546, which I described in a posting on Tuesday.

The Strawberry recalls how the strawberries grown in Hatton Garden in Elizabethan times were considered to be the finest in London. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the Duke of Gloucester remarks to the Bishop: ‘… I saw good strawberries in your garden there: I do beseech you, send me some of them.’

The Rose and the Haystack below it tell another story about the palace grounds and the thoroughfare, Ely Place, and how they were let to Sir Christopher Hatton through the intervention of Queen Elizabeth I in 1575. The Bishop of Ely, however, retained the right to walk in his garden, and the annual rent of the gatehouse was one red rose and ten stacks of hay.

The Tree Trunk represents the preserved trunk of the cherry tree that marked the palace boundary that can now be found in a corner of the Olde Mitre in Ely Court, a tiny passageway off Hatton Garden. It is said that Elizabeth I took a part in a maypole dance around the tree.

The Bleeding Heart relates to the ‘Lady of the Bleeding Heart Yard’. Legend says Lady Elizabeth Hatton entered into an alliance with the Prince of Darkness, but was murdered by him while walking in the yard. A stable lad found her heart still pumping blood over the cobblestones.

The Bottle of Gin makes a connection with the way the population of Holborn swelled in the 19th century and slums began to appear in the Hatton Harden area. Gin consumption was rife, not least because of the nearby Gordon’s Distillery. The slums of Leather Lane are described by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist’, and Saffron Hill was the insalubrious setting for Fagin’s den.

Next is a Diamond. Since the 1830s, the Hatton Garden area has had an international reputation as London’s jewellery quarter. Diamonds are at the heart of this trade. The London Diamond Bourse at 100 Hatton Garden is one of the places where brokers trade the world’s rough diamonds.

The Star of David represents the strong Jewish presence in the area, which has existed locally since the establishment of the jewellery industry. London first developed trading links in the diamonds when the Portuguese Jews moved arrived in the 17th century.

Finally, a computer cursor represents the creative organisations in the area today and is a reminder that the Hatton Garden area is also noted for its many design and media offices. They thrive in the tightly packed and atmospheric local streets and attract numerous supporting industries.

A pair of Bluecoat scholars on the façade of Wren House at 43 Hatton Garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The red-brick building across from the Johnson Building, now known as Wren House, stands at the south-east corner of Hatton Garden and Saint Cross Street. It served briefly as the church for the Hatton Garden area.

Now known as Wren House, this Grade II listed building at 43 Hatton Garden, was once Saint Andrew’s Parochial School. It was originally built as a church ca 1670 by Lord Hatton, supposedly to designs by Sir Christopher Wren.

It served as a church while Wren was rebuilding Saint Andrew’s Church, Holborn, after the Great Fire of London in 1666. After Saint Andrew’s was rebuilt and reopened, the building was adapted as a charity school ca 1696.

Saint Andrew’s Parochial School was given two entrances, boys and girls, one on each frontage, and a pair of the charity children statues was placed at each door, showing bluecoat scholars in 18th century costume.

The building was damaged by incendiary bombs during the Blitz. After World War II, it was rebuilt internally as offices. The façade and was restored and retained, and the building was renamed Wren House.

The two pairs of bluecoat scholars were taken down during World War II and sent for safe keeping to Bradfield College, Berkshire. Two figures have been replaced in their original positions above the main entrance as a memorial of the former use of the building, while the other pair now stand on the tower of Saint Andrew’s Church, Holborn.

Wren House at 43 Hatton Garden was built as a church in 1686, and is said to have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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