Changing London

On Diamond Street – Delving into Hatton Garden’s glittering past

If you live in London and have plenty of spare cash to buy a wedding or engagement ring, the wares on offer at Hatton Garden will not disappoint. Most of this street is lined with jewellery shops, with diamonds glistening in the window displays. It’s here many celebrities and wealthy City workers come to impress their better halves.

I worked near Hatton Garden for some years and didn’t really stop to take in what the shops offered as I rushed along this stretch to grab a sandwich and then head back to the office. For those marking a special occasion it is a different matter – couples spend literally hours visiting the different jewellers here. There are literally hundreds of associated businesses here, making it the capital’s jewellery quarter and the centre of the UK diamond trade.

But whether or not you are fascinated by the beauty of diamonds, the history of Hatton Garden deserves a closer look. Once every diamond, precious stone and pearl that was sold in a British jewellery shop came through here. The world has moved on, but the area still retains its jewellery heritage. In recent years Kate Moss came here to have gold statues produced and cups for livery companies were produced at the last remaining silversmith and goldsmith workshop.

“Although Hatton Garden is no longer the centre of the world jewellery market, it remains a major player and still houses the largest cluster of jewellery based businesses in the UK, with over 300 separate companies that support the trade in the immediate area, and nearly sixty retail shops in the street itself,” wrote Rachel Lichtenstein in Diamond Street, a fascinating account of the area’s history.

With only few workshops remaining and the risk of the skills of master craftsmen at risk of being lost forever, the need to explore this area’s past has never been more urgent. Fortunately Lichenstein – who has family members with ties to the Hatton Garden trade – has produced an excellent readable volume and accompanying downloadable app as a guide to Diamond Street.

Pre diamonds

This is not my first attempt to delve into the area around Hatton Garden. Some time ago I wrote a piece about how, from 1290, the London residence of the Bishops of Ely London lay near to what is present-day Holborn Circus. It boasted at its peak a great hall, chapel, cloisters, vineyards, 58 acres of pastureland and walled gardens which were laid out in four symmetrical squares. One 16th century chronicler described Ely Palace as one of “the most magnificent metropolitan mansions”.

While the Bishops of Ely survived the Reformation in 1536 by splitting from the Catholic church and converting St Etheldreda’s chapel into a Protestant church, Elizabeth I granted the estate to her favourite, Sir Christopher Hatton in 1577 (the Bishops were allowed to continue to live in one of the appartments). But by 1772, the year that the land was sold to the Crown, many of the buildings had become little more than ruins. The medieval palace site was divided up, part of which was allocated to the allow the building of the elegant Ely Place.

But not all of the medieval palace has gone. As I noted in my previous post, the chapel of St Etheldreda dates from 1290 and survives as the oldest Catholic church in England (and is also one of only two remaining buildings in London from the reign of Edward I). In 1620 it was leased to a Catholic Spanish ambassador who used it for private Catholic services, which were considered illegal at the time. After a spell as an Anglican church, in 1878 it was the first pre-Reformation church in England to be restored to Catholic worship once practising of the faith was allowed again.

Nearby is the Mitre pub, one of my favourite drinking establishments in London, which was founded in 1546 to serve staff from Ely Palace (the current building dates from the 18th century however). When the Daily Mirror had its offices nearby, where the Sainsbury’s headquarters stands today, it used to open early for journalists. But is now a popular, if slightly out-of-the way, tourist haunt which seems to now be very famous for its toasted sandwiches! And there is a cherry tree preserved in the corner of pub which some say Elizabeth I danced around with Sir Christopher Hatton.

But given the focus for this piece is Hatton Garden it is right to now turn to that street which was laid out in the 17th century and became home to physicians, doctors, lawyers and barristers. The historian John Strype described the street – named after the aforementioned Sir Christopher Hatton – in 1720 as “spacious” and “very gracefully built, and well inhabited by the gentry.” And in 1761 London and Its Environs said Hatton Garden was “a broad, straight and long street, in which the houses are pretty and lofty…. and the street must be reckoned amongst the finest in the city”

However, despite attracting some very wealthy residents, it was surrounded by some of the poorest streets in London. “Hatton Garden managed to remain an oasis of respectability,” wrote Lichtenstein. “The wealthy residents were not all immune to the plight of their poor neighbours, however, and from the eighteenth century onwards many philanthropic institutions developed in and around Hatton Garden.”

Manufacturing centre

Before the first shops opened to members of the public, Hatton Garden became established from the 19th century as a centre for manufacturing jewellery. Its success can no doubt be attributed to the Huguenot, and later Italian, clockmakers and instrument makers who had settled earlier in nearby Clerkenwell. As more jewellery businesses set up on Hatton Garden, others at various different stages of the production process wanted to open up to be near their customers and suppliers. And so what had previously been well-to-do residential properties were demolished and the replacement buildings turned over to commercial use.

One of the companies that would have an early influence on the area was Johnson Matthey which in 1822 took over a 17th century house on Hatton Garden for its operations refining and selling silver and gold bullion. It was a dangerous and messy process, but the company became highly successful and by the 1920s it had taken over 13 houses on the street. The building is now the offices for various media companies.

Lichtenstein writes that Hatton Garden truly cemented itself as the centre of jewellery trade by 1910 because of De Beers, the company that rose on the discovery of diamond fields in Kimberley in modern day South Africa. Cecil Rhodes, the company’s chairman, had set up the London Diamond Syndicate in 1893 to which he sold its entire production of rough diamonds.

As many of the firms in this grouping were based in Hatton Garden, dealers, brokers, manufacturers and jewellers moved to open businesses in the area. In fact, by the aforementioned date of 1910 there were some 200 trading here.

De Beers opened its headquarters at 17 Charterhouse Street in 1934 and is, according to Lichtenstein, “the world’s central sorting office for rough diamonds, making London the most important rough-diamond centre internationally.” However, in recent years many of the operations have been moved to Botswana and the headquarters building itself is being sold off. As for De Beers as a company, its global monopoly on mine owning in the 1990s, but it is still in a powerful position to manipulate prices.

Lichtenstein’s portrait of Hatton Garden is full of wonderful accounts of those who remember diamond trading taking place under and above tables in cafes in the area. But now with security more of a consideration there is a dedicated venue – the Diamond Bourse – in the middle of the street for deals to be thrashed out and anyone who wants to enter needs to pass a number of security checks before being allowed in. As well as having a trade function, it boasts a members club, although some of those Lichtenstein interviewed thought that the Bourse’s primary function today was providing cheap office space.

Although the Hatton Garden industry has become more multicultural in recent years, the majority of people that worked in the various jewellery businesses were – and still are – Jewish. “There used to be plenty of kosher eateries around here catering for Orthodox workers but they have all shut down bar one,” Michael, a jewellery repairer told Lichtenstein. “This was a good trade to go into if you were a practising Jew. The working week was built around the religious needs of the community. It still is to an extent, the Bourse still shuts on a Friday afternoon and Saturday, also on yontif.”

And reading accounts from Lichtenstein and others you get the sense that Hatton Garden is as interesting, if not more so, below ground as it is above ground. Underneath the retail shops lies a fascinating network of tunnels, workshops and vaults. It was in one of the latter, accessed from 88 to 90 Hatton Garden, that an estimated £200 million was stolen in April 2015 from the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company in a heist that has been called the “largest burglary in English legal history.”

88 – 90 Hatton Garden, entrance to the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company

Open to the public

Retail shops first opened up on Hatton Garden in the 1950s and in time the area has “changed from a working area of jewellery manufacture to a street visited by thousands of tourists and customers,” wrote Lichtenstein. It is the place to go when buying for special occasions, as she notes: “On Saturdays, particularly, loved-up couples visit Hatton Garden, spending hours in the arcades, searching for wedding and engagement rings.”

In the course of her research she met someone who remembers when Hatton Garden was “an ordinary shopping Street with a smattering of jewellery shops and businesses connected to the trade, lots of offices, a tobacconist, restaurants and of course [the long gone department store] Gamages.”

Back in the 1960s Hatton Garden was “much quieter than today” and there were only a “few jewellery shops,” according to a long-serving jewellery repairer that Lichenstein interviewed called Michael. Before he remembers the first shop opening in 1968 it “was all jewellery manufacturing and workshops” and “a few other general shops in the street, like a tobacconists, a sweet shop, a few pubs, an optician’s. It was much more of a working place in the 60s, tourists never visited unless they were going to Gamages Department Store, which back then took up the whole square of Hatton Garden, Greville Street and Leather Lane.” That store closed in 1972 and was flattened for the current building housing WH Smith, Boots and Sainsbury’s, as well as flats above.

Given Hatton Garden’s origins as a place for trade buyers “there was a perception among the public that they were getting a bargain when the shops opened up – a trade deal more than a retail deal – and this was true: Hatton Garden has always been more than competitive with the high street and there is more individuality with the products on sale..,” according to Lichtenstein’s father who ran a shop in the area in the 1980s.

Jeremy Clarkson bought an engagement ring from her parents. Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit also visited the shop when they got engagement, buying a ring made from 22-carat gold.

Diamond Street endures

All is not entirely well in Hatton Garden. Lichenstein notes an influx of “Manhattan-style jewellery exchanges filled with multiple small market-style units” in recent years. Customers are often immediately hassled by traders as soon as they enter one of the arcades. “Good ideas are stolen, dealers need to be selling more cheaply than their neighbours to survive,” the author points out. “The intensely competitive atmosphere and market-style layout creates its own kind of energy, a world away from the gentle vibe in the rest of the shops on the street.”

And the number of jewellery workshops that housed the master craftsmen that made the area famous are steadily disappearing as the owners retire. Many of the spaces above the shops, which were used by artisans, have been sold off as flats (although now Camden Council is more strict and change of use for buildings is harder to come by). There has also been an influx of media type companies into the area in recent years.

But despite the enormous amount of change that Hatton Garden has seen in recent years, the fact that the so many businesses continue to operate from here and those that can afford it buy jewellery for special occasions from here shows that Diamond Street is not dead. It is just entering a new chapter in its long and fascinating history.

Hatton Garden

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