The Man Who Saved London’s Treasures


For over forty years, George “Stoney Jack” Lawrence used cunning, generosity, and a network of lower class workers to find some of the greatest archeological treasures in London.


George-Fabian-Lawrence--300x272The early half of the 20th century saw some of the most excavations done in the city, to make way for new buildings that needed deeper foundations. However, since large-scale earth-moving equipment was still decades in the future, the digs were done by shovel, allowing for the discovery and preservation of historic objects as the workers dug through layers of past civilizations that had not been seen in centuries. Lawrence made a habit of befriending the “navvies,” the lower-class laborers who did the hard manual labor of excavation and building. While buying them drinks, Lawrence would let it be known that he would be happy to purchase any oddities they might come across during excavation. In some cases, he even offered “rudimentary archaeological training” so that his friends would know which sorts of objects were most valuable. He kept half-crowns (about $18.50 each in today’s money) in his pockets in order to instantly reward contacts, and word soon spread that Stoney Jack was the one to go to when anything unusual was unearthed. Many of the navvies found their way to his shop on Sundays, since it was the only day they could smuggle larger items away from the excavations.


cheap1.jpgThough the provenances for Stoney Jack’s historic wares were often dubious at best, few museums could resist the chance to own some of his more spectacular finds. Lawerence himself worked for several museums at various points during his career. While Lawrence’s methods were unethical (and the removal of historical objects from their archaeological context resulted in a loss of possible knowledge), he was also known for being exceptionally fair to the laborers who brought him their finds. If a museum bought a piece for more than he had expected, he would track down the navvy who had brought it to him, and give him his increased share of the profit. He also never sent a contact away empty-handed; if an item brought to him had no value, he gave the finder enough money for a beer at a nearby pub.


Despite his eagerness to buy and sell these finds, Lawrence never seemed to be motivated by profit. Journalist H.V Morton wrote about him, “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 had probably brought it and the streets of the long-vanished London it had known. The whole picture took life and colour as he spoke. I have never met anyone with a more affectionate attitude to the past.” His store in London was frequented by schoolboys, who marvelled over the strange assortment of historical odds and ends. Morton writes, “He loved nothing better than a schoolboy who was interested in the past. Many a time I have seen a lad in his shop longingly fingering some trifle that he could not afford to buy. ‘Put it in your pocket,’ Lawrence would cry. ‘I want you to have it, my boy, and–give me threepence!‘”
cheap3.jpgThe greatest find to ever come into Stoney Jack Lawrence’s possession was the Cheapside Hoard: approximately 500 pieces of gemstones, rings, and other jewelry. It was excavated from a cellar just prior to WWI, and is the greatest set of Elizabethan and Stuart era relics ever found. It’s uncertain exactly where and when the hoard was uncovered; Stoney Jack frequently changed details to keep the owners of property where finds were discovered from making a claim on the find. Like many hoards, most of the jewelry and gems were massed inside a large lump of clay, with many of the individual pieces bent and twisted. The navvies who uncovered it thought it was a set of children’s toys. Accounts differ as to how much Lawrence was offered for his find; some say it was as little as £90, while Morton claims it was £1000 which he split with his navvy contacts.


Lawrence’s methods are certainly debateable. There’s no doubt that he intentionally kept landowners from making claims on the finds he profited from, and his methods of collecting via the navvy network ensured that finds made their way to him in bits and pieces, destroying the archaeological context in which they were found. At the same time, had he not had his network in place, most of these items would simply have been dumped on junk barges and sent down the Thames to the Erith marshes and lost to history forever. Some of history’s greatest treasures were saved by an untrained history enthusiast and a network of manual laborers.


(Cheapside Hoard photos courtesy of the Museum of London.)

The Rare Davis’s Penny Post Stamps

What happens when you misspell a simple word? If it’s on a stamp, it makes it a rarity.

We’ve written about the London Penny Post already. But what about the Post businesses that emerged from the original?

With such a new and original ventures, errors were sure to occur. One such example comes from William D. Davis, who started his own Penny Post in 1856. He advertised for 25 “intelligent youths” in The Sun (source).

Advertisements for the service appeared in The Sun through February 18, but never after that date. It seems the service lasted through one Valentine’s season, then stopped.

But that doesn’t mean the service didn’t leave a lasting impression. There are 14 known stamps to exist from Davis’s Penny Post, and some have amusing errors. There are also four known covers with Davis’s stamps.


The most well-known Davis stamp error is in the word “Penny”. The “y” was instead set as a “q”, spelling “Pennq”. Strangely enough, this error hasn’t been listed in any catalogues. The first to notice the error was Elliott Perry in 1959, who wrote to the Scott Catalogue editor about the error, but the error still did not reach publication in the catalogue.

There are four known “Pennq” errors in existence, making them extremely rare.

And you have to admit, the spelling error is pretty hilarious.

The Drama of the London Penny Post

What did the city of London do before people could send private letters through the mail inside the city?

In the mid-17th century, mostly just merchants and traders sent messengers to carry information outside of London. Only one post office existed, and private posts were few and far between.

Then William Dockwra and Robert Murray stepped in to change up the postal system forever. London’s sorely needed inner-city mail system started with Dockwra and Murray’s London Penny Post in 1680.

As the name would suggest, posts through the service cost only a penny. Suddenly, pricier posts through private carriers became unattractive and unnecessary for citizens of London. They took advantage of the Penny Post to send inner-city mail for cheap. Carriers traveled between participating receiving houses throughout the city dispatched letters once an hour for shorter distances and five times a day for longer distances.


The business venture was popular – so popular that it faced opposition. In 1680, Murray was arrested under accusation of distributing “seditious” materials on the Duke of York. Dockwra was left to lead the business himself; during that time he solidly established the business and designed the Post’s triangular postmarks. Because of this, Dockwra continually fought to be recognized as the one who brought major success to the business.

But legal issues continued to get in the way of the Penny Post, and in 1682 the government stepped in to establish the Post as part of the government’s General Post Office. Dockwra continued to petition for recognition and compensation for his creation of the service; he received a management post for four more years but got laid off again under accusations of poor management.

The price of postage gradually increased over time. The London Penny Post eventually inspired a number of other Posts in the UK and the US.

The Bloody Background of Barber Poles

Warning: Barber poles have a bloody history.

What today represents a simple haircut once represented something very different.

Barbers used to do much more than a haircut and shave. Customers would come to them for such services as surgery, picking out lice and setting bones, all services that physicians considered beneath them.

The main service of the barber was bloodletting. Bloodletting was a common medical practice until the 19th century, even practiced in the early 20th century, as it was believed to let out bad humors. Taking out enough blood to make the patient faint was considered beneficial.

Of course, today the practice seems ridiculous; bloodletting really only helps a very limited number of medical conditions.

People regularly went in to a barber to have their blood let, much like a regular dentist appointment today.

Drapers Barber Shop in Martinsville, Virginia.

Drapers Barber Shop in Martinsville, Virginia.

Barbers in Medieval London simply put bowls of blood in the windows to remind passersby to get their regular bloodletting service. But in 1307 the city realized that bowls of old blood were actually quite disgusting (took them long enough). It ruled for extra blood to be thrown in the Thames.

The ‘World’s Tallest Barber Shop Pole’ in Forest Grove, Oregon is 70 feet tall!

Barbers (sometimes called barber-surgeons) needed some way to advertise their services. They chose a pole with symbolic colors.

When barbers hung bloodied bandages outside their shop, the bandages would twist around the rod in the wind. The spiraling barber pole represents the twisted bandages, with red spiraling downward to represent the flow of blood and white for the bandages. Some suggest that the blue on the poles represent veins.

A 1540 law required barbers and surgeons to distinguish services by color. Barbers used blue and white, surgeons red and white.

Today’s barber poles mix the colors together to make the universal barber shop symbol.

Don’t go rushing to your barber for medical help, but now you can take a moment to appreciate a barber pole the next time you get your hair cut — and be glad that’s all you’re doing.

Beatrix Potter, Beloved Children’s Author

The beloved children’s book The Tale of Peter Rabbit is well-known the world over, and has been ever since its publication in 1902. Its universal themes still apply today and charm both children and adults in its quaint tales of country life.

Author Beatrix Potter had an inspiring life for a woman born in the Victorian era. She developed her own hobbies enough to gain an independent living from them.

Beatrix holding her pet dog.

Beatrix holding her pet dog.

It all starts with Peter Rabbit’s origin. At fourteen years old, Beatrix bought a rabbit named Benjamin Bouncer. Three years later when Benjamin died, she bought another rabbit and named it Peter. In the same year, Beatrix wrote a letter to her late governess’s son Noel, telling an illustrated tale of Peter Rabbit for the first time.

At age thirty-five Beatrix privately published The Tale of Peter Rabbit for her family and friends. Beatrix had also sent the manuscript to six publishers, but each of them rejected her. However, the London firm of Frederick Warne & Co. finally accepted the manuscript and published it in 1902. It was instantly popular and sparked a total of twenty-three “little Tales”, all published by Warne publishing.

A portrait of Beatrix

A portrait of Beatrix

Beatrix was a clever businesswoman and used her stories to market products to the public. As early as 1903 she made and patented a Peter Rabbit doll, followed by other merchandise such as painting books, board games, wallpaper, figurines, baby blankets and china tea sets. From all this, Beatrix earned an independent income as well as profits from her publisher.

In 1905, Beatrix and Norman Warne, one of the brothers of the publishing house who had worked with Beatrix on her stories, got engaged against her parents’ wishes. However, it was not to be; Warne died of leukemia a month after his proposal. Beatrix threw herself into her work as a distraction.

Tale_of_peter_rabbit_12When she earned enough money from her books and received a legacy from an aunt, Beatrix bought Hill Top Farm in 1905, a property in the tiny village the Lake District in England. Beatrix’s interest in conservation first developed during her visit to the Lake District when she was sixteen and the local vicar impressed his views of the need for conservation on young Beatrix.

Esthwaite Water, which Beatrix called her “favorite lake” in England went for sale on eBay this year for 300,000 pounds. No word on any takers.

Chidlow Pond at Hill Top Farm.

Chidlow Pond at Hill Top Farm.

When Beatrix had earned enough money to buy farmland, love returned to her life. The property dealer, a local man named William Heelis, helped her with acquiring property and her efforts of conservation and they gradually developed feelings for each other. Beatrix’s parents once again opposed the match, but this time she ignored them and married William in October 1913. They remained together until Beatrix’s death in 1943.

Following Beatrix’s wishes, almost all her property at Hill Top was left to the National Trust, and fans of her work can now visit the property and see the settings for so many of her stories. Beatrix was also a huge conservationist and she is credited with preserving the land for what is now the Lake District National Park.