Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden, By Rachel Lichtenstein

Where there's muck there's jewellery

Lucy Popescu
Saturday 23 June 2012 16:38

Diamond traders and sewer flushers are an unlikely combination, but Rachel Lichtenstein met both during her five-year research into Hatton Garden. Many corners of London have a fascinating history, and its renowned jewellery quarter is no exception. Lichtenstein's own family worked in the area: her grandfather traded with dealers in the late Thirties, her parents set up shop in the Eighties and her husband now runs the family jewellery business.

Her father introduced her to various intriguing characters who had witnessed the neighbourhood's subtle transformations over the years. Of these, two stand out, and the book is dedicated to them. Isadore Mitizman, known as Mitzy, was a master ring- maker who dressed like a tramp but was rumoured to be a millionaire. His colourful stories about "highwayman and daring thefts ... abandoned monasteries, extra-terrestrial sightings, hauntings and freak fairs" first spiked Lichtenstein's interest in the area. Another craftsman, Dave Harris, spent nearly 70 years working in Hatton Garden and recalls how, in the Thirties, diamond deals were made on the street or in kosher restaurants. The majority of people working there were Jewish and trade was built on trust.

Lichtenstein is an artist, writer, local historian and archivist, and her multi-faceted approach makes fascinating reading. Poring over maps and other documents, she traces the original site of the estate owned by the bishops of Ely. Dating from the 13th century, it encompassed several acres of vineyards, pastureland and orchards as well as London's oldest Roman Catholic church, St Etheldreda. After Sir Christopher Hatton was granted the land by Elizabeth I, it became known as the Liberty of Saffron Hill, Hatton Garden and Ely Rents. The police had no jurisdiction over any criminals who entered Ely Place, as it remained under Cambridge law until the 17th century, and as a consequence it became a hive of illegal activity. Dick Turpin and other highwaymen were known to frequent the area in the 18th century.

Although appalling slum dwellings proliferated around it, Hatton Garden remained an upmarket street, with philanthropic institutions such as St Andrew's Church Charity School and Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital.

Lichtenstein also explores the changing geography of the area. The lower course of the river Fleet once ran through Clerkenwell and into the Thames at Blackfriars, but urban development contributed to its pollution and eventually it was entombed underground in Joseph Bazalgette's sewer pipes. In the final chapter, Lichtenstein describes the bizarre experience of exploring the Victorian tunnels beneath Farringdon Road.

Diamond Street is the second in Lichtenstein's trilogy of books on London streets, building on the much acclaimed On Brick Lane; a volume on Portobello Road is to follow. Among her many talents is her ability to make us look with a fresh eye at familiar urban spaces.

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