THE LONDON SILVER VAULTS

The London Silver Vaults, situated beneath the north end of London’s Chancery Lane are located in an ancient area, marking the very western boundary of the City of London, established in 1160 by the Knights Templar who owned the land.

Opened officially in 1953, the building’s heritage can be traced back to 1227, when the street became home to the Lord Chancellor’s palace (from which Chancery is derived). Henceforth it was associated with the legal profession, and various Inns of Court, including Lincoln’s and Staple Inns, flourished around it.

 

The famous Agas Map of 1561 shows just how rural the area was during the Elizabeth period. Chancery Lane is marked in yellow, and the London Silver Vaults lie beneath the fields to the east of the street. It is notable on all respected London maps throughout eight centuries how little the layout of Chancery Lane and Holborn, and their smaller tributary streets, have changed.

Only 150 years later, in 1676, a subsequent map by Ogilby & Morgan shows the rapid evolution of Chancery Lane into a sophisticated legal mini metropolis, still on exactly the same street lines.

Agas Map of 1561. Chancery Lane marked in yellow

 

The Georgian period saw little change in Chancery Lane and the surroundings. The area had been untroubled by the Fire of London in 1666, and was a prosperous professional marketplace dating back many centuries. It was not a shopping street that needed to keep up with the latest fashions, and was very much all about business, with many of the buildings dating from Tudor times.

Old building, Chancery Lane c1550, from engraving dated 1845.

The prosperity of the nineteenth century brought many changes to London, but one of the most dramatic in terms of infrastructure (if perhaps the least dramatic to casual observer) was the introduction of London’s underground railway network. In January 1863, London opened ‘The Underground’ between Paddington and Farringdon using gas-lit carriages pulled by steam trains. Lesser known is the concurrent development of the London Pneumatic Despatch Company, which also opened for business in 1863. It had been proposed in 1859 by In 1859 Thomas Webster Rammell and Josiah Latimer Clark for ‘the more speedy and convenient circulation of despatches and parcels’. Pneumatic or ‘atmospheric’ railways, as they were known, were remarkable pieces of Victorian engineering, using differential air pressure to provide propulsion for a railway car. Essentially, the air pressure was lowered in a sealed tunnel in front of the railway car to create a vacuum, sucking the car along a continuous pipe like a piston. In London’s increasingly busy postal service, now groaning beneath the weight of paper generated by an empire on which the sun never set, the subterranean pneumatic railway seemed like the perfect answer.

The original line ran from Eversholt Street to Euston Station, but subsequently, in 1865, a line from Holborn to Gresham Street, via the huge General Post Office on St Martin’s Le Grand was under construction. It is a largely unknown fact that London’s Underground system does not correspond to Harry Beck’s 1931 map, but in fact in Zone 1, follows the ancient road system, thus:

Courtesy TfL

The main reason the Underground or ‘Tube’ tunnels follow the roadways is that the government had to compensate property owners if they tunnelled beneath their holdings, but to dig beneath roads cost them nothing.

In 1866, there was a financial crisis in the City of London caused by the collapse of the Overend, Gurney and Company, the ‘banker’s bank’, with debts at the time of more than 11 million, and work on the pneumatic railways was forced to pause. However, a ⅜ mile pneumatic tube had been constructed at vast expense. It began again two years later, and was finally completed in 1869, stretching to St Martin’s le Grand, and cars full of mail could then travel from the General Post Office to Newgate Street in under 17 minutes, reaching speeds of up to 60mph.

Unfortunately, atmospheric railways are notoriously unreliable, and cars full of parcels were continually stuck in the tunnels, so by 1874, the Post Office abandoned the use of the tunnel running west-east beneath the north end of Chancery Lane. It did not, however, stay abandoned for long.

Key to the construction of the pneumatic railway, already known in 1864 as ‘the tube’, was that telegraphic wires were laid down at the same time, beginning December 1864. In addition to this, in 1838, the new Public Record Office had been created, ostensibly fronting onto Chancery Lane, but in fact a vast complex that took up acres of land on the east side of the street, stretching all the way to Fetter Lane. It replaced the old Fetter Lane record office, which had incorporated the church or chapel of the Rolls, and the frontage visible now (as Kings College University campus) was built in 1851-1858 by James Pennethorne. Like the telegraphic wires, the Record Office would play an integral part in the genesis of the Chancery Lane Safe Deposit Company in years to come.

Upon the closure of the pneumatic railway, a group of enterprising City of London businessmen approached the London Pneumatic Despatch Company to purchase the stretch of tunnel between Holborn and Hatton Garden with the intention of creating safe storage in the form of safety deposit boxes and strong rooms. This was a considerable undertaking, and it took until the 7 May 1885 for the Chancery Lane Safe Deposit Company to open for business at 61 & 62 Chancery Lane. leasing safe deposit boxes and strong rooms for the ‘Safekeeping of Plate, Jewels, Bonds &c.’ The address was 61 & 62 Chancery Lane, situated on the east side of the historic London street, near the busy thoroughfare of High Holborn, advertised ‘telephone rooms’ for the use of renters as one of the main attractions.

Pamphlet courtesy British Library

The Chancery Lane Safe Deposit Co., was only the second non-bank-based safe deposit premises in the United Kingdom; the first was The National Safe Deposit Co., of 1872, founded in Queen Victoria Street, City of London. (The only other significant openings of private safe deposits in British history are Harrods, 1896; St James’s Safe Deposit Co., Manchester, 1912, London Safe Deposit Co., Lower Regent Street, 1931; and Selfridges, Oxford Street, 1930. The Chancery Lane Safe Deposit Company was notable for its use of the highly regarded John Tann Safe, also used by the Bank of England, and the most famous of all Victorian safe-building families.

Images Courtesy John Tann Family

So confident of the security of their safe deposit, that The Company, in 1893, advertised ‘in urgent terms for a burglar or two’ under the headline ‘BURGLARS WANTED’. The Company allegedly was, ‘in fact, very anxious that some enterprising Bill Sykes should try his hand on the invincible premises at Chancery Lane’. The 1890s were of paramount importance to the reputation of the safe deposit company.   

The presence of private telephone rooms for renters meant that the Safe Deposit was soon in high demand from dealers in diamonds and antique silver from the nearby diamond District Hatton Garden: it was a convenient and secure place from which to do business, a short walk away from their retail premises.

Image courtesy Hirschfields of Hatton Garden, established 1875

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Chancery Lane Safe Deposit Company was storing everything from personal possessions to gold ingots, and in one case, the symbolic safekeeping of a single penny. The eccentric gentleman in question died in 1924, having kept the coin in the otherwise empty strongroom for 30 years. Upon his death, he estate was worth in the region of half a million pounds. His heirs took the penny away.

After a prosperous few decades, disaster struck the Company on the first night of the Blitz at 2259 on September 7 1940, when the road in front of the Safe Deposit was struck by 2 incendiary bombs. However, the strongrooms and safe deposit boxes were either destroyed or fatally compromised on the 25 of the same month be a direct hit (the same night Staple Inn was bombed): the image below depicts all that was left above ground the following morning.

The Blitz mobilised the British government to immediately create eight deep level air raid shelters in London, with the aim of holding 10,000 people in each shelter. Chancery Lane Deep Shelter is the only one on the Central Line: the others are Belsize Park, Camden Town, Goodge Street, Stockwell, Clapham North, Clapham Common and Clapham South, all on the Northern Line. Chancery Lane deep shelter was, however, unique in the that it was not truly intended to offer shelter to large numbers of ordinary London citizens: the extensive network of telephone cables installed in the tunnels meant that it was soon set up as a communications hub for government personnel during the war, with some of the most sophisticated technology of the time. The government took over the old Safe Deposit premises and converted them into part of what became Chancery Lane Deep Shelter and Kingsway Exchange.

Note the old parquet flooring alongside later linoleum.

Courtesy BT Archives

In 1950, the threat of war was over, although the Kingsway Exchange was kept open until 1980 as a Cold War communications centre. The Chancery Lane deep shelter was redundant, and many of London’s dealers again needed safe storage for their goods. After a period of negotiation, rebuilding above ground, and extensive subterranean works, The Chancery Lane Safe Deposit Company and London Silver Vaults opened in 1953 at 53-64 Chancery Lane, housed in part of the deep shelter running parallel with the street itself.

After six decades, they remain the largest retail space for antique and modern silverware in the world, and many of the businesses are multi-generation family enterprises.

© Lucy Inglis and Simon Surtees

 

  • Antique silver services of flatware are typically priced on 60 pieces
  •  Modern knives are usually added to the service – with stainless steel blades
  • Condition is important. Consider the length of tines on forks and quality of the bowl in spoons
  • Victorian services are heavier with greater degree of decoration then the Edwardian counterparts
  • Pre 1800 examples are uncommon
  • George Adams
  • William and Mary Chawner
  • Jackson and Fullerton
  • C J Vander
  • Francis Higgins
  • William and Elizabeth Eaton
  • Lias Brothers
  • Richard Crossley and George Smith
  • Paul Storr

Arygropoulina, niece of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, is thought to have brought a set to Venice for her marriage to the son of the Doge, in 1004. At this stage, even relatively high status tables used trenchers (from the Old French – tranchier) of stale bread to eat from. The bread absorbed the juices or sauces from meats and could be eaten at the end of the meal in an ordinary household, but was commonly given as alms to the poor in a small ceremony after a feast. Later, when people more commonly carried their own small knives for eating, trenchers were increasingly made from wood, and scoured with sand after the meal to be used again.

The wooden trencher was the precursor of the plate, which began to appear in earthenware, and metal, then later, Delft and porcelain. By that stage, forks had been more widely adopted by Western Europe, particularly more aristocratic women, such as Catherine de Medici who brought some back to France from Italy in 1533. Henry VIII of England was presented with a sterling silver fork to eat his beloved sweetmeats after dinner, but even he still ate with his hands most of the time. His daughter Elizabeth I increased the usage of the fork at her table, but it was not until the second quarter of the seventeenth century that more spoons and forks in sterling appeared for ‘ordinary’ (as in, affluent but not royal) tables. They were, however, often viewed as a rather pompous way to eat, and the Puritan movement that emerged in the early eighteenth century in Europe and particularly Britain meant that ‘fancy’ cutlery sparked religious condemnation. In addition, forks at this stage were still two-pronged, so unless spearing larger pieces of meat or vegetables, they were somewhat impractical for conveying food from plate to mouth. Rising levels of wealth and sophistication in Europe in the early eighteenth century meant that Germany was responsible for adding in a ‘middle’ or third time, accommodating a more delicate was of eating.

The French were quick to adopt a more refined style of living and dining in the eighteenth century, and, keen to discourage violence, and a more sedate dining experience, began to introduce rounded ends to the blades on table knives from 1699 onwards (although ironically, the ‘pistol’ handle was the most popular style at the time). It was the French who changed dining throughout this century by introducing different sized knives and forks for different courses, seen by some as very ostentatious, but it aided their new way of eating, which was with different courses served at separate times, rather than loading all table with food at the same time in the ‘Russian’ or peasant manner.

By the Victorian period, large services with elaborate patterns, some of which are discussed elsewhere on this page, dominated the British and European dining table, with the fork held in the left hand, knife in the right, and different spoons used for the obligatory soup, then custards, sweet syllabubs and sorbets, and of course, tea and coffee. Styles of eating had changed, however, in America, where the table fork was still relatively scarce until around 1800, meaning that people cut their food into small pieces with their knife, before changing to a spoon held in the right hand to then scoop them up. This form of dining caused a sharp divide in the development of British and American cutlery, the latter of which did not develop a wide range of implements until the late nineteenth century.

The technological advances of the early twentieth century, as well as changes in food storage and processing meant that many more items, such as pickle forks, became popular. Additionally, the invention of stainless steel around 1913 meant that knives were no longer made from mild steel, which was troublesome to keep sharp and rust free.

British Flatware Patterns

“Below is some introductory information on the variety of flatware patterns available in British silver. It’s worth noting that there are many variants on each of the standard patterns, and it would be confusing to explain them all here, so it is limited to the most well known and popular of the styles of each period.”

Rattail, Hanoverian and Old English

Amongst the oldest patterns in English flatware are Rattail, Hanoverian, and Old English. All appear similar, but there are subtle differences that distinguish the three. Rattail is so named because of the distinctive ‘spine’ that forms the front of the spoon, and the ‘tail’ on the back of the bowl. A little later, with the arrival of the German King George I to the English throne comes the plainer, and often 3-tine Hanoverian pattern (which soon modifies into 4 tines). Then, in the George III period, from 1760 onwards, Old English emerges, reflecting the status of George III as the first English monarch of the Hanover line. Old English features 4 tines, an abbreviated spine on the front of the spoons and forks known as the ‘pip’, and no tail or ‘lug’ on the back. It is considered the most restrained and elegant of the antique British flatware designs. Old English is still manufactured today, but we usually have services that are either Georgian, or Edwardian, when the pattern had a resurgence in popularity.

Fiddle

The earliest of all the Fiddle patterns is alleged to be a piece in the Esquiline Treasure of the late Roman period in the British Museum, although the inspiration for this piece is not known. The pattern emerges in 1739 in British silver, and becomes increasingly popular until 1800 when it becomes almost ubiquitous. Fiddle pattern always has 4 tines, a lug, and a pip, as well as ‘shoulders’ and the distinctive ‘fiddle body’ at the base. It also combines ‘French’ and ‘English’ contrasts in the spoon and fork, which turn up (forks) and down (spoons), which is a nod to the different ways French and English tables were laid. Fiddle pattern is the most influential of all English flatware patterns, and owing to its increased weight compared to most Old English services, was a good basis for developing the more elaborate styles that dominated the Victorian period.

Fiddle & Thread, and Fiddle & Shell

Fiddle & Thread is a variant of the plain Fiddle pattern, that typically adds around 30% to the weight of a full service, compared to plain Fiddle. It developed in the 1790s, but became most popular around 1810 to 1815. Owing to its additional weight, it was a popular pattern in the military, although examples of regimental silver have usually seen very heavy wear and are less desirable for modern domestic use.

Fiddle, Thread & Shell

Fiddle, Thread & Shell combines Fiddle & Thread, and Fiddle & Shell, adding again to the weight of a full service. It emerged in 1810 and is still produced today. It remains one of the most popular solid silver flatware patterns, and is elegant and formal, yet appropriate for everyday use.

King’s Shape, Queen’s Shape and Variants

As disposable incomes rose throughout the Regency period, as well as available bullion silver supplies, tastes in silver, as well as other decorative furnishings became more elaborate. King’s pattern is based on French designs of the eighteenth century, but remodelled in the British taste. Ideally, the pattern appears both on the front and on the back (double struck), and there are a large number of variant patterns, such as King’s Hourglass, Honeysuckle, Union Shell, Rosette and Husk. Victoria and Albert, named after the British Queen and her Consort, are also King’s variants. Queen’s Shape and her variants are a rounded, softer version of King’s, slightly more feminine and a little more scarce, but also popular throughout the nineteenth century.

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