London’s Hatton Garden, the centre of the UK’s diamond trade, has been called one of the city’s most secret streets. Even that most intrepid of London wanderers, Iain Sinclair, admits to never being able to pluck the heart out of its mystery.
An exciting journey then for reader and author Rachel Lichtenstein, who following her On Brick Lane, now moves further west to a tiny village-like part of Clerkenwell and Farringdon that teems with rich layers and layers of buried history and the hidden River Fleet.
At the heart of the book is the author’s Jewish family who worked in Hatton Garden – her husband continues to manage their jewellery business there. Through her personal connections Rachel Lichtenstein is able to give us a compelling and atmospheric picture of the street’s almost one hundred per cent Jewish past and present, through its craft workers and traders – a recommended career route for young Jewish men from the East End.
In many ways the end of an era - as the old craftsmen die off and the diamond business faces globalisation – the lives of master workers such as the eccentric Mitziman are lovingly and painstakingly recreated. It was only after the Second World War that the street’s shops sold direct to the public. Before then it was an even more secretive place, with its surrounding streets and alleys, a warren of overcrowded and sweaty workshops and studios, producing some of the most priceless jewellery for the English and European aristocracy.
It is this theme of hardship, struggle and survival for most that links Hatton’s Garden’s near-present with its past. Most of its Jews lived in East London and it was the area’s Italian and Irish immigrant population which contributed to the place’s torrid street life. The latter joined natives in a part of London that for centuries had been infamous for its crime, poverty and disease and where Jonathan Wild, Dick Turpin and, who knows, Moll Flanders once rubbed shoulders.
It is the threat of crime that, understandably, still keeps the street a secretive place, together with its closed and guarded protectors – the female author only just manages to enter the even more secretive Diamond Bourse. Unlike Brick Lane Hatton Garden doesn’t wear its rich multicultural history on its sleeve. But for a London street that one often takes for granted, Rachel Lichtenstein reveals to us in wonderful detail the fascinating place that Hatton Garden is.
Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden by Rachel Lichtenstein is published by Hamish Hamilton on 7 June 2012, £20.00 hardback