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Harry Permutt, Master Goldsmith

March 11, 2018
by the gentle author

Harry Permutt, Master Goldsmith

At eighty-two years old, Harry Permutt believes he is the oldest working goldsmith in Hatton Garden. As the grandson of immigrants who made their lives in Petticoat Lane at the beginning of the last century and as one who has learnt his skills over more than sixty years in the Clerkenwell jewellery trade – working his way up to become a master goldsmith – Harry carries an astonishing collection of stories and a rare depth of historical perspective.

Yet Harry’s vision is tinged with melancholy these days, as I discovered when I visited him at his beautiful old workshop in Panther House, Mount Pleasant from which he is being evicted at the end of this month prior to redevelopment for luxury flats. Hidden in a back street at the junction of Grays Inn Rd and Clerkenwell Rd, the attractive towering castle-like structure of Panther House was built by lithographers Malby & Sons in 1905. Harry told me it was built on the site of the madhouse attached to the old Fleet Prison and as long as he can remember – which is around eighty years – it has been used for workshops for small tradesmen and craftworkers. Supplying essential skills to the lucrative jewellery business in Hatton Garden, their activities have defined the identity of this corner of London for centuries but now they are struggling to find space to work.

In spite of the poignant circumstances of my visit to see his atmospheric workshop before he loses it, Harry was able to rise to the occasion magnificently, regaling me with lyrical tales of old Clerkwenwell.

“In Clerkenwell, from Goswell Rd up until Mount Pleasant, I know everything about. Please God! For guys like me, Clerkenwell is known as the ‘Well.’ From the top of St John St to the Angel, go around in a half circle and you’ve got the back way where all the engravers were, you’ve got the silversmiths, the trophy makers, the masonic jewellers and the polishing workshops. All dingy, dirty basements. We have lived in basements like nobody would ever believe. We had fire gilding and mercury gilding in the Goswell Rd on the site where the University of London is now. In Britton St, where all the condemned houses were, Old Joe, one of the polishers I worked with down in Benjamin Hill, he had been born down there. The one room flat that they rented was surrounded with prostitution. It was so colourful, we knew everybody down there by name. This was where the burglars brought their stuff, it goes back to the Dickensian days when you could do anything and get away with anything. It spread out from the City into the Well and we got mixed up with the Sicilians on the one side and the Italians on the other, of which the twain never met. They were rogues, especially just after the War. They brought back a lot of stuff that was illegal and you did whatever work came to hand. You’d never let a job go and you charged accordingly. One of the oldest Italian families, I still work for them. The grandmother she still lives here and her husband was one of the big villains down here in the old days.

My grandparents came into Middlesex St as immigrants from Russia and Poland in 1917. They had four sons who were educated at the Jewish Free School in Strype St, Spitalfields and they all became cabinet makers, including my father, before they went off and did other things. They were such good cabinet makers, they were commissioned to do all the veneers in the lounge saloons on the Queen Mary. One of my uncles was picked for the England Cricket team but he died of tuberculosis.

My grandmother ran a fruit and veg business in Petticoat Lane, she got all the stallholders together and they started to trade into the Spitalfields Market. It was a poor family but my grandparents did very well for themselves,

I failed my eleven-plus and I told my parents I wanted to go to art school. At Central School of Arts, I studied jewellery – mounting, setting and enamelling. Then, because I had family in the business from Russia dealing in diamonds and so forth, my father was coming down here to Clerkenwell and he knew some of the Italian families, so I got introduced down here and I got an apprenticeship.

I started at 144 St John St, facing us used to be the the old LCC block of flats where all the prostitutes used to hang out. After I graduated from Central, the governor said to me, ‘Harry, throw everything out the window and start again from the beginning.’ So I swept floors for a year and made the tea until I graduated up. But I had to break my apprenticeship to do National Service and I got sent to Korea. In 1956, I came back and finished and started to work on my own, running here, there and everywhere. Technically, I was a ‘runner.’ A runner is a ‘jewellery runner,’ you learn how to pick up the nice pieces of jewellery. You ply your trade that way. You go round markets and you go ‘on the knocker,’ house to house. Four o’clock in the morning I used to go to Bermondsey and Camden Passage. You could get the finest pieces of jewellery out of Bermondsey in those days. I used to sell them to the antiques dealer from Macy’s New York.

A ‘runner’ is considered equally knowledgeable to a ‘mounter’ in the jewellery business. You get taught and you pick up how all this works. It’s a shake of hand, that’s how we still do business together among those that know. In doing that, you get a reputation and – thank goodness – I have still got mine, because that’s how I get work.

From 1957, work was so prolific in the jewellery trade I used to share workshops and I got offers to go around the world buying for other people. I never been employed by anybody since my apprenticeship days. I used to do their work first in the back of the workshop in the Clerkenwell Rd and then I would bring my own work in. The old boss there who knew my father, said, ‘Come and work for me!’ but I said to my dad, ‘I’m not going to work for him, he’s untrustworthy,’ which he was. They were a load of crooks. I used to deal in the ‘Garden,’ but I never did much because I don’t like the ‘Garden.’

I am a bench guy and nothing more. I didn’t actually get taught, I taught myself from the stuff I was handling in the old days. I didn’t learn from books, I learnt from hands. There are only about three of us left that can do what I do, I can restore gold and silver, I can do everything but then I don’t do anything modern. I can handle it but I don’t like it, I have my own views.

I will die doing my work at my bench. I love fine art and it is the fascination of what I do that keeps me going, I go into raptures over it. It’s not the value for me, it’s the fascination. When you restore antique jewellery, you’ve got to copy it so that it is exact. I had a friend who was a great artist who taught me me how to copy properly, that was Tom Keating. He took me under his wing. He used to say to me, ‘Harry, if you are going to copy something, be exact and you can’t go wrong.’

I’m working and working and I’m coming up to eighty-two and I’m staying healthy. My family have always been associated with this side of London, they call it the ‘East End.’ Let it be the ‘East End’ but it’s bloody marvellous. We all grew up here, we are all ‘toe-rags’ for want of a better word.”

Harry works on a pair of earrings with his French pipe

Kevin Cordery, Polisher & Plater shares the workshop with Harry

Panther House was built in 1905

Panther House in Mount Pleasant is to be redeveloped for luxury flats

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18 Responses leave one →
  1. March 11, 2018

    What a wonderful man, but he shouldn’t feel too sad at being evicted. London needs more luxury flats and fewer small businesses, after all. Why would we need a healthy domestic economy when rich Russians want to live here?

  2. StephenJ permalink
    March 11, 2018

    I’ve often wondered what goes on in there, I am a habitual visitor to “Process Supplies” photography sundries, which is just around the corner.

    Panther House is NOT pretty, reminds me very much of the sort of place I used to work in when I started as a wages clerk.

    However we will all be much worse off when the area is just luxury flats and people like Harry won’t exist because everyone goes to socialist school in order to learn how to comply.

    Long live the “Harry’s”, I say…

  3. Sally permalink
    March 11, 2018

    What a great interview. Harry and his colleagues are wonderful and should
    Be celebrated for their skill and craftsmanship.
    I wish Panther house could be saved.

  4. Jonathan Madden permalink
    March 11, 2018

    This man’s story connects us like a thin fragile thread to a London that has all but disappeared now. I used to drink in the Clock House pub in Leather Lane back in the late 70′s, there were many more like him who used to meet there in those days. We should cherish these artisans and listen to their stories, instead we seem to want to erase their legacy completely. Thanks so much for the post and for shining a light on a fast vanishing world.

  5. March 11, 2018

    God, this makes me angry.

    This article in its entirety should go to Sadiq Khan and to Sajid Javid and to MP’s and the press as an example of a hole in the planning process which is not in the interests of the economy per se.

    Local Plans (the central strategic (and *largely* binding) land-use policy document every local authority has or should have) delineate where classes of activity can take place development-wise. So, for instance, HERE, I would expect to see the premises in the area Local Plan as protected for employment use. Is there a local plan and what is the use class designation for this site?

    When CREATING local plans (which are in effect for decades in some cases), the public is often lax in becoming involved at the consultation stages (and there are several stages) and here we have a precise example of a building which, even if considered expendable on many grounds, should STILL have been identified as requiring an employment element, or as B1/B8 light industrial/office use in the local plan. Protecting employment is one of the many jobs of a Local Plan.

    No consent for this site should have been legally available without provision of replacement studios for ALL these people!!!!!!!

    Belatedly, I think people are starting to be aware that artists are not able to find workspace but what about artisans, craftspeople? Work-live spaces are sometimes created in new developments but they tend not to be for dirty/messy and space consumptive work such as most craftspeople need….more about genteel IT work behind computers!!!!

    God. Its Sunday morning and I’m in a bad mood now. This makes me angry. None of these people are going to be able to replace such a building space.

    In Brighton, a tatty building called New England House, has become a major source of employent full of small traders and Brighton & Hove Council recognises it and feels huge obligation to retain it and support it.

    Identify places and make sure they get into Local Plans as protected for specific kinds of irreplaceable employment. We need some kind of Listing for rare trades premises as much as for heritage buildings.

  6. March 11, 2018

    I could really just sit down and howl I am so upset by what is happening now to these people.

  7. Hilary Smith permalink
    March 11, 2018

    Harry – I hope you find somewhere new to work. Your story is so interesting.

  8. Sue permalink
    March 11, 2018

    Hope those people who move in enjoy their luxury flats and the fact they they have stolen another bit of London history.

  9. David Spice permalink
    March 11, 2018

    I remember these workshops well, starting when I was about 9 (56 now) I used to go up with my father to help out in his workshop in Hatton garden, firstly at diamond house where he worked for Vertex, later he moved to 132 Hatton garden(I think) it was above the old Barclays Bank in a relatively modern building. I used to be sent down to these workshops when something needed repairing that my father didn’t specialise in.
    Father started his apprenticeship in Hatton garden in 1935 or thereabouts, then came the war and he spent 5 years in the raf as an instrument technician, unfortunately he was posted to burma in 1942 and returned in 1946 and by all account was never the same.
    He then worked in Maidstone for a while before returning to Hatton garden where he remained for the next 30 years, I used to strip the watches and etch numbers in them prior to them being cleaned and repaired, woe betide me if I got it wrong! The jewellers I. The basements fascinated me, the whole of the garden was workshops downstairs and also in clerkenwell. Fascinating place and characters I remember so fondly. My reward for my efforts would be to buy a matchbox car from gamages at the end of Hatton garden.

    So glad I got to experience the old London that has now all but dissapeared, chips like Harry and my father and their skills have faded away and sadly rarely replaced if ever. My father continued working until in his mid eighties when the checks ended his career,

    Wishing Harry all the luck in the future.

  10. Adele permalink
    March 11, 2018

    Fascinating story/interview. There goes another piece of the London I grew up in. Used to visit that area often as I had my shoes hand made (because of very small size) by a little Greek shoemaker who ran his business out of one of the basements Harry describes. Sad, sad, sad.
    Good Luck Harry, ‘til 120′, as we say in the Jewish tradition.

  11. David shaw permalink
    March 11, 2018

    Curly good to see you, your one of the last pioneers of Hatton garden keep well david

  12. Francesca Jobson permalink
    March 11, 2018

    Loved this story my father was a Clerkenwell Italian,if he was still alive he would be 106 years old.It made me laugh when Harry refered the inhabitants as Scillians and Italians.My fathers family came from Piacenza in the north of Italy near Milan and they also thought of the Sicilians as a different race to themselves.The northern Italians would cross the street to avoid walking on the same pavement as a Sicilian ,they believed them all to be villains!.Seams funny to think of that now.

  13. March 11, 2018

    A fascinating story and what wonderful skin Harry has got, not a wrinkle or a line to be seen. Well done Harry and may the future be kind to you, you deserve it.

  14. Christina Mitchell permalink
    March 11, 2018

    A very good read. What a pity this building is going to be lost.

  15. David Spice permalink
    March 11, 2018

    RE ; earlier post,

    I really should have re read and spellchecked !

    The jewellers in the basements not (the jewellers I, )

    Chaps like Harry not (chips )

    And my father worked until his mid eighties when the shakes ended his career, not checks….!

    Apologies…

  16. VANDA HUMAN permalink
    March 12, 2018

    Another interesting article and yet another beautiful historic building to be destroyed for yet another block of luxury flats. Where are these gifted tradesmen going to find cost effective rentals to ply their trades,?

  17. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 24, 2018

    Fascinating story! Sad that yet again we’re losing another piece of London and the characters in it, to disappear forever…

  18. April 8, 2018

    Best of luck to Harry and keep up the struggle! We were neighbours at Panther House – in Courtyard Studio, where a couple of my illustrator colleagues have been for well over 20 years. All of us evicted last month. I was moved to take a couple of quick photos of Harry’s stuff filling the corridor as we too moved out last month. But there is some hope. I’m lucky to live off Brick Lane and near Petticoat Lane where Harry’s family started out – and me and my illustrator friends feel very lucky to have got a reasonably priced studio now on Brick Lane. All thanks to a local association which is making some kind of stand against all the big corporate developments.

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