She has seen more than her fair share of crises over the years. However, her mission remains the same as it was when she was founded in 1694, in the words of the Bank Charter, to ‘promote the publick good and benefitt of our people’ by maintaining monetary and financial stability. The Bank of England (still known today by her nick-name The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street) was created to raise funds (from private investors) for the Government during a time of war with France – thereafter assuming the role of the United Kingdom’s central bank. After spending it’s first 40 years in rented accommodation at Mercer’s Hall (1694-95) and Grocers’ Hall (1695-1734), the Bank moved to it’s own offices in Threadneedle Street, Middlesex in 1734 (designed by little-known architect George Sampson).
The bank has undergone other extensions and refurbishments in the 19th century by Sir John Soane and in the 1920s by Sir Herbert Baker. The building as it appears today was completed in 1939.
The Bank’s famous nick-name “The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street” originates from a cartoon by satirist James Gillray in 1797 highlighting the effect of the Napoleonic Wars on the bank (of restricting payment for Gold). In the cartoon the Bank is shown as an old lady sitting on a strong-box dressed in bank notes with Prime Minister William Pitt making unwelcome advances towards her as she cries “Rape!” “Ravishment!”.
In these days of tight security, access into the historic Bank offices is strictly limited but the open day for the City of London Festival a couple of weeks ago provided an opportunity for me and a huge number of others to queue to nearly an hour to be rewarded with a free tour of a rich heritage of this institution which so surprisingly proved to be linked in many ways with that of Middlesex. The queuing proved a good chance to meet the aquaintance of the Bank’s doorman in full pink morning coat and top hat standing guard outside the banks imposing Lion-embossed bronze doors!
It’s strange that for such a serious place, the Bank displays such an unusually large amount of mythical symbolism which becomes apparent as soon as you walk in the door being greeted by an impressive George and the Dragon mosaic, in other areas Griffins act as symbolic guardians of the bank and a phoenix represents the City of London rising from the ashes of the Great Fire in 1666.
This post will explore some of more unusual objects of worldwide and Middlesaxon interest discovered in my short 45 minute tour of the Bank of England interior and exploration of the museum afterwards.
My tour of the Historic Interior and it’s worldwide connections
A Gift from Belgium: On the first floor landing there’s a late 16th century tapestry known as “The Brussels Tapestry”, believed to represent the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba which was presented to the Bank in 1946 by the Banque Nationale de Belgique in recognition of services and hospitality given to their representatives during the Second World War.
In China money really did grow on trees! – The Garden Court: Is a central courtyard which has it’s origins in the Churchyard of St Christopher-le-Stock which was marked for demolition in 1781 to make way for the expansion of the bank. This area contains four mulberry trees which serve as reminders of the origins of paper money – the earliest form of paper money being produced in China in the 7th century and printed on paper made of beaten mulberry bark.
The Expanding World – The Parlours: These are areas in which the senior Bank’s officials have their offices and in which policy is decided. One of the most unusual objects here is a globe of the world dating from around 1806 which shows evidence of new mappings being pasted onto it as exploration expanded the limits of the known world.
Greek Ballot Box – In the elaborate Court Room there’s a ballot box designed by architect Sir John Soane for use by the Bank’s Court of Directors. Its form is that of a miniature ancient Greek temple with a roof made of palm leaves. When in use, it allowed a voter to cast their ballot in secret by reaching inside and dropping a small wooden ball to either the left side for yes or right for no. The two drawers, lined with baize to muffle the noise, could be removed in order the count the number of votes in each direction.
More about the Historic Interior: Our tour also took in the Committee Room used for the meeting of the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee which takes place each month to set interest rates to hit the Government’s 2% inflation target. The MPC is made up of 9 experts who each have a vote to decide what rate to set. It takes about 2 years for a change in interest rates to have full effect on inflation so the Committee set interest rates based on its forecast for inflation 2-3 years ahead. It was incredible to think that our tour had led us to a room in which some of the most significant decisions affecting the economic direction of the nation are made.
The Bank of England Museum
This museum is really worth a visit and more accessible than the historic interior being open on a weekly basis from Monday-Friday 10am-5pm (free admittance).
The origins of bank notes – Paper money in England has its origins in simple hand written receipts given by goldsmiths in exchange for gold coins deposited with them, a device adopted by the Bank of England in 1694 as a basis for its own notes.
In the exhibition there are some amazing old bank notes – most of which are still valid tender!
Above – Million, Thousand and One Pound Notes
One of the Bank’s main responsibilities is maintaining confidence in the bank notes that we all carry in our pockets. From the very earliest days notes were printed with the promise to pay the bearer the sum of the note on demand. This meant that a note could be redeemed at the Bank for coinage by anyone presenting it for payment.
During my visit I attended a talk about the latest security features on our notes. It was very reassuring to see how sophisticated these are but not infallible. If you are ever not sure as to the authenticity of a note the main elements to check are:-
– The paper and raised print – notes are printed on special paper which gives them their unique feel. Run your finger across a £5 note and you can feel the raised print in areas such as the words ‘Bank of England.
– The metallic thread – There should be a metallic thread embedded in a genuine note which should appear as a continuous dark line.
– The watermark – Hold the £5 note up to the light and you will see an image of the Queen’s portrait.
– Print quality which should be sharp, clear and free from smudges or blurred edges.
– Microlettering – using a magnifying glass lookin at the lettering beneath the Queen’s portrait on a £5 note – you will see the value of the note written in small letters and numbers.
– The ultra-violet feature – If you look at the front of the £5 note under a good quality ultra-violet light, the number 5 appears in bright red and green whilst the background remains dull in contrast.
– The hologram – There is a hologram on the foil patch on the front of the £5 note. If you tilt the note the image will change between a brightly coloured picture of Britannia and the number 5.
Left: Geometric Chuck Lathe dating from 1905 – used to produce the complex patterns used as anti-forgery devices on bank notes. The bank did not introduce this security device onto it’s notes until 1928 and then only for the £1 and 10/- denominations
All bank notes have featured the seal of Britannia since 1694. Modern notes display a portrait of the Queen and other significant figures from the past (£5 notes – Elizabeth Fry, £10 notes Charles Darwin).
There are plans from 2016 to print £5 and £10 notes on a plastic polymer material which should be cleaner, more secure and durable than the paper notes.
Famous account holder – George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) held two accounts at the Bank of England – one of which was a drawing account (the equivalent of today’s current account) and a stock account (which he used to invest in Government securities managed by the bank).
Although painted 100 years after Handel’s time the scene in the painting Dividend Day by George Elgar Hicks (as displayed in the museum) depicts the range of social classes of customer collecting their dividends (4 times a year) and the scene may have been similar to that experienced by Handel when he went to collect his dividends.
Famous Bank Employee – Author of the children’s classic “Wind in the Willows” Kenneth Grahame was employed by the Bank joining as a junior clerk in 1878 and rising through the ranks to become it’s Secretary by the young age of 39.
During his time working at the Bank Kenneth Grahame lived at several Middlesex addresses – 65 Chelsea Gardens in around 1886, 5 Kensington Crescent in 1894 and 16 Durham Villas in 1899.
Grahame retired from the Bank of England in 1908 under an air controversy. It was rumoured that he was shot at three times (all of which fortunately missed!). It is also believed that he had quarrelled with Walter Cunliffe, one of the Bank’s directors (who would later become Governor of the Bank of England) in the course of which he was heard to say that Cunliffe was “no gentleman”. His retirement was thought to be on health grounds and he was awarded an annual pension of £400.
The exhibition displays a letter from W M Acres to J A Giuseppi, then responsible for the Bank’s collections. Giuseppi had asked Acres whether he knew why Grahame had retired so abruptly. As a young man Acres had worked in the Secretary’s Office under Grahame and states categorically that his departure was due to the bullying attitude of Walter Cunliffe.
The Wind in the Willows was compiled by Grahame during his retirement in 1908 from selections of bedtime stories told to his son Alastair who was born blind in one eye and suffered a series of health problems throughout his life. Grahame and his wife Elspeth believed that Alastair was a gifted child and the academic expectation put pressure on the Oxford undergraduate who was found dead by a railway track in an apparent suicide in 1920.
According to the exhibition Grahame’s literary output dwindled once he left the bank. Whether this was caused by the heart-break of the tragedy of his son’s Alastair’s early death, disappointment at the abrupt end of his banking career or simply the desire to live a simpler life on the Banks of the Thames in the form of the characters in his book we can only speculate.
A Bank of Volunteers ready to fight in the name of Middlesex
During the wars against France the Government authorised the formation of volunteer regiments for home defence. One of these was the Corps of Bank Volunteers formed in 1798 which was 450 men strong and was financed entirely by the bank. Its sole function was the defence of the bank.
The volunteers were disbanded in 1802 following the Peace at Amiens but reformed again a year later when war again broke out. During this time when fear of a French invasion was at it’s height, the volunteers were tasked with removing, if necessary, the bank’s gold and silver, as well as printing presses and other records to a secret location in the country. The volunteers were disbanded 10 years after the French defeat in Trafalgar in around 1814 but reformed again in the mid 19th century becoming the 25th Middlesex (Bank of England) Volunteer Rifle Corps and continued in existence until the formation of the territorial army in 1907.
Photos Above: Uniform badges and guns of the 25th Middlesex (Bank of England) Rifle Company as well as a bugle engraved 25th Middlesex Rifle Company made in 1889 by Henry Potter & Co, 30 Charing Cross
As Good As Gold
The Bank of England is one of the largest custodians of gold in the world, with over 400,000 gold bars stored in its vaults. It provides safekeeping for the country’s gold reserves, the London Bullion Market Association and overseas central banks. The Bank has very little gold of its own and gold plays no role in the Bank’s monetary policy.
When gold bars are delivered they are weighed and checked before being taken for safe keeping in the gold vaults. The current price for the average gold bar is approximately £299.282. 40 (as of 3.7.2015). No gold has ever been stolen from the bank – your average bar weighs around 13 kilos or 28 pounds – so is pretty heavy – as I found out for myself!
Above: Gold bars in the museum and weighing scales
There are limits to the amount of gold that can be stored by the Bank – a little known fact is that the Bank of England is built on London clay so is not able to stack gold as high as the Federal Reserve Bank which is built on bedrock.
Open House weekend on 19-20 September 2015 http://www.openhouselondon.org.uk/ may be a good future opportunity to view both the historic interior and the museum over a weekend. I know that the building was open to the public for the event in 2014 so would suggest checking the schedules closer to the time to check whether this is again the case.
The Bank of England
Nearest Tube: Bank
Bank of England Museum website
The museum only is open from Monday – Friday from 10am-5pm