March 13, 2017
Famous for being the site of the Bank of England – “the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street”, a phrase first coined by playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan – since 1734, there’s a couple of explanations for the origins of Threadneedle Street’s name – and both relate to livery companies associated with textile industries.
The first is that of the Worshipful Company of Needlemakers, initially granted livery by the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell in 1656 and then again by King Charles II in 1664. The company has a coat-of-arms featuring Adam and Eve holding up a shield on which can be seen three needles, hence Three Needles Street, the corruption of which is Threadneedle Street.
The second is that of the Merchant-Taylors’ Company, one of the 12 great livery companies, which was founded by Royal Charter in 1327. Its livery hall has been based in Threadneedle Street since the 14th century.
Either or both could be the reason for the unusual name of this City of London street, which runs from Mansion House north-east to Bishopsgate.
Other famous properties located in the street have included the headquarters of the infamous South Sea Company and the first site of the Baltic Exchange (formerly in the Virginia and Baltick Coffee House) which is now in St Mary Axe.
Known as the ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’, the bank was originally situated there in a small, purpose-built building designed by George Sampson after it’s relocation from a rented property in nearby Prince’s Street (which now runs along the bank’s west side).
Its footprint was subsequently expanded by Sir Robert Taylor – this included covering a site to the west previously been occupied by the church of St Christopher-le-Stocks. Among Sir Robert’s design features were a centrally located rotunda.
In the late 18th century the bank underwent the start of a total transformation under the eye of architect Sir John Soane. Soane, who was Surveyor to the Bank of England between 1788 and 1833, saw the size of the bank more than doubled in a project which lasted well into the 19th century (indeed, such was the size of the bank that at its peak during Soane’s tenure more than 1,000 clerks were working in the building with some even having on-site residences).
Covering three-and-a-half acres on an asymmetrical site, Soane’s design was at least partly inspired by the ancient architecture of Greece and Rome and featured a complex arrangement of courts, halls and offices all surrounded by a high, windowless curtain wall. The buildings inside the wall were largely no more than three stories high and included public banking halls, offices for manufacturing banknotes, and a barracks housing the 30-strong Bank Guard. Given the great curtain wall around the site, the buildings were all either top-lit or faced into courts and light-wells.
Little today remains of Soane’s bank – it was demolished in the 1920s and replaced with a single building designed by Herbert Baker – but the exception is the dominating outer wall which surrounds the entire site (pictured above from the south-east corner).
You can see a reconstruction of Soane’s 1793 Stock Office in the museum (see our earlier entry here), which has just reopened its doors after a three month refurbishment, and it’s also possible to see some of the ‘caryatids’ which Soane had originally placed on the dome of the Old Dividend Office and which are now located on rotunda created by Baker. More of Soane’s work can be seen at the Sir John Soane’s Museum (see our earlier entry here).
WHERE: The Bank of England Museum, Bartholomew Lane off Threadneedle Street (nearest Tube stations are Bank/Monument and Mansion House); WHEN: 10am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (last entry 4.45pm); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/Pages/museum/visiting/default.aspx.
WHERE: 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Nearest tube is Holborn. WHEN:10am to 5pm, Tuesday to Saturday; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.soane.org.
The Bank of England Museum, located on the east side of the “Old Lady of Threadneedle Street”, provides a fascinating account of life behind the bank’s fortress-like walls, spanning the period from its origins and founding in 1694 to its nationalisation in post-World War II Britain through to the high-tech nature of banking – and banknotes – today.
The museum is partly housed in a 1988 reconstruction of architect Sir John Soane’s 1793 stock office (Sir John designed the bank’s original headquarters – much of this was later demolished with the exception being the outer windowless walls of the bank which still frown down on passersby) as well as in the Rotunda – designed by Herbert Baker and dating from the 1930s, it features some of the original Caryatids which decorated Soane’s design.
Highlights among the permanent exhibition include the Great Iron Chest, a precursor to today’s safes dating from around 1700, the Bank of England Charter of 1694 still afixed with the Great Seal, the earliest known Bank of England running cash note (relating to a deposit of £22 and dating from 1697), muskets and pistols used for security at the bank, and documents relating to some of the bank’s more high profile customers (these include Admiral Lord Nelson and former US President George Washington) as well as extensive collection of banknotes and coins. There’s also the opportunity to feel the weight of a solid gold bar (worth £393,884 at the time of our visit).
The exhibition also includes a display on Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows and a long-time (30 year) employee of the bank until his sudden resignation, possibly in part due to him being shot by an intruder several years before, in 1908, only four months before his internationally renowned book was published. Key artifacts include his resignation letter in which he asks for “relief” from the burden of his responsibilities at the bank.
Among current temporary exhibitions is The Pound in Your Pocket which looks in detail at the issue of inflation through a variety of entertaining devices including a balance in which you have to keep inflation at a level during a series of “economic shocks”.
WHERE: The Bank of England Museum, Bartholomew Lane off Threadneedle Street (nearest Tube stations are Bank/Monument and Mansion House); WHEN: 10am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (last entry 4.45pm); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/museum/index.htm.