The Bank of England has stood on Threadneedle Street since 1734. With such a long history, you’d expect it, and the area, to be haunted. The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is a favourite story on ghost walks around the City of London. But is it entirely accurate?
After all, with debates over who—or what—the name refers to, it’s an unusual and distinctive tale.
Let’s delve into this slice of London folklore to find out.
Isn’t the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street actually the Bank itself?
Threadneedle Street got its unusual name in 1598. It was previously part of Broad Street.
The Bank of England was founded in 1694, during the reign of William III. That makes the Bank the first private national bank in the world. War with France drained William’s coffers and two merchants agreed to found a national bank to lend money to the Government.
The money financed the war, while taxes on alcohol and shipping paid for the interest on the loan.
Sir John Soane designed the Bank of England’s current building on Threadneedle Street. In 1830, the artist Joseph Gandy painted this exquisite watercolour of the Bank in ruins.
You can see this gorgeous painting at the Soane Museum in Lincoln Inn Fields (which I highly recommend).
But how did the Bank get its unusual nickname?
In 1797, James Gillray produced a satirical cartoon that portrayed the Bank as an old lady dressed in banknotes and sitting on a chest of gold. William Pitt the Younger makes unwanted advances.
A financial crisis raged at the time, and gold wasn’t being used to back the issue of paper money. Richard Sheridan, Member of Parliament and playwright, referred “to an elderly lady in the City of great credit and long standing who had made a faux pas” and “had unfortunately fallen into bad company”. Many believe this description inspired the cartoon.
Such a catchy name obviously stuck.
But what about the ghost story?
So we’ve discussed the fact that the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is actually the Bank of England, not a ghost. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a spectre in the area.
The figure sometimes referred to as the Old Lady is actually the Black Nun of Bank.
No crime in the United Kingdom carries the death penalty in the 21st century. But during the 19th century, all manner of crimes were punishable by death.
In 1812, a former Bank of England employee named Philip Whitehead was hanged for forgery. For some reason, no one informed his sister Sarah.
One day, she arrived at the Bank and asked to speak to her brother. A clerk told of his fate, not realising who she was. Sarah took the news badly, and something inside her snapped. She visited the Bank every day, always asking to see Philip. Sarah dressed in black and wore a black veil, earning her the nickname “The Black Nun”.
If the clerks turned her away, she accosted customers instead, always asking for her brother. Eventually the Bank officials tired of her behaviour. In 1818, they paid her to stay away. Reports suggest she did so for the remainder of her life.
Sarah died in 1840 and she was buried in St Christopher-le-Stocks’ churchyard. In later years, the churchyard became part of the Bank’s gardens.
She doesn’t lie quietly though
A local worker spotted her pounding the gravestones with her fist in the churchyard.
She also makes appearances in the nearby Bank underground station. One worker believed he’d spotted an old lady in the station. Given the early hours of the morning, he thought she’d been locked in. He tried to catch up with her, only for her to disappear down a corridor with no exit.
Workers sometimes report knocking inside empty lifts after the station closes.
Whenever Sarah appears, she still dresses in black and still seeks her brother. When I did a ghost walk in March 2013, the guide told us a tale about Sarah. He’d told the story to a previous tour group and one of the tourists turned white.
The guide asked what was wrong. The tourist, an American visiting London on business, told him that he’d gone for a walk the previous evening. He’d encountered a woman dressed in black who asked if he knew where her brother was.
The tourist wanted to help but couldn’t. So he turned to see if anyone else on the street knew of her brother. When he turned back, she’d gone.
Maybe the tour guide made up the story to help sell the legend. But it sounds good all the same.
I’ve never seen her myself but if you ever find yourself in the area, and a woman in a black veil stops you to ask after her brother, at least now you know who she is!
Who do you think the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is?
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