Today (July 27) in London History – the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street

The Bank of England came into existence on July 27th, 1694. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Way back when she was a war baby. She’s a very very old lady today. 328 years old to be exact. Yes, say Happy Birthday to the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. Officially known as the Bank of England. Out she popped – or maybe it should be up she popped – on this day, July 27th, 1694.

What’s more, the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street made the cut – is starring in this Today in London History podcast – precisely because she was a war baby. And here we are, 328 years later, at war with the same ancient enemy. France. Ok, it’s a war of words, this time. But war it is. Those “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” – as the Americans used to call them – refusing to surrender and insisting on passport stamps at Dover. Having the sheer brass cheek to behave as if Brexit means Brexit. They’re treating us like a third country, somebody who’s left the European Union. It’s causing Travel Hell at Dover. And it’s all their fault. Or so the tabloids and certain politicians are braying. So, yes, it’s war. A war of words but war all the same. 

How’s that French expression put it, the more things change the more they stay the same. 

Anyway, let’s rewind about three and half centuries – get back to the late 17th century, do some historical sight-seeing. Think of those old films where if they want to fast forward they show pages being torn off a calendar, a month at a time. Well, let’s reverse that. Let’s see some 4,000 calendar pages going back onto the calendar.

Interesting times, the late 17th- century, early 18th century. We’ve got the so-called Glorious Revolution in 1688. They get rid of the Catholic James II and bring in staunchly protestant William of Orange from the Netherlands. He’s of course married to James’ daughter Mary. (Here’s a fun aside for you: I’ve developed a friendship with a world-class virologist. An American. Met him on a walk. He’s a leading expert on smallpox. I’ve got Mike – that’s his name – mulling over whether he could do a Smallpox walk for us. Kensington Palace would loom large in the story because Mary died of smallpox. Died there at Kensington Palace. Mike says that’s a fascinating business because – for starters – how did the vector – the person she caught it from – ever get close enough to the Queen to infect her? Well, watch this space. Let’s hope there’s a walk there. There’s certainly a lecture. Mike lecturers all over the world on the subject. 

But the axe we’re grinding here today is the Bank of England. Special time in the history of this country. You’ve got novel economic conditions here – uncharted waters – thrown up 334 years ago by the Glorious Revolution, by the beginnings of England’s second hundred years war against France, and by the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707.

And at this point it’s time to make the acquaintance of one William Patterson. A Scot. It’s so London isn’t it. This city of immigrants – a city founded by immigrants – a city peopled and made by immigrants – getting one of its principal institutions – an institution that altered the commercial history of this country – yes, I’m talking about the Bank of England – London getting said game-changer, the Bank of England, from the febrile brain of a Scot.

Mind you, the Bank of Scotland was the brainchild of an Englishman, these things have a way of evening out.

But as usual with London stories, it’s the people who are the most interesting ingredients. So let’s find out a bit more about our Scotsman William Patterson. He was a busy boy. They had a term for the likes of him in those days. He’s what they would have called a projector. Full of ideas. His Bank of England idea certainly came to fruition. You could say the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is his lasting monument. 

But Patterson got around. He was a moving target. A Scotsman on the make, to use son-of-Edinburgh, guide Adam’s term. In Adam’s formulation, there are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make.

One of Patterson’s bright ideas was to supply London with water from reservoirs south of the Hampstead and Highgate Hills.

The biggie though was a Scottish colony in the new world. Panama. Darien to be exact. The Scots were late to the colonies game. The Spanish, the Portuguese, the English were way ahead of them. Patterson put on his thinking cap and reasoned that if the Scots could turn Panama into a colony that would out-leverage everybody. From that prime position they could control both oceans. On paper, a great idea. What it didn’t reckon with was the climate, malaria and other tropical diseases. It killed off practically all the Scots colonialists. No end of money was lost. And can you guess? The English were much richer. English financiers effectively had the Scots by the short and curlies. They basically said, we’ll bail you out on condition that you conjoin Scotland with England – the 1707 Act of Union – under a set of arrangements that effectively greatly favour the big rich kid: England. So biographers talk about the Bank of England being William Paterson’s permanent memorial but it’s no stretch to say that the present form of this country – Scotland and 

England being conjoined in that Act of Union – that’s William Paterson’s much much bigger and much much more important permanent memorial. An apt reminder – as if any were needed – of his erratic, ambitious and controversial career.

In the words of one biographer, Paterson was more skilful at promoting his plans than at executing his promotions. More interested in his own self-advancement than in carrying through the consequences of his ideas.

Sound familiar? Remind you of anybody who’s recently spent some time at 10 Downing Street?

Anyway, yes, today was the day. July 27th, 1694 the Bank of England charter was sealed. £1,200,000 was the sum subscribed to start the venture. Wealthy London merchants coming across – coming to the aid – of a government in terrible need of the sinews of war.

And they sure drove a bargain, those begetters of London’s Temple of Mammon. Eight percent interest and a yearly management fee of £4,000 was the price they exacted for their generosity.

War. And money. They sure go together. 105 years later the English are still duking it out with the French and it’s got to be paid for. Say hello Britain and my fellow Britons – what lucky sods we are – say hello to the income tax. 

And on that not so happy note here’s your Today in London Recommendation. Yes, you got it in one: a visit to the Bank of England Museum. The Special Exhibition is not to be missed. It’s called Slavery & the Bank. It explores the history of transatlantic slavery through its connections with the Bank of England and the wider City of London. It’ll run until late April next Spring. The Museum’s open Monday through Friday. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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