The “Old Lady of Threadneedle Street”—the nickname seems to date from a James Gillray cartoon of 1797— was originally founded in 1694 to provide a sensible mechanism through which the government could raise money. It was the brainchild of a rich City figure, a Scot called William Paterson, and the first governor of the Bank of England, Sir John Houblon, came from a Huguenot family.
From 1708 the bank enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the issue of banknotes and, after first renting offices, in 1734 had a commodious building of its own built in Threadneedle Street. In 1780 the Gordon Rioters tried to storm the bank and were held off by a hastily assembled force of militia and volunteers who made their bullets from melted-down inkwells. From then until 1973, a military guard was placed permanently on duty in the building: hence the saying “as safe as the Bank of England.”
In 1788 renowned architect Sir John Soane started on a major rebuilding program that created an impressive Neoclassical edifice that, for security purposes, had no windows, but it was rebuilt between the wars by Sir Herbert Baker to cope with a substantial increase in staff numbers. One of the bank’s loyal employees, until 1908, was Kenneth Grahame, the esteemed author of The Wind in the Willows. Famous customers once included Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, George and Martha Washington, and Lord Nelson, but by the end of the nineteenth century the bank had ceased to hold the accounts of any private customers and had become effectively the government’s bank. Its trusted duties included guarding the nation’s treasure of gold bars. The history of the site is traced in the bank’s museum, which was opened by the queen in 1988, in a reconstruction of one of Soane’s banking halls.