Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

What is the old lady of Threadneedle Street?

Gillray cartoon
Political Ravishment, or the Old Lady of Threadneedle-Street in Danger! Cartoon by James Gillray. PD

A look at the nickname of the Bank of England.

The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is a nickname for the Bank of England situated in Threadneedle Street, in the City of London.

It is obvious as to why the name of the street forms part of the nickname, but why 'Old Lady'?

The nickname comes from a Thomas Gillray cartoon published in May 1797. The cartoon is a reference to the financial crisis of the time and the issuing of paper money not backed by gold.

The cartoon is titled 'Political Ravishment, or the Old Lady of Threadneedle-Street in Danger!' An elderly woman represents the bank and is dressed in bank notes and sitting on a strong box. Prime Minister Pitt is making unwanted advances towards her in an attempt to get to the contents of the strong box, as she cries, "Rape! Ravishment!" The loan notes under his hat show that the Bank had been required to make large loans to the Government to finance a war against France.

James Gillray (1756-1815) was brilliant caricaturist of this period. He may have gained inspiration for this cartoon from Richard Sheridan, Member of Parliament and playwright, who made a speech in the House of Commons earlier that year referring "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".

bank of england street view
Bank of England, 1816.
Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum PD

During the next 200 years or so, the nickname often occurs in print, and not just used by journalists. A more classically educated correspondent wrote to the Times in 1830 referring to the "Old Sibyl in Threadneedle Street"; and Dickens makes reference to it in his story of Dr Marigold; and the Bank of England's employees' magazine first published in 1921 is called Old Lady of Threadneedle-Street.

More on Gillray's work in the New York Public Library's exhibition of his work.

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