The Bank of England began operating on the 27th July 1694 when William III needed help to finance his war with France.
Two wealthy merchants called William Paterson and Michael Godfrey oversaw its creation, and within a year 1,268 individuals had purchased £1.2 million pounds worth of shares. This was then loaned to the government at a rate of 8% per annum.
Problems arose almost immediately as the government began pressing it for more and more money. London’s goldsmiths were also up in arms as they believed that it was taking away their profitable trade. But the underlying idea was seen to be a success and rival banks started to spring up and issue their own notes.
By 1708 the government decided to step in and banned all big companies from issuing currency, which in effect wiped out all the competition, as smaller companies had less capital to lend.
The Bank of England Museum tells the complete story of the Bank from its creation during the reign of William III, through the Gordon Riots of 1780, right up to its central role in today’s money markets.
You’ll find hundreds of documents relating to its most famous customers, like George Washington and Lord Nelson, and early examples of the Bank’s notes and coins, and the security technology they use to make the modern-day notes unforgable.
They’ve also reconstructed a stock office from 1790, placed a genuine gold bar in a box (which you can try and pick up if you’re strong enough), and an exhibition of old British coins.
It may sound rather dry, but there’s plenty of interesting stuff that you wouldn’t associate with a bank: like the pikes and muskets and guns they used to defend the Bank it from angry mobs.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
I quite like the Bank of England Museum. It sounds quite dry and boring on paper, but if you’re prepared to give it a chance then it’s a decent way to wile away an hour. Once you’re past the security scanners and the big burly guards at the door you can have a nice little wander through four hundred years of British history.
The first room concentrates on the architecture, starting with the tiny little building where it all began, and then on to John Soane’s replacement.
I always thought that the Soanes’ building was the one we had today, but it turns out that his one was knocked down and remodelled relatively recently (in the 1920s). The only bit that survives today is the curtain wall that runs around the bottom. Normally I let out a little sigh when I see an old building crumble into dust, but having seen the pictures I think I prefer the new one (…don’t tell anybody I said that, though).
Then you move onto the history of the bank itself, and why it had to be established. It’s all serious-sounding stuff, as you would imagine, about government finances and the City of London’s positioning with the king, but it’s interesting enough if you like your London history.
The next room has got a lot of old charters on display, a bit about the early governors, and a nice model of a London street scene, too – complete with horses and carts and hackney cabs on poles. Then they explain about stocks and shares, the South Sea Bubble, the National Debt, and offer up a nice collection of early bank notes (including one for a million quid!).
All of the rooms look nice up until this point, but then you get treated to a very fine piece of interior architecture which opens up into a domed roof (the Rotunda). Apparently this is where they hold all of their temporary exhibitions, so it will have probably changed by the time you arrive, but today it was all about the First World War, and how they allowed women to enter the workforce.
And after that comes the gold – real gold! They’ve got a genuine gold bar locked up in a box, and you can stick your hand through a pipe and try and lift it up. I tried, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even budge it a single inch – it probably weighed more than me. It was amazingly heavy, so I don’t fancy your chances of stealing it. It’s not the kind of thing that you can stick down your trousers and run away with.
After that you can have a trip down memory lane with their collection of half crowns and sixpences from the days before decimalisation. They’ve got lots of older coins as well – a very shiny collection of coins dating all the way back to 1688.
The final section is about modern-day money and how they try and combat fraud. This bit was a lot more interesting than it sounds… Did you know, for example, that there are some little microdot letters underneath the queen’s head? The next time you’ve got a bank note in your pocket have a look at the spiral patterns at the base of her neck (on a £5 note they are square patterns instead) – they are actually made up of tiny little letters spelling out how much the note is worth. But good luck trying to see the writing without a magnifying glass.
Museums like this are never going to appeal to everyone’s taste, and I’m sure the majority of people will be bored silly by it (especially your kids). But if you enjoy your London history (like me) and you like looking at old photos and drawings of the city (like me), then I reckon you’ll probably enjoy it (like me).
> Read Craig’s latest review of the Bank of England Museum “I don’t suppose many tourists bother to visit the Bank of England Museum (or even the locals) but I’ve always had a soft spot for this place. But I don’t really care about the history of the bank – I like it because there’s lots of architectural history on display inside here. They have cabinets full of old photos and paintings and drawings of the city stretching back 250 years, and I’m a sucker for those old street scenes – I like seeing how the city has changed over the centuries. Obviously the chief focus of the museum is the Bank of England, and they provide a very thorough history going all the way back to the 17th-century… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of the Royal Exchange “I’ve been meaning to go inside the Royal Exchange for yonks, but never got around to it. It’s another one of those intimidating buildings that looks like it’s out of bounds to the likes of you and me. What is it? It looks like you need a reason to go inside… Maybe it’s a big bank, or a court house, or a city business filled with big wigs smoking fat cigars. You would never guess what it really is from the outside. Do you know what it actually is? It’s a shopping centre! I kid you not… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of the City of London “I thought I’d just hang around The City today, the so-called Square Mile. That’s the bit inside the old city walls where all the big banks and financial institutions live. If you want to make some new friends then try catching the tube from Waterloo to Bank at half-8 in the morning – when all the bleary-eyed businessmen and women are bustling off to work. Talk about a crush! I have never seen such a busy train station in my life; you even have to queue up to get on the platform. It’s like queuing up for a funfair ride. And then when you finally make it onto the train it’s cheek-to-cheek wedged… continued.”
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If you liked your visit to the Bank of England Museum then you can learn more about the history of London at the Museum of London. The Guildhall Art Gallery has lots of old paintings of the City’s streets and buildings. If London’s old historic buildings interest you then try the Guildhall, Mansion House, Royal Exchange and Leadenhall Market, which are all nearby.
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