An Elizabethan Renaissance man and the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street

This day in London history: on 3 December 1586, Sir Thomas Hariot (also spelled Harriot or Herriot) introduced the potato to England. Hariot, who was primarily a mathematician and astronomer, has been described as a true Renaissance man: an adventurer, anthropologist, astronomer, author, cartographer, ethnographer, explorer, geographer, historian, linguist, mathematician, naturalist, navigator, oceanographer, philosopher, planner, scientist, surveyor, versifier and teacher.

Thomas HariotHariot was hired as a mathematics tutor for Sir Walter Raleigh; he also served as an accountant, navigational expert, ship designer, and – when Raleigh’s men brought two native Americans back from their homeland, was an ethnographer and linguist, devising a phonetic alphabet for their language.

In 1621, Hariot died of skin cancer; at the time of his death he was living with a friend in Threadneedle Street. That street, which takes its name from the arms of the Needle Makers Company, is perhaps best known as the location of the Bank of England, familiarly known as the ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’.

EAS_4091The nickname originated with a sad young 19th-century woman whose brother was a bank clerk. The lad was executed for trying to forge cheques and, unfortunately, no one thought to let his sister, Sarah, know. When she arrived at the bank enquiring after him the news shocked her so much that she lost her mind. Refusing to accept her brother’s ignominious death she continued to visit the bank every day for over twenty-five years asking for him.

The bank staff became used to her and would tactfully give her reasons every day for his absence; Sarah eventually became known as the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.


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