The original Old Lady of Threadneedle Street

Bank of EnglandOn 26 February, following various financial crises, the UK government, passed The Bank Restriction Act, preventing paper money holders from demanding specie in exchange and thus making the Bank of England, effectively, insolvent. On the same day, the first one pound note was issued to ease the growing need for currency; previously notes had been only larger denominations.

The Bank of England, founded by William Paterson, a 17th-century Scottish merchant, is located on Threadneedle Street and the derivation of that name is not as straightforward as might first appear. Thread and needle certainly make contextual sense, but – it’s a London street name, after all – it’s not that simple.

EAS_4091“Then have you one other street called three needle street,” according to our favourite source for London history and street names, John Stow. This was, for a long time, the name by which the street was known. There are many theories as to the derivation of the name, not all of which are plausible, but it may derive from the fact that The Merchant Taylors’ Company, which began as an association of working tailors, has had its hall here since at least 1347. There would probably have been tailors or needle sellers in the area and it could have been a shop sign.

The Merchant Taylors Company was granted its first charter in 1327, and was sixth – or seventh, depending an the year – in the priority list of the City livery companies. The reason for the shifting priority was due to the feud between that company and the Skinners. These two were no exception to the fighting between guilds in the Middle Ages; when it reached the stage of bloodshed the companies took their grievances to the Mayor.

The Mayor decreed that the respective Masters should be entertained to dinner by each other’s company annually and that each company should alternate the ranks of sixth and seventh from year to year. This is often said to have originated the expression ‘at sixes and sevens’, (though it is more likely to have come from dicing).

But back to the Bank of England, which is familiarly known as the ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’. The nickname, according to the Bank of England website, first appeared in print in a James Gillray cartoon published in 1797 during the wars against Revolutionary France.

“The Government had been making continued demands upon the Bank for gold, which led ultimately to the Bank being to suspend payment of its own notes in gold and the issue of £1 and £2 notes for the first time. The Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, is shown attempting to obtain gold from the Bank, which is represented by an old lady in a dress of the new £1 notes seated on a money chest.”

Sir Thomas Hariot, who introduced the potato to England, died in Threadneedle Street.

5 thoughts on “The original Old Lady of Threadneedle Street

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  2. Not Impressed November 18, 2020 / 6:52 pm

    Do you actually do research or do you just jump at the first entertaining trivia you come across? You’ve said it yourself – Stow first mentions Three Needle St. In 1598. The Needle Makers weren’t incorporated until 1664. So their coat of arms couldn’t have been the origin of the name because it didn’t exist early enough!

    As for your cock & bull Old Lady story… All I’ll say is it’s from a 1797 satirical James Gillray cartoon!! And whilst it might have been a bit more difficult to find that when you wrote this, it certainly wasn’t impossible. And you continue to repeat both false origins in succeeding articles…

    • thestreetnames November 18, 2020 / 7:15 pm

      Thank you for your comment and to answer your question, yes, I do carry out research into both fact and fiction. As I regularly point out, I like to highlight interesting, and often apocryphal, theories behind various street names. This is supposed to be a collection of interesting stories and speculation, not an academic work.

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