Little slices of London's history

Errata: Threadneedle Street and its Old Lady

Hello again, loyal readers, the numbers of which must be dwindling with my shameful neglect of this blog. What can I say? It’s been a weird 18 months or so, and, as of yesterday, I am in the processing of moving back from Apple to Microsoft. I have been having fun playing with all the different elements and functions of my new computer, but I also managed to lose (or perhaps just misplace) everything I wrote during the day.

But I digress. I thought today I would revisit the subject of the trolling I mentioned in an earlier blog post: Threadneedle Street. It bothered me that I had put out such misinformation, so I did some digging.

First, I found the article to which I had referred when I said that Sarah Whitehead was the ‘Old Lady’ of Threadneedle Street. In it the writer says, “The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is the nickname of the Bank of England which has stood in its current location, right in the heart of the City of London since 1734. But was there really an old lady of Threadneedle Street and what had she to do with Banking? There was indeed an old lady…Sarah Whitehead was her name.”

My mistake for jumping at an intriguing-sounding explanation. Allow me to hand over to the Bank of England at this point; in the history section of the Bank’s website, it says:

 “The nickname, ‘The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’ first appeared in print in James Gillray’s 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.”

Source: The Bank of England

The other explanation for which I was sharply called up was the derivation of the name, in that it couldn’t have come from the Needle Makers because the street was mentioned in 1598 but the Needle Makers weren’t incorporated until 1664.

In an 1898 book wordily entitled London Street Names; their Origin, Signification, and Historic Value; with Divers Notes and Observations, and written by FH Habben, the author states, “Here lived honest John Stow’s father, plying his vocation as a tailor, and our antiquary himself resided here previous to his removal to Aldgate. Originally it was Three Needle Street, three needles being the charge on the escutcheon of the Needlemakers’ Company, to whom the property belonged.”

Another London street name writer, rejoicing in the name of Eilert Ekwall, wrote a book published in 1954 and entitled, Street Names of the City of London. In that, Ekwall mentions in passing the needlemakers theory, without discounting it, but goes on to say, “But it is unlikely that the name should not be connected with that of the children’s game threadneedle.”

Other sources point to the needlemakers and some, such Al Smith, author of the 1970 book Dictionary of London Street Names, to the Merchant Taylors. In his book Smith says, “The Merchant Taylors Company, whose Hall stands at number 30, is responsible for the naming of this street. The arms of the company include three needles, and the street was originally Three Needles Street.”

However, as Mr Not Impressed would no doubt point out, the Merchant Taylors’ coat of arms does not have three needles on it. The Worshipful Company of Needlemakers does have three needles on its coat of arms, but it would seem that company can’t have provided the name.

Gillian Bebbington, in her Street Names of London, says that the name may have come from a shop or inn sign, either signifying that the business within involved needles, perhaps a tailor or seller of needles, or that the premises were close to the Merchant Taylors’ Hall.

Hopefully my next blog will not follow such a long gap.

4 responses to “Errata: Threadneedle Street and its Old Lady”

  1. Nice to see you back. I would tend to favour an Inn sign, with needles on it.
    But what do I know? 🙂 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Thanks, Pete. I suspect you’re right…

  2. Interest not dwindling from this quarter. Keep up the good work, however infrequent! 🙂

About Me (and my Obsession)

My obsession with London street names began in the early 90s when I worked in the Smithfield area and happened upon Bleeding Heart Yard. In my wanderings around London, I kept adding to my store of weird and wonderful street names. Eventually it was time to share – hence my blog. I hope you enjoy these names as much as I do.
– Elizabeth


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