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 comes from a cartoon by James Gillray published in 1797 during the wars against Revolutionary France. According to the Bank of England’s website, “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.”