The Bank of England is the central bank of the UK, responsible for delivering ‘monetary and financial stability’ for the country. Established in 1694 as the English Government’s banker and custodian of the country’s gold reserves, it is the world’s eighth oldest bank and the model on which modern central banks have been based. Located in central London, the Bank has a surprisingly good museum, which has the added bonus of being completely free to visit.
Economics has always been an absolute mystery to me, with phrases such as ‘monetary policy’, ‘quantative easing’ and ‘inflation targets’ being utterly meaningless, so I was curious to see if I would learn anything from a visit to the Bank of England Museum.
I had no idea what to expect, thinking it might just be a small, rather boring place that would earnestly try to explain these alien concepts to me with lots of information panels.
I was delighted to find out that my assumptions had been entirely wrong; not only was the museum a really interesting and hands-on place to explore, I actually walked out of there knowing exactly what quantative easing was.
The museum begins in the the Bank’s Stock Office, a replica to show what the Bank would have looked like 200 years ago. This reconstruction was completed in 1988, and is the largest reconstruction of a Soane interior, who completed the original in 1793.
The location of the Bank of England has changed over the years, with it not settling in its current location of Threadneedle Street until 1734.
Undergoing several changes of building design, with new additions and extensions as the Bank grew, its most famous incarnation was that designed by Sir John Soane, esteemed British architect.
His building has been described as one of his greatest works, yet sadly it was demolished in 1920. So all we have left is the stock room; a large, beautifully proportioned, arched room with a rotunda ceiling, filled with polished mahogany desks where you can easily imagine suited bank clerks scratching away with their quills.
Inside the Stock Room, the edges are lined with the history of the locations and buildings of the Bank, with beautiful line engravings and gilt framed paintings showing how it looked in its various incarnations.
In the centre is a large wooden boat, filled with interactive activities to help people understand what the Bank actually does.
We tried opening an old safe, controlling inflation by balancing a spirit level throughout times of economic shock and an assortment of other interactive activities.
At the end of the room were two screens, where you could sail a boat to set monetary policy, raising or lowering the sail (inflation) dependent on what the forecast was. Although the screens for this were angled downwards so that kids could play the game, I saw mainly adults playing it, people really getting into it to see if they could steer the economy well. I tried twice, with limited success on both occasions.
The bank was established in response to Charles II, who borrowed heavily from assorted banks of the time, but ended up so indebted to them that he had to stop repayments, causing the banks to go out of business.
This led to demands for a national bank that was not at the mercy of the misdemeanours of the royals, and that could help the economy grow.
The Charter of the Bank is in the museum, a huge, decorated document with the Great Seal of William and Mary at the bottom, setting out the conditions under which the bank could operate.
The museum has some wonderful artefacts from its earliest days, all still amazingly well preserved. There is an old ornate iron chest from 1700, which was once used before the Bank had safes. There are plenty of old documents, including the earliest of cheques and bank notes.
At the time that the Bank was established, the Directors had to decide how coin deposits could be acknowledged. They settled on three methods: recording the deposits in a book held by the customer (like a modern pass book), a piece of paper from the depositer to pay a third party (the forerunner of cheques), or a receipt payable to the bearer which allowed encashment.
This final method swiftly became the most popular, and so the bank note was born.
L: This copper printing plate was used by the forger, William Badger, who was hanged in Bristol after he was caught.
R: As the bank notes were so simple, they were easy to copy.
With the introduction of bank notes, it wasn’t long before the forgers saw their opportunity to make some money. As well as the fact that the designs at the time were simple and unsophisticated, people were unfamiliar with notes, and less able to spot a forgery. The Directors of the Bank were described by one contemporary as ‘grand purveyors to the gibbet’, due to their insistence of prosecuting not just forgers, but unwitting people who may have used them too.
The Rotunda documents the history of the bank from 1800 to the end of World War II, and contains the caryatids salvaged from the old Dividend Office before the demolition of Soane’s bank in the 1920s.
These wonderful statues now form a circle around the room, flanking display cases full of artefacts.
In here we learn about a shooting incident in 1903, when Secretary of the Bank, Kenneth Grahame, was shot at three times. Fortunately the culprit missed, and was later found to be of unsound mind. Grahame left his job at the Bank five years later, citing stress caused by the incident. The same year, he published ‘The Wind in the Willows’, cementing his place as a children’s author who is still much loved today.
L: This rather terrifying looking piece of equipment is a cylindrical slide rule from around 1900.
R: There is no shortage of gold on display in the bank, which interestingly has never once been robbed.
We learn about the Bank having its own army, the Bank Volunteers, during the wars with France. Their sole purpose was to defend the Bank in case of invasion, having to remove the gold, silver and printing presses to a safe location.
There is information about the first women employed at the Bank, in the late 1900s. Kept separate to the male clerks, they worked on the lowliest of jobs, until the world wars saw them fill the spaces left by the men, and they soon came to outnumber male staff. Until the 1960s they were still kept on administrative tasks although that has of course now changed.
A separate room off the Rotunda is the Banknote Gallery, which focuses on how money is actually made. These engraving tools belong to Allan Lye, who worked as an engraver at the Bank during the 1960s.
Far more detailed than I had imagined, there is a printing press, reels of metallic thread which used to be woven into the notes, samples of rag and polymer granules which were used to make the special paper, before the new polymer banknote was introduced in recent years. Film footage shows the vaults where money is kept, pallet upon pallet of wrapped up notes.
Under close supervision of CCTV and various alarms, a 13kg gold bar of 99.79% pure gold can be picked up by museum visitors. Worth over £400,000 depending on the markets at the time, it is incredibly heavy and I didn’t see anyone succeed in lifting it.
The museum ends with a look at banking in the modern world, from 1946 which is when the Bank was nationalised. There are several interactive screens to play on, but I got a bit lost on the financial details at this point, and decided that just knowing what quantative easing was would be my big achievement of the day.
The museum is a great way to spend a couple of hours, with plenty to read, learn and do, for kids as well as adults. Where else could you see a £1,000,000 cheque, hold a gold bar worth £400,000, take a gold vault selfie, learn about the surprisingly interesting history of banking and see some incredible historical artefacts in amazing condition?
The fact that it is all free is just a wonderful bonus.
The Bank of England Museum is one of a number of history museums in London that do not charge an entry fee. Discover more >>
VISITING THE BANK OF ENGLAND MUSEUM
Monday to Friday 10am - 5pm and until 8pm on the third Thursday of every month.
Use the entrance in Bartholomew Lane, not the main entrance, to access the museum.
Entrance is free
The museum holds regular exhibitions and events for all ages