What is the Old Lady

The Old Lady is an eighteenth-century nickname for the Bank of England. It is a short version of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, a reference to the bank’s address in the middle of London.

Breaking Down Old Lady

The Old Lady, as a nickname for the Bank of England, originates in a James Gillray political cartoon from 1797. The cartoon, “Political Ravishment, or The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in Danger!” depicts a woman in a dress of one- and two-pound notes sitting on a chest marked “Bank of England.” A man, Prime Minister William Pitt, forcibly kisses the woman while reaching for the gold coins in her pocket. The woman yells, “Murder! murder! Rape! murder! O you Villain! what have I kept my Honor untainted so long, to have it broke up by you at last? O Murder! Rape! Ravishment! Ruin! Ruin! Ruin!!!”

The cartoon comments on the then recent decision by the Prime Minister William Pitt that the bank would begin making payments exclusively in paper money rather than coins while Pitt himself would continue to acquire loans from the bank’s gold reserves to fund the war against France.The historical moment represented a test of the public’s confidence in paper currency as well as of the political power of the prime minister to impose his prerogatives on the bank despite its decision.

History of the Bank of England

The Bank of England, now the central bank of the entire United Kingdom, began in 1694 and has provided the blueprint for most central banks now operating across the globe. Initially the Bank of England operated as a retail bank as well. The bank suffered its first crisis in 1720, when the South Sea Company financed some of Britain’s national debt and acquired trading rights in what is now South America. A price surge in South Sea Company stock ensued. The stock eventually crashed, and many lost their fortunes.

The bank moved to Threadneedle Street in 1734 from its original location on Walbrook.

Another crisis in 1825 spurred the Bank of England to open branches across the country to exert more control over the currency. In 1866, the Bank of England refused to bail out discount house Overend Gurney after it collapsed under the weight of bad loans. The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street reappeared in a political cartoon that showed her chastising a group of children for not looking after their finances better. The crisis eventually expanded the role of the Old Lady as a lender to failing financial institutions.