I was looking through some old newspaper articles on the Internet and came across an interesting full-page feature in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer from Oct. 15, 1922 about the plans for replacing the old Bank of England with new, taller structure. The article explored the history of the “Old Lady of Thread Needle Street.” The nickname for the bank dates back to a late 18th-century cartoon that depicted the bank as an old lady. The article included the tale of a forlorn counterfeiter; a faker who wore a patch over one eye for affect; and an American and his gang, who by some accounts were the greatest swindlers of the Victorian era.
The tantalizing headline on the Observer article, by Hayden Church, reads: “Romance and Drama Mingle in Story of the World’s Most Famous Bank/Decision to Rebuild Dingy Home of the ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street,’ Recalls Thrilling Chapters in History of Unique Institution/RICHEST BANK TWICE BESIEGED/Clerks Who Had to Defend Bank of England Against Gordon Rioters Had Muskets Without Bullets, But They Made Enough to Defeat Mob by Melting Down Their Leaden Ink-Pots,” and the last little part, “STUNG HARD BY YANKEE CROOK.”
There are some paragraphs in the article related to the paper money production, but the majority of the story is focused on the historic building, plans for rebuilding, and the various crooks who threatened the Britain’s currency system.
The article explained that following World War I, the building housing the bank, described as “another of the ancient landmarks of London,” was deemed too small for its staff. It had room for only a portion of its employees—the rest spread out in a half a dozen buildings in London.
According to the Bank of England’s website, architect Sir Herbert Baker demolished “The Old Bank,” and between 1925 and 1939 built a new headquarters for the bank on the 3.5-acre Threadneedle Street site. The Old Bank was three stories, the new one was seven stories above and three stories below ground.
The forlorn lover mentioned in the article was Will Vaughan, who in the mid-1700s forged 20 Bank of England notes, “which he gave to the girl as proof that he was on the road to fortune.” He wasn’t. He was hanged.
The man with the patch was famous in his day. He was Charles Price, “Old Patch,” who was given that name “because he often wore a black patch over his right eye for no reason save as a disguise.” Described as one of the world’s finest engravers, it said he swindled the bank “out of more than $100,000 before he slipped into the clutches of the law...”
Of the American, it was written:
“Of the many thieves with whom the Bank has had to deal in its long history, the most successful was an American named [Austin] Bidwell, who arrived in England with his gang in 1871. He distributed his agents all over the country, buying up genuine bills that could be manipulated, and then paid into the Bank a bona fide bill of Rothschild’s for $22,500, stating that he was going to start building Pullman cars in England.” Detailing other forgeries, the article observes, “This great fraud might have gone on even longer than it did had Bidwell and his fellow crooks not forgotten to put the dates on two of the bills, whereupon they were returned to the Rothschilds...”
According to an article in the March 27, 1899 issue of the San Francisco Call, “The famous Bank of England forgeries were committed in 1873. The Bidwells [Austin and his brother George], by means of forged securities, got $5,00,000 from the Bank of England... It was their intention to obtain $50,000,000 by fraud and then compromise with the bank.”
Austin and George were eventually sentenced to life in prison but were out in 20 years.
The Charlotte Observer article ends with the curious observation that the Bank of England could have brewed its own beer, set up a bar in the bank, or distributed suds to the neighborhood under a little known privilege granted her during the time of William III, but was apparently not going to: “And this a pity, for ‘Bank of England brew’ in bottles, with the chief secretary’s signature on the label on guarantee, would probably in great demand!”
This article was originally printed in Bank Note Reporter. >> Subscribe today.
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