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Bank of England Museum raids it vaults for 325 years, 325 objects

an old ten pound bank note with 'forged' stamped across it

A counterfeit bank note from 1857.

A story-filled exhibition at the Bank of England Museum celebrates its 325th birthday through art, design, architecture, politics, wartime, technology, fraud and forgery

This impressive collection of objects, many of them emerging for the first time in years from deep within the vaults of the Bank of England Museum beneath Threadneedle Street, includes banknote designs, the earliest notes, Roman relics, 19th century forgeries, staff dexterity tests and even a Cold War radiation calculator.

The varied assemblage selected for ‘325 years, 325 objects’, a new exhibition celebrating the Bank of England’s 325th birthday, tells the story of the ‘Old Lady’ through a collection it has amassed since the Bank was founded in 1694.

Far from a predictable chronological trawl through history, the exhibition is a lively display of significant, surprising, beautiful and unusual items, all of which have tales to tell.

“We are reaping the rewards of the fact that the Bank never threw anything away,” says Jennifer Adam, Bank of England Museum curator. “The sheer variety of items at our disposal meant that the challenge posed by this exhibition was narrowing our selection down to just 325 objects.”

a boxed set of scales with golden weights

A set of hand scales with 13 signed copper coin weights in pear wood box with drawer.

a set of three ceramic tiles with mythical figures painted on them

Wall tiles (hand painted), 1932.

a photo showing both sides of a frayed bank note

Early banknote. 26th June 1702, issued to Mrs Elizabeth Head, an early investor in the Bank.

Objects include the first banknotes, among them an early note dated 26th June 1702 that was issued to Elizabeth Head, an early investor in the Bank. Artwork sketches and test plates for early banknote designs include Jacobite design proofs from 1745 and a woodblock design for the first postal order from 1880.

A still-wax-sealed packet contains a duplicate key to the door of the Bullion Office from 1784 while 19th and 20th century forged banknotes and printing plates offer a glimpse into the long history of counterfeiting and the Bank’s ever-evolving battle to stay one step ahead of the counterfeiters.

Among the little-known stories to be found in the exhibition is the sad tale of the ‘Bank nun’, Sarah Whitehead, who from 1812 to 1837 visited the Bank of England each day dressed in mourning clothes. She was the sister of a former bank clerk who had been sentenced to death for forging an acceptance to a bill. Each day she came to the Bank, awaiting her brother, under the delusion that he was still employed there.

a watercolour of a woman dressed in black

Sarah Whitehead, the ‘Bank nun’, c1835.

an odl piece of packet paper with three red wax seals

A sealed packet containing a duplicate key of the outer door of the Bullion Office. On the outside of the packet, there are 3 seals with the names S. Etheridge, Daniel Booth and Abraham Newland written beneath the corresponding seal.

a drawing of a woman in Georgian headdress

Portrait of Elizabeth Fry, Design work from the £5 by Emma Cook.

a disk with dials and various measurements with writing about blast casualties and deaths

Cold War fallout calculator, 1959/60.

The exhibition also features the Roman relics found during archaeological digs on the Threadneedle Street site and the handmade terracotta bricks taken from Sir John Soane’s Rotunda in his original Bank building. Soane succeeded Sir Robert Taylor as architect and surveyor to the Bank of England in 1788 and over next 45 years rebuilt and extended the bank vastly. Some of Soane’s best work was however demolished and replaced when architect Herbert Baker enlarged the site in 1925.

From the early 20th-century come hand-painted wall tiles from the Bank’s parlours, featuring Britannia, Minerva, Pythagoras and other figures while even more recent artefacts include a radiation fallout calculator, dating from 1959/60 and designed to be used to estimate the effects of a nuclear attack.

“The display moves from the earliest banknotes to contemporary art made from polymer notes, from the first appearance of the Queen on our banknotes, to the very latest payment technology,” adds Adam. “We are especially pleased to be throwing light on some lesser-visited areas of the Bank’s history, including the work of the first female clerk, the life of staff at Threadneedle Street and Sir John Soane’s ‘lost’ Bank building.”

a decorated plate showing a representation of William of Orange

Majolica plate, c.1697, showing William III.

a incomplete drawing of a man in a Hanoverian era wig

Sketch for portrait of Isaac Newton.

a bank note with red printing and an amount of £100 million

A specimen £100 million note.

325 years, 325 objects is at the Bank of England Museum from July 22 2019 – May 15 2020. Admission is free.


Bank of England Museum

London, City of London

The Bank of England Museum tells the story of the Bank from its foundation in 1694 to its role in today's economy. Interactive programmes with graphics and video help explain its many and varied roles. Popular exhibits include a unique collection of banknotes and a genuine gold bar which may…

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