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  • Writer's pictureSara-Jane Armstrong, MA

The Bank of England Building in London: A Brief History

What is the Bank of England?

The Bank of England is the central bank of the United Kingdom established in the late 17th century.

The Bank of England is the most iconic building in London’s financial centre. Known solely as ‘The City’, this looming cluster of skyscrapers, their smoked windows concealing a world of last-minute trades and power suits, marks your entry into the capital’s commercial heart.

Bank of England building

History of the Bank of England Building

The City rests on the foundations of the first iteration of the city of London, the Roman Londinium built in the 1st century AD. Remnants of the Roman walls that marked the boundaries can be found not far from the bank, and the surrounding areas of Moorgate, Aldgate, and Bishopsgate bear the names of the city’s first entryways. At its largest, the Roman city had an approximate population of around 60,000, with inhabitants hailing from all across the Empire.

The City declined with the departure of the Romans, maintaining a stature of lesser grandeur under the Anglo-Saxons and into the medieval period. Yet as the size of London ebbed and flowed, The City remained at its centre.

It was in the late 15th century, as the district began to re-establish itself as a centre of commerce, that it once again flourished. The construction of the Royal Exchange in the 16th century and the Bank of England in the century thereafter solidified its importance as the source and store of Britain’s wealth. The bank, formerly housed in a curtain-walled neoclassical building designed by Sir John Soane, was rebuilt in the 20th century. Virtually nothing remains from Soane’s glorious structure, once hailed as an architectural masterpiece, however you can see drawings of the interiors on show at Sir John Soane’s Museum in Holborn.

Later, the earliest stirrings of the industrial revolution and the steady expansion of the British Empire brought entrepreneurs and financiers flocking to the City. With pitch-black top hats and blanched poker faces, Victorian swarms crowded the chaste ‘Lady of Threadneedle Street’. The Bank earned this nickname from a popular cartoon published in its richest era: the Bank is imagined as a stately woman rejecting politicians’ solicitous advances. Cold, calculated, and secretive, the Bank of England was a long-established safeguard against predatory eyes.

It remained this way as the City became a hub of global finance, with the tendrils of the Empire spreading across the world map. Wealth flowed through the Bank from institutions like the East India Company, as they set the rate for the gold that came from the West, the spices and silks from the East. Private bankers at the Bank of England affected global policy, influenced imperialism, and helped to cultivate Britain’s fortune in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Britain’s international power was rooted in the Bank and in the navy. Today, London’s position as a financial powerhouse, and as a leader in financial innovation, drives its global influence. The ‘Lady of Threadneedle Street’ remains the stately, withholding noblewoman, guarding her prowess and her power from prying eyes.

The City is home to a number of other important sites in London, including St Paul's Cathedral and the Old Bailey, as well as the remnants of Londinium’s ancient Roman walls.

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