Women and The Bank of England

Claudia Bacchelli, City of Information Centre

   In the history of an institution easily seen as dominated by men, we can actually include a variety of women who significantly contributed to the work and development of the Bank of England, from being part of the workforce to being represented on notes.

Florence Nightingale and Bank Notes

The first historical woman to feature on notes was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), who appeared on UK banknotes in 1975. She is known as the founder of modern nursing and was one of the greatest Victorians and a female icon in her own lifetime. She is still an inspiration to nurses around the globe. She was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit in 1907 at the age of 87 and the second woman to be awarded the Honorary Freedom of the City in 1908, after Angela Burdett-Coutts in 1872. On her death in 1910 she was honoured with a memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral and her commemorative plaque is in the crypt of St Paul’s. Nightingale appeared on the £10 note between 1975 and 1992.

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was a Quaker prison reformer, social reformer and philanthropist. She supported the abolition of slavery and opened a school for nurses. The Elizabeth Fry £5 note was in circulation between 2002 and 2016. Novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) appeared on the £10 note in 2017. Austen’s wit and social observation have made her one of the world's best-loved authors.

Women Working at the Bank

 The presence of women working for the Bank also goes back a long time. Before 1800, Mary Smith was recorded as making moulds for watermarked banknote paper. While the heavy labour of paper making was carried out by men, a paper mould required the skill of tying the wire patterns, which is similar to embroidery. However, women took longer to join the clerical staff. The entry of women clerks to the Bank was first recorded in 1895, with the first superintendent, Janet Elizabeth Hogarth. Hogarth, later Janet Courtney, was born in 1865, educated at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford and later became known as a scholar, writer and feminist. She was adviser on staff welfare to the Ministry of Munitions 1916-1917 and in the latter year was awarded an OBE. She was also a Justice of Peace. She was the author of a number of books of aspects of feminism as well as several volumes of reminiscences that contain valuable insights into her working life at the Bank of England, The Times and the Encyclopedia Britannica. With regards to the Bank of England, she highlighted the Bank’s attitude to its female staff: the women were overqualified for the work they were given and were given little opportunity to develop, resulting in a rapid turnover of discontented staff.

Another lady who held a significant position in the Bank of England was Mrs Mary Smith, one of the first women to be involved in the production of banknotes. She worked there from 1764 to 1805. In 1990 the Bank of England employed its first female banknote designer Debbie Marriott, who still works there today. Merlyn Lowther was the first woman to hold the post of Chief Cashier at the Bank of England. She held the post from 1999 to 2003.

The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street

The presence of women at the Bank also involves women as customers. There are notable examples of this even in the early history of the Bank. Women, in fact, had been among the very first investors in the Bank in 1694. They are also named as payees on some of the earliest Bank of England notes. Even the Bank of England itself is symbolised by a woman, the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. The nickname first appeared in a print by James Gillray in 1797. The cartoonist personified the Bank of England as a distressed elderly woman fighting off the grasping hands of the then Prime Minister William Pitt, who had made repeated demands upon the Bank for gold to pay for the Revolutionary Wars against France.

A political satire cartoon drawn by artist James Gillray depicting Prime Minister William Pitt robbing The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street 1797 ©London Metropolitan Archives