Mervyn King

Murder, fraud and bankruptcy

Mervyn King sees it as a great unrolling drama – of murder, fraud, bankruptcy, riots and cannonballs

Hamilton, created by the remarkable Lin-Manuel Miranda, has brought the financial musical to the London stage: a serious biography of a great man translated into rap. What comes next? Now we know. It is the story not of one individual but of a national institution — the life and times of the Bank of England. I can’t wait for David Kynaston’s new history to reach the stage. We may have to call on Tim Rice, a revolutionary himself in the world of musicals, to generate a libretto from the long original text. But there is a wealth of material in this fascinating book.

Often seen as a rather traditional and staid institution, the Bank of England’s more than 320-year life has been remarkably eventful. War and peace, murder and executions, fraud and forgery, panics and bankruptcies (including nine governors to date), heroes and villains all find a place in Kynaston’s story, with its mastery of historical detail. And what a story it is. Financial history, written well, is no dry subject. Indeed, at times it is so exciting that one is reminded of the instruction from Miss Prism to Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest:

You will read your Political Economy in my absence. The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational. Even these metallic problems have their melodramatic side.

Act I describes the gradual development of the Bank from its birth in 1694, offspring of the Glorious Revolution, to maturity and its ravishment by William Pitt the Younger in 1797. Following an attempted invasion by 1,200 French soldiers, and the resulting drain on the Bank’s gold reserves, Pitt slapped a Privy Council Order on the Bank, suspending the convertibility of notes into gold. Inflation followed, and Gillray created his famous cartoon (reproduced above) showing the Bank as a lady of a certain age being violated by the prime minister as he tries to get at her gold — the origin of the nickname the ‘Old Lady of Thread-
needle Street’.

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