1973 saw the end of a tradition in the City of London which had taken place nightly since the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, when the Bank of England had been attacked by a mob. Soldiers were then ordered to guard the building, an event which endured for almost two centuries, only coming to an end forty years ago this year.
The riots were whipped up by Lord George Gordon, president of the Protestant Association, in reaction to what was seen to be an easing of restrictions on Catholics in England by the Papists Act of 1778. The limitations on Catholics in public life had been enshrined in the Popery Act of 1698 but had all but ceased to be enforced by the time of the new act, making many, including Catholics, question why the new act was even necessary.
Despite this Gordon, an unstable man but a fiery speaker, used his oratorical skills and organised a petition which incited anti-Catholic mobs to cause havoc in the capital over a number of days in June 1780. One of their targets was the Bank of England which sustained serious damage in the attack.
The army was eventually called out and a shoot-on-sight policy resulted in the deaths of around 285 rioters with up to 30 more being arrested, tried and executed for their part in the rioting.
The Lord Mayor had failed to read the Riot Act which would have brought the soldiers on to the streets earlier and was fined the then-enormous sum of £1,000. But it was recognised that the bank came very close to being overrun and that its gold reserves could again come under threat. Bow Street Runners were all well and good but it was decided to keep a permanent guard of soldiers overnight, every night, to guard the premises. This military detachment was known as the Bank Guard or Picquet (pronounced picket) and they marched through London from either Chelsea or Wellington barracks, although they were not above catching the Tube, apparently, if it was raining.
High-tech security meant the Bank Guard became obsolete in 1973 but its passing was regretted by many, not least the soldiers themselves and it is not surprising when you read how they, and especially their officers, were treated when on duty.
I came across an article in an Australian newspaper from early last century which gives an insight into the already antiquated tradition of the bank Picquet.
Dated December 16, 1911, the Tasmanian Deloraine and Westbury Advertiser sets the scene by stating that “visitors to London who happen to be in the vicinity of the Bank of England about half-past six in the evening may witness one of [its] most interesting customs….For it is at that time that a detachment of armed Guards march into the bank with fixed bayonets for the purpose of guarding the £20,000,000 in gold and silver with which the vaults of the ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle-street’ are usually stocked.”
The detachment usually consisted of about thirty men in full parade dress who marched from their barracks to the bank with fixed bayonets, the only troops allowed to do so in the City on non-ceremonial occasions. And the perks of the job 102 years ago were not bad, as the writer reveals:
“For guarding the bank the soldiers receive extra pay, which is given to them as soon as they enter the bank each night. Privates and drummer-boy get 1s. each, corporals 1s. 6d. and sergeants 2s. 6d. This sum is exclusive of the subaltern’s allowance. The aggregate cost of guarding the Bank of England is about £1000 per annum.”
In winter the soldiers were given extra blankets and a selection of books while “the lieutenant in charge has a snug little room, a dinner being brought in to him from a neighbouring tavern. He is also allowed to entertain two guests, the only stipulation being that they must depart before midnight.”
It is probably just my modern mind which marvels at the thought of the officer ‘entertaining’ a couple of ‘guests’ but the situation was obviously open to abuse and the opportunity to make extra cash by giving private tours of the building. Even the Advertiser’s reporter found the situation somewhat odd as he wrote, “with regard to the lieutenant, there is a curious stipulation that he shall only have one bottle of wine for himself and two for each of his guests, while the regulation is that each soldier shall not be allowed more than one pint of stout from the small canteen which has been established inside the bank for the convenience of the night guard.”
Reading this it is a source of much regret that I never took time to witness the nightly march of the guards into the bank, although seeing them march out again at six or seven the next morning night have provided more entertainment.