The ghost of Sarah Whitehead (The Black Nun)The ghost of Sarah Whitehead (The Black Nun)

The ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’ is the nickname of the Bank of England. The current building from the 18th century appears fortress-like (which it should be as the nation’s gold reserves are kept there). Of course, this building has its fair share of hauntings, too. The most famous ghost is that of Sarah Whitehead, also called the Black Nun. Some even claim that she is the original ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’.

Bank of England
Bank of England

The legend of Sarah Whitehead

The legend goes that Sarah’s brother Philip Whitehead worked at the bank and was executed for forgery in 1811 or 1812. Philip had made sure that his devoted sister would not find out about his crime and also about his execution by having her stay at friends just off Fleet Street. However, Philip obviously did not return home after some time, so Sarah went to the Bank of England and asked the staff: ‘Have you seen my brother?’ Knowing about his fate and how he had kept it from his sister, they kept telling her politely ‘He is not in today, Sarah, but we’ll tell him that you were inquiring after him.’ This went on day in and day out and every time, Sarah would smile at the answer and leave the bank. One day, she asked a young bank employee, who was not familiar with her. He told her right away about her brother’s crimes and that he had rightly been hanged for it. This was too much for Sarah. Refusing to accept his guilt and his death, she kept returning to the bank every day, wearing a black crepe dress and asking the same question ‘Have you seen my brother?’

Her mental and physical state declined rapidly and she stopped washing. In 1818, the bank’s governor offered her a sum of money if she never returned to the bank. She accepted, having made a great deal (this, dear reader, is a rather brilliant way of making money). In some versions of the story, it is said that she approached Baron Rothschild on the steps of the Stock Exchange, demanding a vast fortune and the whole of the Muswell Hill estate as hers, and accusing him of defrauding her of her fortune. Tactfully, Rothschild handed her a half-crown and she accepted it and proceeded on her way.

‘Have you seen my brother?’

Whichever version is true, she was seen after her presumed death (dated sometime between 1818 and the 1830s/40s). On Threadneedle Street, more than one weary traveller was approached by an old lady in black late at night who asked him ‘Have you seen my brother?’ So when you are on Threadneedle Street at night, take a look around to see if you can spot her somewhere in the dark.

There is a great documentary about the case on YouTube by my friend Curious World, which I highly recommend you to watch. For example, he states that no Philip Whitehead can be found in the archives of the Old Bailey (the Central Criminal Court), but that in late 1811, a Paul Whitehead, clerk of the Bank of England, was executed for forgery. So, there is truth in the legend and some of the facts may have been changed when the story was retold over the years.

The legend of Sarah Whitehead is part of our self-guided walk “Haunted London: Ghosts of London”. Order the walk here:

The black nun at Bank Underground Station

Sarah Whitehead’s ghost was seen within the bank’s walls and in its inner garden way into the 1970s. Two bank clerks watched her from the upper galleries staggering along a garden path and then falling to her knees and clapping the stones with her fists before vanishing from sight. The path’s stones are made up from old gravestones from the cemetery of the church of St Christopher le Stocks. Some sources of the Sarah Whitehead legend say that she had been buried in the mentioned churchyard just behind the bank. However, the church was demolished in 1782 to make way for an extension of the bank, and her life dates do not fit this theory.

Also, the story of Sarah Whitehead is connected to Bank Underground Station. In some versions of the legend, it is believed that she was buried in the vicinity of where the station is now and that her grave was disturbed during its construction. The crypt of the church of St Mary Woolnoth, standing on the corner of King William Street and Lombard Street, was demolished to build the station’s ticket office there. St Mary Woolnoth is the only City church by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, whose churches are said to influence its surroundings in a dark and sinister way. You can find a walk along his East End churches here:

During the building of the ticket office in 1900, many bodies were exhumed and relocated from the crypt. Was Sarah Whitehead’s body one of them? Chris Archibald, a station worker, saw an old woman on a CCTV monitor at Bank Station at 2 a.m., long after the station was closed. He went to investigate and indeed saw her standing in the corridor. She looked up at him, then cast her eyes down, turned around and walked around the next corner. He hurried after her and when he turned the corner, she was gone. He called his colleague, who operated the CCTV cameras, to check if he could see her anywhere. He checked over one hundred cameras and there was no one to be seen. Sightings of Sarah Whitehead, ‘the black nun’ at Bank Station run as late as 2001.

Haunted London: Ghosts of London

I hope you enjoyed this ghostly tale. Sarah Whitehead’s story and the Bank of England are part of our self-guided walk “Haunted London: Ghosts of London”. You can buy it in my shop.

I am collecting your London horror stories. Now it’s up to you. Do you have any ghost stories that you want to share? Have you encountered any ghosts in London? Is there any London-related ghost sighting that you want to mention?

Send me a message or leave your story in the comments below. I might turn them into another video or blog. If you go to these haunted places and meet a ghost or two, drop me a line. Or let me know and we can visit these sites together.

Image of Sarah Whitehead: Wikimedia Commons: “Miss Whitehead, an eccentric, known as the ‘Bank Nun’. Coloured lithograph by G.L. Lee.”Wellcome Library no. 1967i, Photo number: V0007302

Our self-guided walks

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