It’s 1836, and beneath London’s busy streets a sewer worker is seeing to a checklist of routine repairs when an old drain catches his attention – and he decides to inspect it. Then, after following the course of the underground tunnel, the worker reaches something that he could never have expected. Somehow – incredibly – he has just gained access to the place where a considerable proportion of the city’s riches are stored.
The Bank of England was established in the wake of a major defeat of the nation’s navy. In the Battle of Beachy Head – a clash involving dozens of warships that took place on July 10, 1690, during the Nine Years’ War – France overwhelmingly defeated both the Dutch and their English allies. In fact, the French navy dispatched ten of its enemies’ ships without losing a single one of its own.
Afterward, England refocused its efforts on rebuilding its navy into a force stronger than the one that had lost the Battle of Beachy Head. There was one major problem, though: the country had no public funds left. And the government – helmed by William III – could not borrow the £1.2 million ($1.5 million) that it needed.
So it was that in 1694, to get the necessary money, the government brought the Bank of England into being. Lenders could pay into the bank with cash, and they would receive bank notes against government bonds. And within less than two weeks, William III had raised the £1.2 million necessary to strengthen the country’s navy.
The foundation of the Bank of England proved to be a major turning point for the country. With the loan secured, England could fund all the industries required to bulk up its navy. This initiative included boosting the country’s agricultural sector and setting up ironworks – which provided materials used for building the ships.
The kingdoms of England and Scotland then unified in 1707 to become the Kingdom of Great Britain. And with a healthy bank and a booming industry, this newly formed state became exceptionally powerful. Indeed, William III’s strengthened navy fought to make Great Britain a principal player on the global stage into the 19th century.
The Bank of England, for its part, changed hands when it became a nationalized organization back in 1946. And later, in 1998, it transformed once again, this time into an independent public organization. The more recent change meant that the government’s Treasury Solicitor technically owned the bank – but the bank itself established its own financial policies.
Even with all those changes, though, the Bank of England has maintained at least one particular standard for hundreds of years: it has long kept an impressive stock of gold bars in its vaults. After all, many traders invest in gold when the markets become unpredictable since the value of the precious metal doesn’t waver a great deal.
What’s more, gold can easily be traded between countries. Many, in fact, consider it to be a universal currency because it can cross borders while holding its value. And the bank’s London Good Delivery standard makes trading the precious metal a more straightforward process by ensuring that it has identical gold bars.
Gold trading is also physically simpler than it may sound. You see, although one might envision someone lugging carts of gold bars out of vaults, the bars never in fact leave – even when they change ownership. That’s because a serial number is allocated to each bar – meaning that when a person trades their bullion, it becomes officially listed as belonging to a new owner.
The Bank of England, meanwhile, protects a staggering 4,600 tons of gold – making it the world’s 15th-largest keeper of gold reserves. It’s small wonder, then, that the stockpile is worth a considerable sum. The gold bars apparently boast a value of approximately £156 billion. And about half of the precious metal is hoarded in vaults that lie just below the bustling capital city.
The Bank of England actually moved to London’s Threadneedle Street back in 1734, and it has remained in the same location ever since. Nowadays, the nearby Bank underground station is among the capital’s ten busiest. And particularly with such a central location, the financial institution needs plenty of security measures to protect its assets.
In 2013 the Bank of England released a fascinating app that allowed users to take a virtual tour of its gold vaults. The app’s images showed stacks of gold bars sitting on shelves. And while this might not sound like the most protective way to store such valuable assets, the precious metal doesn’t tarnish, and nor does it oxidize.
Moreover, even if the shelves themselves seem ordinary, the security surrounding the gold vault is of the highest order. For starters, to enter the vault, one needs a key. And while this might sound fairly standard, it doesn’t when you learn that the key measures up at 3 feet in length. Then, after the key has been inserted, the individual trying to open the door must use a verbal password, with voice-recognition software subsequently allowing their entry.
Inside, the vaults then spread over a massive expanse of square footage. Indeed, the amount of floorspace is said to be greater than that of what is currently London’s 13th-tallest building – Tower 42. And the Bank of London needs this much space to house all of its gold, too. Why? Because if the bank’s employees piled too many bars into one area, the bullion would start to slump into the ground.
As a final security measure, the Bank of England also envelops its gold in a strong layer of outer protection. The vaults have walls that are each 8 feet thick. In fact, some say that the walls are actually bombproof, as the bank’s workers found refuge in the vaults during World War II air raids – when the Germans dropped explosives onto the English capital.
Either way, though, it’s clear that the Bank of England prides itself on its level of security. So much so, in fact, that in 1973 the institution got rid of the Brigade of Guards soldiers who used to patrol and protect the building at night. The financial organization also claims that, ever since its foundation in 1694, it has never been the victim of a robbery.
However, there is a rumor that’s almost to the contrary that the Bank of England can’t seem to shake. And it supposedly all started when a letter arrived for the attention of the financial institution’s directors in 1836. It appears that the anonymous author behind the message said that they had figured out a way into the bank’s gold vault.
The directors, though, apparently laughed off the letter as a joke. After all, the Bank of England’s security would surely make it impossible for a non-employee to enter the vaults. But it’s said that the author of the message then proved how serious they were when they sent a second note – and this message carried a more specific request.
The person supposedly asked the Bank of England’s directors to choose a particular time when they could meet inside the gold vault. We’re told that the directors still thought it impossible to break into the underground storage center, mind you. But it seems that they were nonetheless curious – and so they agreed to a date and time before subsequently gathering within the vault.
The directors apparently hadn’t, as mentioned, taken the meeting very seriously – until, that is, they heard a noise emanating from beneath the vault’s floor. Then, as the officials stood there, the story goes that the planks moved to reveal a man clambering inside. The man supposedly then climbed into the vault and proved that he had, indeed, been able to infiltrate it despite the security measures.
The man then reportedly told the Bank of England’s directors that he had been carrying out sewer repairs near the institution on Threadneedle Street. And it appears that when he’d performed his regular inspection of the city’s underground plumbing, he had found an old drain that caught his interest. So it was that the worker had apparently followed the subterranean tunnel and realized that he was standing right beneath the Bank of England’s precious gold vault.
On top of finding the vault, the man also, it seems, realized that he could get inside. And it’s said that his discovery – understandably – shocked the directors who were stood with him underground. They had, after all, thought their carefully crafted security system would prevent any such entry.
So, as the story goes, the bank’s directors realized that they had a major problem. Given that there was an access point to the vault, had any of the gold gone missing? The directors therefore apparently took stock of the bars – and were no doubt relieved to realize that every single piece remained in place. This was, moreover, despite the fact that the story’s sewer worker had had more than enough opportunity to take some bullion for himself.
And for that, as rumor has it, the Bank of England’s directors decided to reward the man for his honesty. They supposedly gave him a handsome gift of £800 ($1,000) – which would be equivalent to about £90,000 ($115,000) in 2019. This would, therefore, have been a very large amount of money for our sewer worker. Enough, perhaps, to change his life.
But here’s the thing: even though this account is pretty widely known, there’s no suggestion of who the honest man really was. Indeed, the Bank of England has no actual record of handing the money over to him. And as a result, the story is regarded as just that – a story. The Bank of England features the tale on its website, but it is marked as a rumor.
There could, however, yet be some truth to the tale. For one thing, it’s possible that the Bank of England didn’t record the incident for fear of admitting to a security snafu. And on top of that, it’s known that construction works had actually taken place near to the Bank of England building at around the same time as the man had supposedly happened upon the old drain.
If the rumor is true, it’s also safe to assume that the Bank of England has since sealed the secret entrance point. So, the only way to get inside the building now is if you work there or want to exchange an outdated Bank of England bill. Otherwise, visitors can learn more about the longstanding financial institution through the Bank of England Museum.
But let’s broaden our focus a bit. Since 1836 people have, after all, infiltrated vaults in far more brazen – and far more lucrative – ways. For instance, in 2015 three apparently unassuming elderly men named Daniel Jones, Terry Perkins and John Collins would regularly convene at The Castle – a pub in the Islington area of North London.
And the group’s meet-ups – however innocent they may have seemed from the outside – actually had a devious purpose. You see, in the three years prior to their get-togethers at The Castle, Jones had reportedly spent lots of time online researching drills. Specifically, drills strong enough to penetrate the wall of a well-protected vault.
And once Jones’ meetings with Perkins and Collins had begun, so too did some strange incidents in London’s Hatton Garden. This commercial zone is widely known as the capital’s jewelry hub as well as the center of the United Kingdom’s diamond industry. Nowadays, in fact, there are more than 55 stores in the area that are dedicated to the sale of jewels.
In January 2015, though, one jeweler started to feel uneasy while at work. According to The Independent, Lionel Wiffen sensed that individuals sat in parked vehicles around the area were watching him work at 88-90 Hatton Garden. And two months later, someone calling at the building also experienced an unusual incident.
To wit, a woman waiting for the elevator there noted that it was taking a long time to arrive. And when it did, it seems that the doors opened to reveal an older man in work overalls and with tools all around him. The man apparently smiled at the woman because she could not get onto the elevator with so many of his tools in the space.
On April 7 of that same year, however, all the suspicious signs would begin to make sense. On that day, security guards arrived to the safe deposit at 88-90 Hatton Garden to find that its contents had been emptied. And at first, the authorities couldn’t find any visible signs of forced entry.
Then, however, the authorities realized that the burglars had used a drill to cut through the vault’s 20-inch-thick walls. The thieves had been able to reach the safe deposit area after entering through the building’s elevator shaft. And this was a particularly interesting detail given the report of the maintenance man who had blocked the woman from using the elevator just a week prior.
Fortunately, police did have some closed-circuit television footage of the men who had allegedly broken into the safe deposit. And so, without knowing their real identities, the media handed out nicknames to the suspected crew. They called them Mr. Ginger, Mr. Montana, Mr. Strong, The Tall Man, The Gent and The Old Man.
After the heist, Jones, Perkins and Collins continued to convene at The Castle – and not just for beer. To the contrary, the trio had business to discuss. They had planned the heist at the Islington pub. And with the job now completed, they presumably had to figure out how they’d sell their stolen goods without police detection.
Unbeknown to the perpetrators, though, the police had already picked up their scent. Officers therefore watched the trio as they met at The Castle to discuss their private business. Then so it was that the authorities soon had Collins’ and Perkins’ vehicles bugged, and they heard as the men bragged about their burglary – supposedly the biggest in England’s history.
Police then eventually descended upon the workshop of a fourth conspirator named Hugh Doyle. And there, they found bins full of stolen jewels. Officers even discovered two bags full of gems hidden beneath headstones on the graves of Jones’ partner’s family members. This was thus more than enough evidence for the police to arrest Jones, Collins, Perkins, Doyle and five others for their involvement in the crime.
The four elderly men who’d pulled off the heist subsequently pleaded guilty, and the courts handed down prison sentences to each of them. And the fact that a gang of old men had perpetrated such a crime caught Hollywood’s attention, too. The burglary has already inspired three films, in fact, including 2018’s King of Thieves, starring Michael Caine. Perhaps the rumored 1836 Bank of England infiltration will one day do the same.