Would it surprise you that the Bank of England – England’s central bank since 1694 and a weighty presence in the City of London with its imposing headquarters on Threadneedle Street – has its very own ghost? Referred to as ‘the Black Nun’ or ‘Bank Nun’, this phantom has been encountered in and around the Bank asking mournfully after her brother, a Bank of England clerk hanged for a crime committed at his workplace.
Described as an old lady in black mourning clothes and a black veil, this spectre is said to be the spirit of one Sarah Whitehead. Sarah, it is claimed, never reconciled herself to her beloved brother’s execution and would spend the rest of her life hanging around the Bank and pestering its employees, becoming increasingly aggressive and deranged as the years passed. Even death did not apparently stop Sarah Whitehead’s haunting of the Bank of England and its environs. Supposedly buried in a nearby church – though, as we shall see, which one is debatable – Sarah has been spotted numerous times, asking people if they have seen her sibling. Her ghost is even said to wander the tunnels of nearby Bank Underground Station.
But what crime did Philip Whitehead – Sarah’s brother – carry out that was so appalling he lost his life for it? Did Sarah really plague the Bank of England for years, even decades; did she exist at all; and why on earth did she take to haunting an Underground station not even built in her lifetime?
This is a complex story of seemingly contradictory facts, of tolling execution bells, of putrid church crypts turned into Tube ticket halls, of graveyards swallowed by the Bank’s relentless expansion, of startled commuters and horrified American tourists, of spectres manically pounding tombstones, and of weird knockings echoing and disturbing smells wafting through the tunnels of one of the capital’s busiest Underground stops.
In the early 1800s – this peculiar piece of London folklore says – a young clerk named Philip Whitehead was working at the Bank of England. Philip, however, was not content to exist on his modest clerk’s salary. He envied the better-paid bankers and traders he worked alongside and was determined he should enjoy a lifestyle as good as theirs. Philip – and his younger sister Sarah, who lived with him – therefore passed a pleasurable few years, eating sumptuous food, quaffing fine wines and attending shimmering social occasions. The pair were living well beyond their capabilities, but Sarah – just a naïve teenager – had no idea of the increasingly worrying state of their finances. Philip – though he couldn’t help fretting about the debt he was getting into – tried to expel such thoughts from his brain. He instead focused on relishing every indulgent moment of his decadent life.
As time went on, however, even Philip had to acknowledge his desperate economic situation. His debts were building up and his creditors getting agitated. Yet rather than cut back on his extravagances and be forced to tell Sarah they must lead a different kind of life, Philip tried various ploys to lessen his woes. He invested in the stock market, but this went very wrong and ended up multiplying Philip’s debts. He turned to gambling, but lost even more money at cards. Now frantic with concern and gazing into what must have seemed a financial vortex, Philip listened to the advice of a friend and allowed himself to be persuaded to make a risky move. He forged a cheque at his place of work (for £87, a bit more than £4,000 today). Merely an amateur swindler, Philip was swiftly found out and arrested. To await trial, he was sent to London’s notorious Newgate jail – a dark, overcrowded, bug-and-lice-infested institution. Even in these dire circumstances, Philip strove to protect Sarah from the truth.
Philip had not picked a good time to be charged with forgery – this crime was widespread and the authorities were determined to crack down on it. The printing of too many banknotes had meant the Bank of England didn’t hold enough gold to back the currency, so in what is known as the Restriction Period (1797-1821) the Bank was not obliged to exchange notes for gold. The Bank started to issue one- and two-pound notes as a substitute for this precious metal. This sparked a surge in forgery as many people weren’t used to dealing with paper money and so could be taken advantage of. Many citizens were illiterate and didn’t have the expertise to identify counterfeit notes. The increasing number of criminals exploiting the vulnerable in this way spurred the government to make the forging of banknotes a hanging offence. Over 300 forgers were executed during Restriction Period, including – in 1811, the year of Philip Whitehead’s court case – two of his colleagues from the Bank of England.
Knowing his outlook was grim, Philip hurriedly arranged for Sarah to stay with friends who lived just off Fleet Street. He insisted she should be shielded from all news of his arrest, imprisonment and upcoming trial. He had carefully selected the place where his sister should stay – an area of London out of earshot of the bells of the infamous St Sepulchre’s Church. Just opposite Newgate, St Sepulchre tolled its bells whenever prisoners were led from the jail to be executed.
Philip’s trial began – it’s said on November 2nd, 1811. He was duly sentenced to death and executed the following year. He was only 36 – Sarah just 19. Sarah had no notion of what had happened to her brother, but after some time started to wonder why she hadn’t seen him for so long. After returning home, she began to visit the Bank of England to enquiry about him. She’d ask his fellow clerks, “Has anyone seen my brother?” The clerks, embarrassed and filled with pity, tried to keep the truth from her. They’d always reply, “Not today, Madam” while assuring her Philip was well. One day, however, a clerk – tired of her frequent visits – blurted out that Philip had dabbled in forgery and been rightly executed. (Other accounts state the clerk was not so cruel and that he let slip to Sarah the reality of what had happened, without knowing who she was.)
Sarah Whitehead was shattered by the news and began to lose her reason. She thereafter dressed only in black, her face hidden by a black veil, and – bizarrely – continued her habit of frequenting the Bank. On each of her visits, she still asked the clerks, “Have you seen my brother, today?” The clerks, filled with even more compassion now Sarah knew the truth, awkwardly played along and answered, “Not today, Madam, but I’m sure that he is well.” Seemingly satisfied, the black-clad young woman would nod and leave. Sarah would also sometimes walk up to the Bank’s customers, asking them the same mournful question about Philip.
At first, it seems Sarah was treated kindly. The Bank’s employees were told to dispense modest sums of money to her. (This must have been necessary for her survival as the heavily indebted Philip can’t have left her anything and employment opportunities for middle-class women in those days were scarce.) There was also, apparently, a small room at the Bank set aside for her use and she was sometimes given food. But as the months and years passed and Sarah continued her almost daily visits, the Bank’s patience grew strained. Sarah’s grip on sanity was obviously loosening; she appeared an increasingly macabre and threatening figure in her morbid black clothes; and she was becoming more aggressive in her demands for cash. By around 1818, she was accusing employees of hiding money she claimed belonged to her. Sarah’s creepy attire and bizarre conduct meant she acquired sinister nicknames – ‘the Bank Nun’ and ‘the Black Nun of Threadneedle Street’ – and the Bank was becoming seriously concerned about her effect on its reputation.
Some versions of the legend say the Bank ended up paying Sarah a considerable amount of money on the condition she’d never visit again. Another tale states she accosted the head of the Bank in the nearby Royal Exchange (London’s stock market). Sarah accused him of being a villain and robber and demanded £2,000. Though the exasperated man gave her just half-a-crown and told her to stop bothering him, Sarah apparently accepted this meagre sum and left. Some sources say that – after these interactions – Sarah did agree to stay away from the Bank while other accounts state she continued her sinister – and almost daily – visits for twenty-five years. Peter Underwood – author of Ghosts of London – claimed she kept calling at the Bank nearly every day for four decades.
Sarah is thought to have died 25 to 30 years after Philip’s hanging, at some point between 1837 and 1842. Although described by then as a withered, little old lady, she would have only been between 44 and 49. Some sources do, however, claim she made it to 60. Alternatively, it may have been madness and a tough lifestyle that prematurely aged her. Sarah’s legend states she was buried in the now-demolished church of St Christopher le Stocks, adjacent to the Bank of England. As we shall see, though, London folklore maintains that not even death could break the Black Nun’s habit of hanging around the Bank, nor could it lessen her grief for her adored brother.
The reader might feel that there are logical holes in the story of Sarah Whitehead. Wouldn’t even someone of Sarah’s naivety have become more suspicious at her brother’s sudden, long and unexplained absence? Could she really have been shielded from all the gossip and media reports about the case? And, though £87 was then a substantial sum, it would hardly have been enough to solve Philip’s deep financial problems and so be worth risking his life for (unless he saw this crime as the first in a series and fancied he could make a career out of such swindles). Would Sarah – even in her grief-shattered condition – have visited the bank every day for so many years?
Nevertheless, there is evidence to support something like the story given above. Though no court documents from that time mention a Philip Whitehead, there is a Paul Whitehead in the records of the Old Bailey being indicted for fraud on 30th October 1811. Research by I.J. Kelly, for the Curious World YouTube channel, shows that this Paul Whitehead – like the Philip in the legend – was accused of forging a cheque for around £87, £87 and 10 shillings to be precise. So why, might we wonder, does folklore refer to the defendant as Philip? This could be due to misreporting in the press. The gothic blogger Icy Sedgwick found the following article in the 12th November 1811 edition of the Cumberland Pacquet and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser:
“Philip Whitehead was indicted for forging, or uttering (knowing it to be forged), the acceptance of Thomas Gullan, livery stable keeper, King Street, Westminster, to a bill of exchange for 87l.10s, drawn by the prisoner on Mr Gullan, and made payable at the banking house of Messers. Ransom & Co. The jury found the prisoner Guilty – Death.”
The court records also mention the defrauding of Mr Gullan so it’s highly likely that Paul and Philip Whitehead were the same person and that – due to the press getting his name wrong – this individual passed into folklore as ‘Philip’.
As for his sister, Icy Sedgwick found that the Bank of England’s own archives contain documents about Sarah’s story, in which she is referred to as ‘the Bank Nun’. The Bank also possesses an account from 1837, apparently written by Sarah herself. In addition, it seems that some believed one of the Bank’s nicknames, ‘The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’, came from Sarah. This appears to be untrue. The nickname probably originated in a cartoon of 1797 by James Gillray, showing the Bank of England as an old woman with her clothes made from banknotes and seated on a chest, presumably containing gold. The then prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, grabs and kisses the lady as she protests. This cartoon – called Political Ravishment or the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in Danger – satirised how the government was treating the Bank at a time of financial crisis. However, the fact people linked Sarah to this nickname perhaps shows how closely associated the black-draped figure had become with the Bank in the popular imagination. Some also used this name to refer to Sarah’s alleged ghost.
So, it seems that there was a ‘Philip’ Whitehead, that he forged a cheque and that he was hung for this offence. It also seems he had a sister who, in her distress, pestered the Bank of England for years. Let’s now turn to the supposed sightings of Sarah’s ghost and see what we can make of them.
According to London Folklore, despite Sarah Whitehead passing away, despite her burial in the church of St Christopher le Stocks, her habit of hanging around the Bank of England and asking people about her brother has in no way been extinguished. There have been sightings of a woman clad in black on Threadneedle Street and in Bank Underground Station. Some people claim this woman has sidled up to them and – with eyes cast down – asked if they have seen her brother or know where he is. These people have often looked around – presumably in the hope of spotting such a man – but, when they’ve turned back to speak to the woman, she has vanished. On other occasions, those approached have tried to see if anybody else can help, but again – when they’ve glanced back towards the woman – she has gone. Most of these witnesses claimed to have known nothing about the legend until informed of it afterwards. Sarah has also, apparently, walked up to groups of people, with each member stating that they had the same experience of her.
Among those approached have been American visitors. One US tourist, when asked by a black-clad woman if he’d seen her brother, told her she must have mixed him up with someone else. The woman turned away with a disappointed look and trailed after two other passers-by. Icy Sedgwick relates an experience on a ghost tour of the City of London. After narrating the tale of the Black Nun of Threadneedle Street, the guide told the group that once he’d been telling the story when an American – who’d joined the tour while in London on business – turned white. When asked what was wrong, the businessman said that he'd been approached by a woman dressed in black the day before who’d asked him if he knew the whereabouts of her brother. Like so many before him, he'd turned to see if anybody passing by could help, but when he turned back to the woman, she was nowhere to be seen. He’d never heard of Sarah’s legend until told about it on the tour.
Sarah has also been seen within the Bank of England. A place her spectre has been glimpsed numerous times is in the Court Garden – an enclosed garden at the centre of the Bank, overlooked by galleries and windows. In the 1970s, two Bank employees saw a woman in black clothes walking down the garden’s path. She moved in a staggering, hesitant manner, almost as if blind. She then dropped onto her knees and starting beating one of the slabs of the path with her fists, manically striking at the stone while shaking her head. The woman then disappeared.
The sightings of Sarah in the Court Garden might appear to make sense when we remember where her legend says she was buried – in St Christopher le Stocks Church. St Christopher le Stocks was demolished to make way for an extension of the Bank of England and the church’s graveyard was also later requisitioned by the Bank. The old churchyard now lies beneath the Court Garden and the garden’s path is made from reused gravestones. Might Sarah have been buried in that graveyard and might she have been striking at her former headstone? Might – in addition to all the grief heaped on her by the Bank due to her brother’s execution – Sarah have been angered by yet another humiliation forced on her by the Bank disturbing her resting place? At first, it seems the Bank were happy to let the dead lie beneath the Court Garden. Eventually, though, they were exhumed and moved to Nunhead Cemetery in South London. It appears the bones were shipped out to Nunhead in two batches – in 1867 and 1933.
However, there’s a problem with the common idea of Sarah having been buried in St Christopher le Stocks. The church was demolished in 1782 and the graveyard requisitioned by the Bank in 1798. As Sarah probably passed away between 1837 and 1842, she cannot have been buried in either the church of St Christopher le Stocks or its graveyard. It seems we must look elsewhere for her resting place. There’s also the question of why she is said to haunt Bank Underground Station if it hadn’t even been constructed when she was alive. As we shall see in the next section, these two questions are sinisterly intertwined in the case of Sarah Whitehead.
Another place of worship which stands close to the Bank of England – on the corner of Lombard Street and King William Street – is the church of St Mary Woolnoth. The current church on the site was built by Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), a disciple of Sir Christopher Wren. Known as the Devil’s Architect, Hawksmoor was infamous for decorating his churches with ‘pagan’ features like pyramids and obelisks. Indeed, to many Mary Woolnoth has always had something sinister about it. In a section of his poem The Wasteland entitled The Burial of the Dead, T.S. Elliot wrote that “St Mary Woolnoth kept the hours, with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.” In his notes, Elliot commented that this “dead sound” was “a phenomenon that I have often noticed.”
Between 1897 and 1900, the City and South London Railway company were building Bank Underground Station directly below the church. Initially, they planned to demolish St Mary Woolnoth, but public protests forced a rethink and the church was saved – with the exception of its crypt. The crypt was cleared of interments – of which there were estimated to be between seven- and eight-thousand – with most of the bones, it seems, being taken out to Ilford. The crypt was converted into a ticket hall, which now serves the Northern Line. One of the entrances you can take down into the hall was once the entrance to the crypt. During the ticket hall’s construction, the walls and columns of the church were shored up with steel girders, with the Railway claiming this made the church far sturdier than before. Many were also glad to see the fetid, overcrowded crypt cleared out as St Mary’s congregation had often been disquieted by noxious smells seeping from that vault.
So, the transformation of the crypt into the ticket hall seems to have been a success. Except for the fact that some have claimed a certain atmosphere – and some spooky goings-on – have been bequeathed to the station by this unusual alteration. Members of staff and Underground passengers have remarked on the feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worry they’ve sensed permeating the station. Some have also noticed putrid smells wafting through the tunnels and strange knocking noises. Of course, on the Underground, one does sometimes get disagreeable smells. Odd sounds might occur for mechanical reasons then echo through passageways. And the Bank-Monument complex is a particularly weird and labyrinthine station, serving five Tube lines as well as the Docklands Light Railway, with sixteen entrances and seemingly miles of tunnels. The station is also a common alighting point for workers facing gruelling days in London’s financial centre, which might account for the feelings of melancholy and hopelessness. Passenger surveys often rate Bank as the worst station on the Underground network!
However, there have been incidents in the station that are difficult to explain. According to the Channel Five documentary, Ghosts on the Underground (2005), in 1982 a Tube worker called Andy Harkers was on duty late at night after the station had closed. As he was locking up, he needed to check the lifts in the Northern Line ticket hall. He looked in one lift, saw it was empty, closed the doors and was walking away when he heard a loud “Knock! Knock! Knock!” coming from that elevator. He knew there was no one in there and that there was no wind that might cause such a noise so he tried to ignore it. Feeling jumpy, he went back to the switch room, wedged its door open and – as he was walking across the ticket hall – the door he’d just wedged slammed shut with an almighty bang. “That was the last time I was working on that side of the station,” he said, “and I never went back.”
We might wonder what all this has to do with the legend of the Black Nun. The stories say she was buried in the vicinity of the Bank of England so – if she wasn’t buried at St Christopher le Stocks – might she have been interred in St Mary Woolnoth? Could her remains have been among those removed when the crypt was turned into the ticket hall?
There have been glimpses of the Black Nun in Bank Station’s mazelike tunnels. A commuter, for instance, travelling into Bank from Liverpool Street claimed to have spotted her in 2001. One of the spookiest possible sightings, however, is said to have occurred after the station had shut down for the night.
Ghosts on the Underground tells of another station employee, Chris Archibald, who was working late. It was 2.00 am and all the passengers should have gone. But, glancing at a CCTV screen, Chris was surprised to see “what appeared to be a little old lady standing in a long corridor”, near a tight corner – called a ‘dogleg’ – that led to a flight of stairs.
Bemused, Chris went to investigate. As he walked towards the woman “she looked up straight at me, looked down again and turned and started walking away. I started running down the corridor in order to catch her. But by the time I’d got to the dogleg, she’d disappeared, which I immediately thought strange as I knew I’d covered that ground an awful lot quicker than she could have walked from the dogleg to the stairs.”
Chris next went to the staircase and walked up and down it. He discovered that “both sets of gates were still closed and padlocked and she was nowhere to be seen.” He radioed a workmate in the CCTV control room and told him to check the cameras to see where the woman had gone. His workmate “checked over a hundred cameras, but she was nowhere.”
Might Chris have seen the Black Nun? In his account, he doesn’t mention that the old lady was wearing black and, in general, sightings of Sarah in Bank Station seem less common than in the Bank of England. But the idea that Sarah might haunt Bank Underground because of the disruption of her resting place in St Mary Woolnoth is an intriguing one.
As mentioned above, it seems certain that a Sarah and Philip (or rather Paul) Whitehead did exist, that Sarah was traumatised by Philip’s execution and that in her distress she got into the habit of hanging around the Bank of England. The frequency of her visits, and the years she kept them up for, could have been exaggerated and the tale may have become more macabre and dramatic in its retellings, but the basics of it do seem to be rooted in fact.
Regarding the hauntings, it may be the case that this was a legend begging to have a ghost story attached. Perhaps more skilled tellers of tales couldn’t help appending a spooky element to the heart-breaking story of Sarah’s compulsive conduct. Perhaps passers-by, who’d really been approached by old ladies in black – on hearing the legend – convinced themselves they’d encountered the spectre of Sarah Whitehead.
Another explanation might be ‘the Stone Tape Theory’ – the idea that harrowing events can become imprinted on materials such as stone and then ‘replayed’ like a video recording. Maybe Sarah’s emotionally-charged visits to the Bank and her mournful requests for information about her brother imposed themselves on her surroundings and were then ‘replayed’ long after her death. As for the weird goings-on at Bank Tube, there’s evidence that people may be affected by something called ‘infrasound’. This is a kind of unnoticed background noise, of which there’s a great deal on the Underground thanks to all the trains, escalators and machines working away. Infrasound can, in sufficient quantities, make people feel on edge, shiver, see shadowy objects and have exaggerated reactions to unusual noises.
Of course – if one believes in ghosts – it’s logical to assume that Sarah’s angry, unquiet spirit may haunt the Bank of England and the area around it. If anyone ever sees her – and compassionately lets her know that her brother is at peace – maybe the Black Nun herself will be able to rest.