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1799-1810 Expansions north-west and rebuilding of existing offices (487)

The north-west wing of the Bank was built from 1803 to 1808. Its construction occurred at the same time as the rebuilding of various offices within the Bank, namely the directors' parlours, Discount Office and Bullion Office. Vaults were altered beneath the Bank and a corridor was made linking many of the private banking offices. The nearly ten years of building works provided the Bank with a state-of-the art engine-powered printing press, more office space and better access between rooms, and the impressive north-west Tivoli Corner. The Bank's north-west extension was the result of a large increase in business due to the Napoleonic Wars.

The Bank secured an Act of Parliament in 1800 that allowed for the acquisition of property and the realignment of Princes Street. The site that the Bank presently occupied would be expanded three-quarters of an acres to the north-west, providing more space for the Bank's increased business. Soane and the Committee of Building met regarding the plans at various times throughout the design process. Soane submitted his estimates for the buildings in May 1803. The wing was built in two phases, the first designed and built between 1803 and 1806, and the second phase not completed until 1808.

Since its foundation in 1694, the Bank of England had financed Britain's wars, and it continued to do so during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 1793 to 1815. The Bank’s lending capabilities were not as strong, however, due to its much-depleted reserves. For its finances, Britain relied heavily on high-risk lenders. But the Bank of England’s responsibilities were not lessened, as the Bank printed the nation’s principal currency, managed the country’s bullion reserves, controlled the nation’s credit and loaned responsibly to small country banks. The Bank of England became a national institution.

In 1797 Wiliam Pitt urged Parliament to pass the Restriction Act, prohibiting the Bank from issuing cash. The Restriction lasted the duration of the war (in fact, its termination was prolonged until 1821, having been partly resumed in 1817). To provide the public with something to exchange, the Bank printed £1 and £2 banknotes for the first time. Unsuprisingly, the existing printing presses were over stretched by this new task, printing 70 to 100 thousand low-denomination notes a week (Abramson). All of these notes were signed by hand. Forgeries of low denomination notes were a recurring problem and the Bank issued several variations of the banknotes, integrating wavy chain-lines (Acres) and consulting artists for new innovations. Because of the forgeries, bank branches often exchanged their notes for new ones, thereby increasing demand even more. Eventually, in 1808 a block of Printing Offices was erected, complete with thirty new engine-operated printing presses.

The north-west extension contained more than just printing offices. A Barracks was built in 1805, retaining the same military style as the original Barracks of 1790 (see scheme 1:7). An Accountants Office was part of the new wing and it also had a similar design to the former Accountants Office built by George Sampson in 1734, consisting of a long rectangular office lined with tall windows. The architectural achievement of the north-west wing, however lay in its circulation, which was radically improved and visually engaging. The entrance vestibule from Princes Street, known as the Doric Vestibule, was an imaginative top-lit domed hall on a cruciform plan. Steps framed by Doric columns led to a main corridor that opened into a loggia and then plunged into a thicket of private banking offices. The corridors circulating within the Bank were top-lit by small skylights or lunettes and had an intriguing variety of ceiling heights, vaults and ornamentation. Soane imposed this system of corridors to connect the banking offices in the old and new buildings (Britton).

The properties for the north-west wing were acquired after an Act of Parliament passed in 1800. Soane lobbied Parliament and was also responsible for negotiating with the owners and tenants of properties. The Bank achieved their objective after a prolonged negotiation with the Grocers Company, mainly due to the favourable testimony of the City Lands Committee and its Clerk of the City Works (and Soane’s good friend and mentor) George Dance.

The north-west extension was built in two geographically distinct phases and the general plans for these designs have been included in two schemes. The first phase consists of the Accountants Office, the Waiting Room Court and the Doric Vestibule. This phase was built between 1803 and 1805. The second phase began in 1805 and was completed in 1808, consisting of the Printing Office Court surrounded by the Printing Offices and Barracks.

As the new extension was designed and constructed, several existing offices were rebuilt or expanded at the Bank. A new Discount Office was built near the entrance to the directors’ parlours. Beside the Discount Office, on the west side of the Bullion Court, a corridor called the Long Passage was rebuilt to a wider and more elaborate design. Both Office and Passage were complete in 1806. The new directors’ parlours were then partly rebuilt in 1807 and 1808, with a corridor and three lobbies connecting the existing Governor’s, Court and Committee Rooms. Waiting rooms were also rebuilt and more offices were included to the west of the directors' parlours, on the site of the former Barracks. Next, the Bullion Office and the east side of the Bullion Court were rebuilt, and completed in February 1808. The vaults beneath the Bank, to which the Bullion Office had access, were altered and rebuilt at several points throughout the Bank’s history, all the drawings for which have been included in one scheme (3:14).

Due to the nature of the Bank’s building works, some offices were designed simultaneously and designs for an office may occur in both the office’s designated scheme as well as the general plans. Schemes 3:6 and 3:9 show general plans for the first and second phases of the north-west expansion (respectively). An example is the Barracks building, which has its own scheme (3:11) but, being part of the second phase of the north-west extension, is also shown in scheme 3:9. It is advisable when searching for drawings relating to a room in the north-west extension, to look at both the eponymous scheme and the relative general scheme (ie 3:6 or 3:9).

Literature: J. Britton, The Beauties of England and Wales: or, Delineations, topographical, historical, and descriptive, of each county, Volume X, Part 1, 1814, pp. 559-566; J. Timbs, Curiosities of London: exhibiting the most rare and remarkable objects of interest in the metropolis, London, 1855, pp. 23-26; H. Rooksby Steele and F.R. Yerbury, The Old Bank of England, London, 1930, pp. 20-23; M. Acres, The Bank of England from within, Oxford, 1931, pp. 397- 399; D. Abramson, Money's architecture: the building of the Bank of England, 1731-1833, doctoral thesis for the Department of Fine Arts, Harvard University, 1993; D. Abramson, Building the Bank of England: money, architecture, society 1694-1942, 2005, pp. 166-167.

Madeleine Helmer, 2011
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