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The Bank of England and The Black Nun

The Bank of England on Threadneedle Street is sometimes referred to as ‘The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’ and is reputedly haunted by the apparition of Sarah Whitehead, also known as ‘The Black Nun’. Sarah’s brother Philip Whitehead worked in the Bank of England’s Cashier’s Office and on 2nd November 1811 he was charged with forgery and executed for the crime the following year. The shock of her brothers crime and subsequent death unhinged Sarah’s mind and every day for the rest of her life (twenty five - thirty years) she would call at the bank, dressed in black and asking for her brother.

There have been various amendments to the story over time, some add that sometimes she hurled abuse and harassed staff at the Bank. Others that she would be well treated by some bank staff and received some money from them. Another states that the Bank paid her off after they got annoyed with her constant visits.

On 31 December 1829, Thomas Maynard became the last person to be executed for forgery. I couldn’t find any record of a Philip Whitehead being charged with forgery and then being executed, however, on 24 June 1811 Richard Armitage and C Thomas, employee’s of the Bank of England were executed for forgery.

Upon her death she was buried behind the bank in the yard of the now demolished church which is now covered over by an enclosed courtyard for the Bank. The church behind the Bank of England was St Christopher le Stocks which dated back to 1282, though it had been altered many times and rebuilt after being destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire of London. The church was demolished when the bank was extended in 1781. The remains of those buried in the churchyard were reloacted to Nunhead Cemetary during work in 1867 and 1933.

In 1933 the grave of William Daniel Jenkins was discovered and moved to Nunhead. Jenkins had been a Bank Clerk of great stature measuring 6’7”. When he died in 1798 special permission was sought from the Bank Directors to have him buried the court yard (the old churchyard) as it was feared his unique physique would make his body a target for body snatchers.

I can only assume then that Sarah would have had to receive special permission to be buried in the courtyard as well.

The Bank of England moved to the Threadneedle Street site in 1734. Prior to this it was based in Walbrook and that original building was found to be above a Roman Temple to Mithras by archaeologists in 1954.

Sarah’s ghost is said to have been seen many times walking in the enclosed garden under which she was buried. Her apparition is described as wearing black, which is how Sarah came dressed each day to the bank and hence the name ‘The Black Nun’.   Sarah is also said to haunt Bank Underground Station.

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Ian Topham
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Re: The Bank of England and The Black Nun

The following account was recently e-mailed into the website:

One evening in 1991, while enjoying a nice walk on my first visit to London, I nearly bumped into a woman. Apparently I was distracted by the sights because I certainly didn’t see her before almost walking into her. She was wearing a black dress and bonnet (of a style from the early 1800s much as I had seen on display in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum). She held a small purse in her hands. Her face was plump and decidedly English. Her expression was quite sad. We stood less than an arm’s reach from each other, face to face. Her eyes barely caught a glimpse of mine because she was, with apparent despair, dropping her head as if defeated. As she did so, she asked, “Have you seen my brother?” Uncomfortably, I said, “I don’t know your brother, so I don’t know if I’ve seen him.”

Then I looked behind her. Four meters away stood two men looking at me. I thought that perhaps they were escorting this troubled woman who was out in the dark of London asking strangers questions. The two men said nothing. Then she and I walked past each other. After I walked five or six steps, I turned around to watch her, concerned about her and curious to know what she was doing. But she wasn’t there. This was an open area. There was no obstacle that could have blocked my view of her. There was nothing for her to hide behind. My view was not obstructed by people. She just wasn’t there. Puzzled, I continued my walk and said out loud, “Well, I guess this is creepy old London.”

I’m thinking that those two men didn’t see her and only saw me talking. Perhaps she was only visible to me. That would explain why they said nothing to me.

Anyway, nine years passed. Again, I had business to do in London and would soon go there for a second visit. So I went to a bookstore in Los Angeles to get a useful book about enjoying London. I like to walk and wanted something compact and not heavy. From the shelf, I removed a book titled, “Walking Haunted London”. It featured several walking tours, each tour three to five kilometers long. To give the reader a better sense of history, the author usually began each by telling of battles and interesting commentary pertinent to the area. Then he wrote of specific ghostly events that have been observed by credible people such as Tower Guards, Winston Churchill, and countless people for a few hundred years.

At the bottom of page 23, I was intrigued to see a story tour titled, “The Woman in Black.” This was the story of Phillip and Sarah Whitehead. The author wrote that ever since she died, many people have witnessed that she appears out of nowhere with sad downcast eyes and is heard to say the one phrase she so often spoke in life: “Have you seen my brother?” My arms had goosebumps.

I could have lived my entire life without discovering the story of Sarah Whitehead. In fact, after that chance meeting with Sarah, the story eluded me for another nine years - and that book has since been out of print for many years. I contacted the Bank of England and they mailed information to me about Sarah Whitehead. I also contacted the author of the book and we chatted.

During my second visit to London, I was hopeful to see her again — and why not? For some reason I was fortunate to have had that experience. But I didn’t see her again.

I’ll never forget Sarah’s face. She looked as human, alive, and truly there as anybody. She didn’t look ghostly or like an apparition in any way. I marvel at the fact that Sarah was aware of my presence. She wasn’t talking to empty space. She wasn’t five feet to the side of me talking to nobody. She was extremely close and talking to me and only to me. I wonder what would have happened if I touched her hand and said, “Sarah, I’ve got some news for you. Philip is dead. Your search is over. It’s time to move on.”



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