The Bank's headquarters has been located in London's main financial district, the City of London, on Threadneedle Street, since 1734. It is sometimes known by the metonym The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street or simply The Old Lady. The current Governor of the Bank of England is Mervyn King, who took over on 30 June 2003 from Sir Edward George.
The bank was founded by the Scotsman William Paterson in 1694 to act as the English Government's banker. He proposed a loan of £1.2m to the government; in return the subscribers would be incorporated as The Governor and Company of the Bank of England with long-term banking privileges including the issue of notes. Only £750,000 of these funds were ever deposited with the Bank; the rest was generated by fractional reserve banking. The Royal Charter was granted on 27 July through the passage of the Tonnage Act of 1694. Public finances were in so dire a condition at the time that the terms of the loan were that it was to be serviced at a rate of 8% per annum, and there was also a service charge of £4000 per annum for the management of the loan. The first governor was Sir John Houblon, who is depicted in the £50 note issued in 1994. The charter was renewed in 1742, 1764, and 1781. The Bank was originally constructed above the ancient Temple of Mithras, London at Walbrook, dating to the founding of Londinium in antiquity by Roman garrisons. Mithras was, among other things, considered the god of contracts, a fitting association for the Bank. In 1734 the Bank moved to its current location on Threadneedle Street, slowly acquiring the land to create the edifice seen today. Sir Herbert Baker's rebuilding of the Bank of England, demolishing most of Sir John Soane's earlier building was described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as "the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, of the twentieth century".
When the idea and reality of the National Debt came about during the 18th century this was also managed by the bank. By the charter renewal in 1781 it was also the bankers' bank—keeping enough gold to pay its notes on demand until 26 February 1797 when war had so diminished gold reserves that the government prohibited the Bank from paying out in gold. This prohibition lasted until 1821.
The 1844 Bank Charter Act tied the issue of notes to the gold reserves and gave the bank sole rights with regard to the issue of banknotes. Private banks which had previously had that right retained it, provided that their headquarters were outside London and that they deposited security against the notes that they issued. A few English banks continued to issue their own notes until the last of them was taken over in the 1930s. The Scottish and Northern Irish private banks still have that right. Britain remained on the gold standard until 1931 when the gold and foreign exchange reserves were transferred to the Treasury. But their management was still handled by the Bank. In 1870 the bank was given responsibility for interest rate policy.
During the governorship of Montagu Norman, which lasted from 1920 to 1944, the Bank made deliberate efforts to move away from commercial banking and become a central bank. In 1946, shortly after the end of Norman's tenure, the bank was nationalised by the Labour government.
On 6 May 1997, following the 1997 general election which brought another Labour government to power, it was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, that the Bank of England would be granted operational independence over monetary policy. Under the terms of the Bank of England Act 1998 (which came into force on 1 June 1998), the bank's Monetary Policy Committee was given sole responsibility for setting interest rates to meet the Government's stated Retail Prices Index inflation target of 2.5%. The target has now changed to 2% since the consumer price index (CPI) replaced the retail price index (RPI) as the treasury's inflation index. If inflation overshoots or undershoots the target by more than 1%, the Governor has to write a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer explaining why, and how he will remedy the situation.
The handing over of monetary policy to the Bank of England had featured as a key plank of the Liberal Democrats' economic policy since the 1992 general election. A Conservative MP Nicholas Budgen had also proposed this as a Private Member's Bill in 1996, but the bill failed as it had neither the support of the government nor that of the opposition.
More recently, since 2007 the Bank of England has, in its role as lender of last resort, been supporting Northern Rock, a specialist mortgage lender that suddenly became unable to rely on wholesale market borrowing to finance its lending operation following the 2007 subprime mortgage financial crisis and the subsequent reluctance of lenders to take on more mortgage debt.
The 1997 Memorandum of Understanding describes the terms under which the Bank, the Treasury and the FSA work toward the common aim of increased financial stability.
The Bank of England acts as the Government's banker, and as such it maintains the Government's Consolidated Fund account. It also manages the country's foreign exchange and gold reserves. The Bank also acts as the bankers' bank, especially in its capacity as a lender of last resort.
The Bank of England has a monopoly on the issue of banknotes in England and Wales. Scottish and Northern Irish banks retain the right to issue their own banknotes, but they must be backed one to one with deposits in the Bank of England, excepting a few million pounds representing the value of notes they had in circulation in 1845. The Bank decided to sell its bank note printing operations to De La Rue in December 2002, under the advice of Close Brothers Corporate Finance Ltd.
Since 1997 the Monetary Policy Committee has had the responsibility for setting the official interest rate. However, with the decision to grant the Bank operational independence, responsibility for government debt management was transferred to the new UK Debt Management Office in 1998, which also took over government cash management in 2000. Computershare took over as the registrar for UK Government bonds (known as gilts) from the Bank at the end of 2004.
The Bank used to be responsible for the regulation and supervision of the banking industry, although this responsibility was transferred to the Financial Services Authority in June 1998.
In order to help maintain economic stability, the Bank attempts to broaden understanding of its role, both through regular speeches and publications by senior Bank figures, and through a wider education strategy aimed at the general public. It maintains a free museum and runs the Target Two Point Zero competition for A-level students.
During the Second World War the German Operation Bernhard attempted to counterfeit various denominations between £5 and £50 producing 500,000 notes each month in 1943. The original plan was to parachute the money on Britain in an attempt to destabilise the British economy, but it was found more useful to use the notes to pay German agents operating throughout Europe — although most fell into Allied hands at the end of the war, forgeries frequently appeared for years afterwards, which led banknote denominations above £5 to be removed from circulation.