The great iron chest: a safe as safe as the Bank of England...

Discover the secrets hidden in our oldest piece of furniture.
Published on 02 April 2021


Alice Beagley, Museum Officer

This is our ‘great iron chest’. It is the oldest piece of furniture in our collection. We think it was made in about the year 1700. So it’s more than 300 years old.

The chest is the equivalent of an 18th century safe. People would have used it to store gold, money and important documents. 

But there is more to it than first meets the eye.

First of all, can you see the lock on the front? It is a decoy. The real lock is on the top of the lid. 

When you insert and turn the key in the real lock, claw-like bolts in the lid move back from the chest's overhanging ‘lip’. This mechanism makes it almost impossible to prise open when locked!

Another intriguing feature is inside the lid itself. Here is a close-up of the grille. Can you see any odd shapes hidden in the metalwork?

If not, how about now?

It's quite hard to make them out. But if you look closely you can see a swan or winged mermaid inside each of the circles. 

Swans symbolise trustworthiness, and the winged mermaids (known as melusine) signify wealth…fitting for a secure chest!

Are you experiencing déjà vu yet but can't think why? You may have also seen something similar on the £50 series E note (designed by Roger Withington) to celebrate the Bank of England's 300th anniversary. Roger used the motif from the chest in the border at the bottom of the banknote. 

So there you have it – our oldest piece of furniture, which has also been immortalised on one of our banknotes – lovely!
This page was last updated 31 January 2023