Welcome to the Bank of England Museum and to one of our series of short talks about items in our collections. My name is Miranda Garrett and I am the Museum’s Collections and Exhibitions Manager. The subject of this talk are the gold bars in our Museum and gold more generally.
We have two full-size gold bars on display at the Bank of England Museum. One of these is in a very secure touch case in the Rotunda, the round room at the back of the Museum. This is by far the most popular item we have on display. Visitors can put their hand through a small hole in the Perspex case, palm facing upwards, and try to lift up the bar, which sits inside a steel cage, on rubber rings. Lifting the bar is a challenge for many of our visitors, as it weighs about 12.5 kilograms, that’s nearly 28 pounds! We will tell you more about the size of an average gold bar later.
The price of gold is set internationally twice a day. Each day we post the current value of the bar next to the display case. The price of gold can fluctuate significantly depending on economic conditions and this affects the value of the bar. At the start of 2020 the bar was worth just under £460K but by August, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its value had increased to more than £625K.
The bars in the Museum are London Good Delivery bars, also known as LGD bars. This means that they have to meet certain standards in terms of their size, shape and weight.
For historical reasons, the weight of gold is given in troy ounces, named after the medieval town of Troyes, in France. And, somewhat confusingly, at 31g, a troy ounce weighs slightly more than an Imperial ounce. LGD bars must weigh between 350 and 430 troy ounces.
LGD bars also have to be at least 99.5% pure. Gold purity has a unique measure known as fineness, measured in parts per thousand. Bars have to be between 995 and 999.5 fine to meet LGD standards. The gold bar in our touch case has a fineness of 997.9.
Bullion traders measure purity in fineness but jewellers talk about carats. In terms of comparing the two, you need to keep in mind that 24-carat gold is fine ie 99.9% pure. But 18-carat gold is 75% pure and 9-carat gold is only 37.5% pure.
Gold is mined, refined, and then smelted into bars or coins. The value of a bar depends on its weight in troy ounces, its purity and that day’s gold price. No gold bar can ever be 100% pure. Common impurities include iron, zinc, silver, copper and bismuth and these can slightly affect the colour of the bar.
Gold bars are roughly the size of a house brick but with sides that slope inwards. This unique shape is known as a trapezohedron. At least one of the sides, usually the broader base, will have indented writing on it. This includes the refiner’s name or mark, the country of origin, the fineness of the bar, the year of manufacture and a serial number for identification purposes. The surface can be silky smooth, or slightly rough and depends on the inner surface of the mould in which the bar was cast.
Gold is unique because it has some very useful chemical and physical properties. These make it a very important and valuable resource for the jewellery, dentistry, medicine, aviation and electronics industries.
Of all the precious metals, gold is the most popular as a form of investment. Investors generally buy gold as a protection against economic, political or social upheaval. In times of economic uncertainty, the stock markets tend to fall and the price of gold rises. When confidence returns to the stock market, the price of gold tends to fall again.
Despite this volatility, many central banks hold gold as part of their reserves. The Bank of England is thought to be the second largest gold custodian, after the US Federal Reserve Banks. We stack the gold in the Bank’s nine vaults on wooden pallets. We can store up to 80 bars on a pallet, which then weighs approximately 1-tonne. We normally stack the pallets 4-high, and in some places, we can stack them 6-high. But, we have to ensure that we do not overload the floor as the Bank was built on soft clay soil.
As the central bank of the United Kingdom we hold about 24,000 bars, or 320 tonnes, of gold on behalf of H M Treasury. Nevertheless, this is only a small proportion, approximately 6%, of the 400,000 bars in our vaults. Most of the gold we look after is for other central banks.
To conclude this talk I want to ask and answer a frequently asked question. “Has any of the gold ever been stolen?” The simple answer to this is “no”.
However, it’s said that, back in 1836, the Directors of the Bank received an anonymous letter advising that the writer had been in the gold vault. Melodramatically the letter writer offered to meet the Directors in the vault at any hour of their choice.
Although initially sceptical, the Directors were finally persuaded to meet one night in the vault. At the appointed hour a noise was heard from below the floor and a man suddenly appeared by pushing aside some floorboards. This sewer man had been repairing the sewers and had discovered an old drain, which ran directly under the bullion vault. The contents of the vault were quickly checked and nothing was found to be missing. The Bank rewarded him with a gift of £800 for his honesty.
Today that £800 is worth approximately £92,000. Or, to put it into a golden context, less than a quarter of the value of a LGD gold bar.
I hope that you have enjoyed hearing about the Museum’s gold bar and gold more generally. Look out for other talks in this series.
Thank you and goodbye.
Welcome to the Bank of England Museum and to one of our series of short talks about items in our collections. My name is Miranda Garrett and I am the Museum’s Collection and Exhibitions Manager. The subject of this talk is Britannia and her long association with the Bank of England.
There are many images of Britannia in our Museum. She appears on banknotes, banners, wax seals, a flag and a sail.
The largest Britannia in our Museum is a relief sculpture on a wall. Relief is a sculptural technique where the sculpted elements remain attached to a solid background of the same material. The term relief is from the Latin verb relevo, to raise. The relief is approximately 1m in diameter and visitors can run their hands around the circumference. Sitting inside a circular border, Britannia is facing to the right, and looks like a physically strong woman, dressed in flowing robes. She holds a spear in one hand and an olive branch in the other. She has shoulder length hair worn untied. She is perched on her shield, protecting a huge pile of coins at her feet. You might be interested to know that we ask younger visitors to count these coins as they complete one of our activity sheets. There are 55 in total.
But let’s get back to Britannia. Who was she?
Britannia is Latin for Britain. After the Romans conquered Britain in 43AD, their new province of Britannia covered the island as far as Scotland, which they called Caledonia. It was also the name they gave to the female personification of the island. Britannia first appeared on Roman coins in 119AD, as a Roman goddess, armed with a trident, (a three-pronged spear) holding a shield and wearing a helmet. She looked quite similar to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war. The helmet and spear or trident you see portrayed with Britannia are all symbols associated with war.
So why is Britannia sometimes shown carrying an olive branch, which is usually a symbol of peace? After the fall of the Roman Empire, Britannia disappeared from our coinage. She resurfaced during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, appearing in contemporary drama and literature, where she symbolised England’s growing maritime empire. She reappeared on coins in the reign of Charles II. This time, Britannia had a more peaceful aspect, represented by the olive sprig in her right hand. In modern coinage, Britannia appeared on the 50p piece issued from 1969 to 2008. On this coin, she is sitting next to a lion with a shield resting on her right side, holding a trident in her right hand and an olive branch in her left.
And, what about Britannia’s association with the Bank? How did this come about?
Britannia is a very important part of the Bank’s history, from way back when the Bank was founded in 1694 all the way through to its role today producing banknotes for England and Wales.
During their first meeting in 1694, the Bank’s Court of Directors chose a new seal and symbol for the Bank of England. They picked Britannia, sitting and looking over a bank of money. In one form or another, Britannia has appeared on every printed Bank of England notes since then. We don’t know
why the Directors chose Britannia, but they might have been influenced by the Royal Mint, who had recently used Britannia on new copper coins.
Britannia has appeared on every Bank of England note since, but her design has changed over the centuries to reflect changing fashion. One of the most famous banknote Britannias was designed by Daniel Maclise. This design appeared on banknotes from 1855 to 1956. This is a very clear and simple image of Britannia. Unlike most representations, it shows her facing forward rather than sideways. As might be expected, she is holding a spear, olive branch and a shield. She sits inside a very ornate, scrolled, oval border, similar to that found on a Victorian mirror.
Over the years, as the design of our banknotes has become more complex, the image of Britannia has become smaller. The notable exception to this is the new £20 polymer note, issued in February 2020. The image of Britannia on the front of this new note is both larger and more prominent than on earlier notes in the series. On the polymer £5 and £10 notes, Britannia was printed in one colour, with shades of blue on the £5 note and shades of orange on the £10 note. On the new £20, she appears in purple, the main colour of the £20 note, against a dull gold background.
There are many examples of our banknotes on display in our Museum, spanning more than 300 years of the Bank’s history. Our displays include a couple of printing plates for the £50 note that was in circulation from 1994 to 2014. You can touch the plates and feel the indentations of the banknote design, including the large oval-shaped representation of Britannia.
And finally, even today, Britannia doesn’t only appear on the banknotes we issue. She is still there in the Bank of England’s logo, which appears on all of our publications and reports.
I hope that you have enjoyed hearing about Britannia and that you will want to listen to other talks in this series.
Thank you and good bye.