In the early 1800’s, London’s sewer systems were a mess. Early household cesspools, cisterns located underneath homes that collected waste water sewerage, had migrated to a labyrinth of underground tunnels snaking throughout London. The sewer system was constructed to solve London’s disease problem by directing sewage away from homes and into the Thames river. For the system to work properly, the sewer pipes had to be periodically repaired and cleared of debris. Sewer workers, such as Randolph Gentry, made a decent living doing the dirty work.
About 1836, Randolph Gentry was directed to make a repair to a drain in east London, just a few blocks north of the River Thames. During the repair work, Gentry checked ancillary drainage systems to ensure they contained no debris. He moved through the tunnel system wearing waders and carrying a pole used to probe under the water and push debris out of the way. As he made his way through the system, he noticed a narrow side tunnel that immediately bent out of sight. Gentry scooted through the tunnel until it ended at a brick wall with an attached ladder. Gentry climbed the ladder to a drainage hole covered with an iron plate. He heaved the plate aside and poked his head through the hole. To his surprise, he found himself inside a large vault stacked floor-to-ceiling with nearly a half-million gold bars.
Gentry quickly closed the hole and returned to the surface. He told no one about his discovery. Upon consulting a map and backtracking the path he took, he pinpointed the location to Threadneedle Street. The vault he had discovered was the infamous gold reserve of the Bank of England.
The Bank of England was the central bank of the United Kingdom. One of the largest banks in the world, the bank served as the model modern banks use today. Like banks in the 20th century, it operated on the gold standard, backing its massive holdings with a reserve of gold bullion. The gold was kept in a vault underneath the bank. The bank took considerable pride in the vault they deemed “impenetrable”. Or so they thought.
Gentry was an honest man – but he did have a sense of humor. In May of that year, the Directors of the bank received an anonymous letter stating the writer had access to the bank’s gold bullion. He offered to meet the officials at a time of their choosing to explain. The directors felt the letter was a hoax except the man described the interior of the vault including details the public had no knowledge of. Furthermore, the writer claimed he would meet the officials inside the vault to prove his claim.
Late at night, Bank of England Directors gathered inside the vault for the meeting. At the appointed hour, they heard a noise beneath the floor of the vault. Suddenly, the floorboard was pushed aside, and Randolph Gentry poked his head through a hole in the floor. Impressed with the man’s honesty, they awarded him 800 pounds, the equivalent of $80,000 in 2018 value.
The bank did not officially announce the incident and for many years, the story was believed to be a legend. However, decades later, a letter from the bank’s chief architect, C.R. Cockerel, to the Building Committed surfaced. The letter read in part:
“In May 1836, having had reason to apprehend danger from our sewers, it was discovered that an open and unobstructed sewer led directly from the gold vaults down to Dowgate.”