Sarah Whitehead – The Bank Nun Ghost

So much as been written about Sarah and ghostly sightings of her around London, close to and including the Bank of England, wearing all black, hence the moniker of Bank Nun, so I thought it would be interesting to revisit the known information about her to check some of the facts, and to hopefully provide a little new information.

To cut a very long story short, Sarah’s brother, Paul (also incorrectly named Philip) worked for the Bank of England until in 1811 when he was charged with forgery. He stood trial at the Old Bailey on 30 October 1811 at the age of thirty six years and was sentenced to death.

West View of Newgate by George Shepherd 1784-1862

The British Mercury, 29 January 1812 reported the execution of Paul Whitehead and other prisoners at Newgate at nine o’clock with their bodies being cut down and delivered to their respective friends. Whilst it’s not possible to confirm with any certainty, there was a burial on 3 February 1812, at St Giles, Cripplegate, for a Paul Whitehead, giving his age as 32.

Execution by hanging, outside Newgate, early 1800s

Paul was supported throughout his trial by Alderman Samuel Birch, who would later become Lord Mayor of London, and supported him to the drop, at the end of Paul’s life. Remember this name, as it will appear later in this story.

There are numerous reports with differing information about Sarah following the death of her brother. Most reports seem to confirm that although not witness to her brother’s death, when she did find out it caused Sarah to suffer some sort of mental health issues, to the extent that she continued going to the bank on an almost daily basis searching for her brother, who she could not accept was dead. The bank were sympathetic to her supposed plight, despite knowing that Paul had been hanged and as such they often gave her money, which she took and went away, until the next day.

The first account of Sarah’s demise appeared in Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 12 November 1837 and was repeated in most London newspapers at the time. It went as follows:

It will be in the recollection of many of our readers, and particularly of the gentlemen at the Bank, and of the merchants and banks connected with the Royal Exchange, that for the last 40 years the above named lady was in the habit of paying a daily visit in that vicinity. The circumstances that gave rise to the extraordinary perseverance of this unfortunate lady are well known to have reverted from the ill-fated end of her brother, who held a responsible situation in the Bank of England, and who, having committed an act of forgery, suffered the extreme penalty of the law.

The effect of his untimely end produced an alienation of her mental faculties; while, in addition, she was reduced from a state of comparative opulence (being at the time partly dependent upon her brother’s income) to one of indigence. Being they young, while her enthusiastic and romantic attachment to her brother, leading her to attend daily at the Bank, some opulent and Christian individuals in the City compassioned her in her misfortunes, and became eventually contributors to her support during the remainder of her life.

She as known to strangers by the singularity of her dress which was in the old fashioned style of the period about the early part of the reign of George III. She was always attire in black, while her cheeks had constantly the appearance of being rouged. As there were very peculiar and interesting circumstances connected with her sudden exit from this world, and as no information could be obtained by the parochial authorities, Mr Payne, the City coroner was informed of the occurrence, ad a highly respectable jury was yesterday empanelled before him, at the King’s Arms Tavern, Old Kent Road, on view of the body of the deceased, when the following evidence was received:-

Allingham, the summoning officer said that he had applied at the Bank of England, to find out the deceased’s relations, but he had not succeeded. He had seen there a porter, who had been there for the last 40 years, and who did not know her Christian name.

Mrs Butler, landlady of the Eagle Coffee House, stated she had known the deceased for the last fourteen years. She took her meals daily and read the newspapers. She paid regularly. On Thursday she was in the coffee room some hours.

She complained of not being well and appeared so. She left about four o’clock to return home. Witness assisted her along the passage, when, as she was sinking, the witness called for assistance, and two men then supported the deceased.

She was taken home, where Mr Saunders the surgeon saw her, and pronounced life extinct. After the hearing some further evidence, the jury returned a verdict of ‘Died by the visitation of God’.

The day she died she had said that she was going to the civic feast at the Mansion House, and that one of the Queen’s servants, had sent 100 shillings to her, to buy herself a suitable dress. As to whether there was any truth in that we will never know, but it seems unlikely.

Hereford Journal 15 November 1837

Mrs Wallis at number 7, Mason Street, Old Kent Road, stated that the deceased had lodged with her for nine months. Latterly she was very much declined in health. She paid 3s 6d a week for her lodgings. She owed one week’s rent.

The Coroner observed that he had known the deceased from his youth, and it was well known that she had several benefactors, and that she was greatly indebted to Alderman Birch.

Pearson, Mary Martha; Samuel Birch (1757-1841), Lord Mayor of London (1814); City of London Corporation


Allingham said that her relatives had left 5 shillings a week for her at the parish of Camberwell, and which was payable to her by the authorities. He believed a man named Nicholls knew a little of her history.

George Nicholls, in the employ of Mr Wheatley the extensive coach proprietor, said, that the deceased’s age was 61, as she informed him. After her brother’s death, who was buried in Greenwich churchyard, she walked own every Sunday to pray over his tomb. Latterly, from her infirmities, she rode to Greenwich in his coach every Sunday.

Curiously, there is no sign of Sarah’s burial or in fact anyone named Whitehead who was buried towards the end of 1837. I have read that she was buried at St Christopher-le-Stocks, but this could not be correct as the church was long gone before Sarah’s death in 1837. I can’t understand why she would have been buried anywhere near the Bank of England when she was living just off the Old Kent Road, which is about two miles away.

Trying to track down the names of people in the newspaper account proved difficult, but I did managed to trace the Mrs Wallis who Sarah had lodged with. She appeared on the 1841 census, so only a few years after Sarah’s death and lived at 7 Mason Street, Old Kent Road, with her husband John, a wine brewer and their young son, Thomas.

George Nicholls appears on the 1841 census, living just off Old Kent Road, as a young man aged 25, so it’s feasible he was the one who gave evidence at the inquest. His employers, were Mr John and Thomas Wheatley.

To date, I haven’t managed to track down the Mrs Butler, but that’s not really surprising as she may well have moved on by then, but she seems to have known Sarah well over a 14 year period. She was able to confirm that Sarah not only dined there, but also read the newspapers, which confirms that Sarah was, like her brother, educated and literate, something which has elsewhere been disputed, with suggestions that she may have ended up in the workhouse.

Mrs Butler also confirmed that Sarah always paid her dues, so it begs the question as to where her money was coming from, clearly not her brother, but it has also been suggested in The Book of Wonderful Characters, that her father was a respected employee of the Post Office holding a situation of importance and that his income enabled him to educate his family liberally, and also to layby something for a rainy day. The author provides no explanation as to how he knew this, but if correct, then did her father leave her some funds or was it all spent by her brother or was, as I suspect financially supported by the family friend, Alderman Birch.

Moving on to the ghostly sightings of Sarah, it has been said that she has often been seen around the area of the Bank of England, including at the underground, dressed in widow’s weeds and asking passers-by-by if they have seen her brother.

Miss Whitehead, an eccentric, known as the ‘Bank Nun’. Coloured lithograph by G.L. Lee. Wellcome Trust Images


The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 8; Volume 162

1841 census – Mrs WallisHO107; Piece: 1085; Book: 8; Civil ParishSt George The Martyr; CountySurrey; Enumeration District: 18; Folio: 30; Page: 11; Line: 13; GSU roll: 474668

1841 census – George Nicholls – Class: HO107; Piece: 1085; Book: 7; Civil Parish: St George The Martyr; CountySurrey; Enumeration District: 15; Folio: 30; Page: 11; Line: 22; GSU roll: 474668

Burial of a Paul Whitehead –  London Church of England Parish Registers; Reference NumberP69/Gis/A/003/Ms06420/004

London City Directory 1840

Brown, Harcourt.   Streetology of London; or The metropolitan papers of the Itinerant club

Reider, William.  The New Tablet of Memory

The Criminal Recorder: Or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious  Public Characters, Volume 2

Wilson, Henry. The Book of Wonderful Characters



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