Wednesday, 23 November 2011

When Bankers Were Good – and were very often Quakers

“When Bankers Were Good”, an excellent programme by Ian Hislop, which was on BBC2 Tuesday 22nd at 9.00pm, looks at Victorian financiers and how their morality informed there attitude to their wealth and what they did with it.

Ian starts off with the Quaker Gurney family from Norwich, amongst the most important and wealthiest bankers in the early 19th century. Quaker integrity shines through in Ian Hislop's analysis of Samuel Gurney who even visits Norwich Friends Meeting House and films us at worship. “The Gurneys were not just Christians – they were Quakers”, although the phrase 'as rich as the Gurneys' entered the language of the day to denote huge wealth.

Watch it here:

Samuel Gurney, was the brother of Elizabeth Fry, whose husband Joseph Fry was also a banker. In the credit crunch following the stock market crash of 1825, his bank failed along with many others. Although Samuel Gurney helped many banks through the crisis, later on he did not rescue his own brother in law's bank, judging it not worthy. About as far removed from crony capitalism as you can possibly get.

What is more:
“The Quakers judged failure to pay back debt an unforgivable betrayal of trust . The bankrupt Joseph [Fry] was thrown out of the Society Of Friends, and Elizabeth's reputation suffered too. This may seem harsh, but perhaps there is something to be said for a morality that valued personal integrity and prudence with other people's money, and considered financial recklessness at the least something to be embarrassed about. These days when bankers mess up the economy they seem to get off scot-free. Perhaps a bit of stern Quaker shame would not go amiss.”

So why does hardly anyone know about what was the greatest discounting house in the world at the time? Sadly, after the death of Samuel Gurney, the bank over extended itself rather like many banks recently, and failed in the 1866 stock market crash, creating the last run on a British bank before Northern Rock in 2008. And Ian Hislop does not flinch from letting us know that the later Gurneys and many other Victorian financiers were no better than those of today.

The remains of Gurney's bank, still in Quaker hands in Norwich, finally merged with Barclay's. But then Barclay's started as a Quaker bank as well – as did Lloyds.

Sitting on a Goldmine

On Friday I waved goodbye to two busloads of small farmers from rural Matabeleland, who were here for a week doing training in ‘seed multiplication’, ie growing their own crop seeds, so they don’t have to buy them from the monopoly seed company Seedco every year. The farmers gave us a presentation on Thursday morning, saying they had never known they could produce their own seed ‘because Seedco doesn’t want us to know we can do it ourselves’. They concluded with a Ndebele song and dance routine (including some impressive dance moves by the older ladies), with lyrics roughly like this – ‘The donors are leaving, if you hold onto aid dependency, you will be left behind’.

Zimbabwean society is going through a huge shift as international aid organizations withdraw from famine relief. In arid Matabeleland, rural communities have depended for years on food aid and handouts of hybrid seeds (that don’t reproduce reliably) planted in fields that are almost pure sand, without anything done to restore the soil. At an Oxfam workshop recently a Zimbabwean professor described this as ‘the aid industry giving out fertilizer and seeds to continue the cycle of poverty’. With the withdrawal of much international aid, rural people are being forced to make a transition to more sustainable livelihoods just to survive. Groups like last week’s are a reminder to me of how important Hlekweni’s work is in helping this process.

Our end-of-year graduation ceremony is coming up in December, unless the police order us to move it - Zanu-PF are holding their national conference just up the road in Bulawayo in the same week and public events that ‘clash’ with Zanu rallies (even family events such as weddings) are often banned. We have also been training a group of older rural women who came through a Zanu-PF funded scheme, and I have been making efforts to discourage our staff from referring to them as ‘that Zanu lot’…

I was out with other staff and trainees fighting a bush fire on the farm again last week, when we stumbled on (but luckily not into) a crude mine-shaft dug by squatters on Hlekweni land. Gold digging is a widespread illegal activity among Zimbabwe’s desperate poor – extracting tonnes of rock with pick-axes in the hope of finding tiny quantities of ore. I don’t know whether ‘our’ miners have ever found anything, but it would be ironic if with all our financial woes Hlekweni turns out to be literally sitting on a gold-mine...

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Occupiers and Quakers

The Occupy movement is in nearly 1000 cities around the world, including Sheffield (, outside the cathedral.

Occupy is a "leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. This movement empowers real people to create real change from the bottom up. We want to see a general assembly in every backyard, on every street corner because we don't need Wall Street and we don't need politicians to build a better society." (Occupy Wall Street statement)

In the 17th century, England was in turmoil as a bloody civil war tore the nation apart. Many people lost faith in the government of the time, and in the church, in those days a central pillar of society. No longer knowing what to do or who to trust, many groups of people started looking for new ways of living together – ranters, diggers, levellers, and others. Some groups simply waited in silence for inspiration as to what to do. These groups, known as Seekers, formed a loose network across the country, and one such group met around Doncaster - then much bigger than Sheffield.

It is from such groups that Quakers sprang in the 1640s and 50s. George Fox realised "that being bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to fit and qualify men to be ministers".
The Occupy movement is telling us that being educated at Eton or the Chicago Business School does not make you fit to run the world.

The Occupy movement has no leaders and practices consensual decision making (

Quakers also have no 'leaders' and have been practising consensual decision making for over 350 years.

As I write this, Occupy Wall Street is being violently evicted in the middle of the night by heavily armed police.

In the 1660's Quakers meetings were often violently broken up and Quakers thrown in prison.

Occupy is our sort of movement – or are we now too comfortable and complacent enjoying the material luxuries of the status quo?