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.

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