At the turn of the nineteenth century when the Industrial Revolution was transforming Britain’s economy, manufacturing and commercial enterprises needed credit and investment; hence the proliferation of financial institutions across the country. Lloyds and Barclays were but a few of the banking giants that began in the nineteenth century and still exist to this day.
What many banks had in common were Quaker origins, which celebrated virtues of hard work and modesty, and were told to beware the deceitfulness of riches. Whilst it may seem a contradiction for the religiously devout to pursue wealth, the historian A.N Wilson is of the opinion that the combination of a Quaker lifestyle in a time when capitalism was coming into growth made their affluence inevitable.
As a religious quest, many bankers involved themselves in philanthropic activity in order to redeem themselves from the folly of money. No truer was this than in the case of the almost embarrassingly rich Gurney family, who dominated the financial sector of Norwich; indeed the phrase’ to be as rich as the Gurneys’ was contemporary shorthand for ‘being completely loaded’. Samuel Gurney and his two brothers were all bankers; their two sisters also married bankers.
The Gurney family gave away substantial amounts of money to poverty relief and the anti-slavery campaign, but most notable was the work of Samuel’s sister Elizabeth Fry, whom may be recognizable to many as the lady on the back of five pound notes. Unhappy with the frivolity that her well-to-do banking life gave her, Elizabeth was determined to use her wealth to do good. For example, horrified by the conditions she saw at Newgate prison, Elizabeth introduced education and paid work for the prisoners, determined to give inmates the habits of order, industry and sobriety that were hallmarks of her Quaker upbringing.
Although some felt she was neglecting her duties as wife and mother, her reputation was mostly positive and Robert Peel and Queen Victoria were great admirers of her work, with Victoria even gave money to her cause. To be a charitable banker was not exclusively a Christian occupation; for example, the Jewish Nathaniel Rothschild (of the great banking dynasty) provided new cottages and free medicine for his estate employees, and at his bank created a department solely responsible for charity. In doing so, Rothschild was following Jewish concept of Tzedakah, which in English translates as ‘charity and justice’, so for Rothschild as well as the Gurneys, being charitable was part of a religious and moral enterprise to improve the lot of those less fortunate than them.
Despite all the work of these philanthropic bankers, the gap between the rich and poor grew wider, making it increasingly clear that no amount of charity could solve the poverty problem. With the Liberal reforms of the early twentieth century, the state stepped in to carry on the work of charitable bankers, which proved to make the twentieth century a great leveler of wealth across the classes.
Now the state is rolling back benefits and cutting public sector salaries in an effort to undo the mistakes of modern day banks, making many struggle to make ends meet; banks on the other hand, continue to make stupendous profits and reward themselves with tax-free bonuses. Perhaps it is time for them to take look at their Victorian predecessors and give back more to society in a period of economic duress.
As the great-grandson of Nathan Rothschild, Jacob asks ‘Why not?’