mayhem in the bank of england's clerk's office -- 9/15/20

Today's selection -- from Till Time's Last Sand: A History of the Bank of England 1694-2013 by David Kynaston. Perhaps humans were never really intended for 9 to 5 office work. At the very least, in the mid-1800s in prim and proper Victorian England, clerks were having trouble remaining staid and genteel during that span, even at the esteemed Bank of England. One even wrote that his department was like a "big school playground":

"In reality, moreover, the [Bank of England] was never, whether before or after 1850, as orderly and purposeful as those in charge might have wished. Between 1837 and 1845 alone, at least three acrimonious disputes between clerks were noted in the Court minutes: in one, an argument about the quality of the food led to post-prandial blows and a nosebleed; in another, the hurling of a large bill case, accompanied by 'very gross & low abuse', resulted from the refusal to part with an inkstand; and in a third, the tussle over an office stool led to a severe blow in the face, rendering the recipient 'incapable of resuming his work for the remainder of the day'. Or take the formative impressions of W. Courthope Forman and C. H. Goodman, both of whom started work in 1866 in the Private Drawing Office. A 'busy hive', indeed, found Forman, but with 'a good many quaint insects':

There was a youngish gentleman on the ledgers, who made remarkably clever caricatures and sketches in pen and ink, sometimes even upon the covers of the sacred books. There was a little rotund, elderly gentleman, with a short temper and a colossal skull, who frequently murdered the Queen's English in a manner that was a real delight. There was a middle-aged gentleman who ran a sort of farm in the suburbs, and brought a whiff of country to the Drawing Office, with the produce he offered there for sale; and yet another (said to have a connection in the hosiery line), who brought ties, and handkerchiefs, and fancy socks, and sold them to the highest bidder. Then there was a nice, rosy, bald-headed old gentleman, still apparently doing junior work, who dozed over his books on summer afternoons, then, leaning over a glazed partition behind him, one or other of us would gently tickle his bald spot with the feathers of a quill pen, till at last, wide awake and goaded to desperation, he would smite his 'mighty dome' with his palm, exclaiming, to our delight, 'Oh! damn those flies'! Our mission accomplished, like red indians, we would steal quietly away. Then there was an irate gentleman on a waste-book, whom we thought mad, and who eventually became so. Behind him it was an entertainment to stand as he cast up the columns of his book aloud, at a terrific pace, sandwiching the most profane oaths between the figures. And, lastly, I must not forget that curious character that seemed to have stepped from the pages of Dickens; that lugubrious looking person, in tightly buttoned, ill-fitting frock coat of shiny black, with wrinkling trousers to match, who presided over the Pass Books. He wore a rusty chimney-pot hat, but ill kept, which he never took off; indeed, tradition said that he slept in it, or even, that like a caul, it was born with him.

"Goodman for his part was struck by the lack of decorum of his new colleagues ('not only were some of them rather rough but the tone of conversation of many was very coarse'), as well as by the amount of drinking that went on ('in at least one desk was a wine bin where you could get accommodation'). Nor seemingly was the prevailing atmosphere any more prim and proper by the early 1880s, to judge by the experience of Allan Fea, a young clerk who would eventually become a full-time writer:

In those days [he would recall almost half a century later] the Private Drawing Office, to which I was handed over, was more like a big school play-ground than anything else. From the fossil cashiers down to the callow 'unattached', all seemed to enter wholeheartedly upon the game of enlivening the passing official hours: universal chaff and merriment, with little or no heed of the ponderous contents of weighty ledgers or the balancing intricacies of 'Waste Books'. Balancing feats on more acrobatic lines, however, demanded a certain amount of thought and concentration when those formidable volumes were called into requisition as handy tests of muscular fitness, or proof of boasted sinew. Other mild sport was improvised in the way of 'cock-shies', wherein somebody's 'topper' was offered up for sacrifice for want of a genuine cocoanut. Wrestling matches, also, were popular, those contesting usually involving considerable wreckage of official furniture and fittings, including the glass chimneys of gas-jets, ink-pots, and sundry such accessories. Those endowed with histrionic skill held forth, providing a varied programme modulating from a solemn pulpit sermon to an Adelphi hero's soliloquy broadcast to the 'gods' more eloquently far than the aerial transmission of these times. A faithful rendering of the chairman at The Oxford [music hall] also was usually greeted with rapturous applause ...

"As usual, there was no shortage of rules and exhortations from above, almost all of them aimed at greater regularity of conduct. In 1847, any clerk 'appearing at his office in a state of intoxication' was to be 'dismissed the service'; in 1850, immediate dismissal was also laid down as the punishment for 'all clerks who are henceforth found to be engaged in betting, in subscribing to sweepstakes, or in gambling transactions of any kind'; in 1851, the 'Heads of Office' explicitly forbade 'the admission or use of Beer, Wine or any Spirituous Liquor by the clerks throughout the Bank' (though with an exception made for porters and 'the Mechanics on weekly wages'); in 1853, the governor ordered that 'in future all the clerks in the House in signing their names or initials to any book or document relating to the service of the Bank will do so in a plain, distinct, and legible hand and without any flourish'; and that same year, 'the Authorities' let it be known that 'having seen a disposition upon the part of certain Bank clerks to wear moustaches, they strongly disapprove of the practice', adding that if necessary 'measures will be resorted to which may prove of a painful nature'."



David Kynaston


Till Time's Last Sand: A History of the Bank of England 1694-2013


Bloomsbury Publishing


David Kynaston 2017


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