business in the earliest days -- 12/15/20

Today's selection -- from The Sixth Great Power: A History of One of the Greatest of All Banking Families, The House of Barings, 1762-1929 by Philip Ziegler. The early 1800s were the dawn of office life as it came to be practiced over the next two centuries. These practices came from the banks that arose to service the needs of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. These firms were "making it up as they went along." One such firm was the highly prestigious Baring Brothers banking firm. In this passage we see the efforts of the recently hired Joshua Bates to try and impose structure to the business of Alexander Baring and his family:

"The house as reorganized by Joshua Bates was altogether more orderly than it had been under his predecessors. Alexander Baring understood the need for system. 'You should well impress on your mind the importance in a counting house of many clerks is the necessity of minute punctuality,' he told his nephew Thomas. 'It is not generally a Baring virtue and therefore requires some self­-command. This is more important in the management of business than genius or higher talent, and you may rely upon it that your business will move unsatisfactorily and in some degree unsafely unless you attach importance to the apparent trifling circumstance of minute discipline.' But he himself had rarely found time or incli­nation to practise what he preached, and though Holland kept the clerks to their office hours, he had little idea of more sophisticated measures to improve the running of the office.

"With Bates's arrival [to manage the firm] a new system is apparent in the records of Bar­ing Brothers. …  His advice to him­self in his diary on how to run the office is typical both of the man and his regime. 'Having been generally successful in business we have become too free and open in our conduct and have incurred risks that it will not be wise to repeat. A system of secrecy should be encouraged and ... none but clever persons admitted into the office. A rigid economy should also be enforced as much as in less prosper­ous times. Avoid all pride, ostentation and unnecessary show.'

"The regulations laid down for the clerks suggest that their life was austere but not over-taxing. Juniors arrived at 9.30 a.m., seniors at 10 a.m., there was an hour for lunch, and all left at 5 p.m. except when the international mail was departing. Anyone under the age of sixty had to sign a book on arrival; after one's sixtieth birthday it was pre­sumably hoped the habit of punctuality would have been finally inculcated. 'Unnecessary conversation in the Office, one with another,' was deplored, as were visits by friends or disappearances from the office on personal affairs. 'When it is considered that these Regulations, on ordinary days, only require attendance for the Superior Clerks about Six Hours per day, and the Junior Six and a half Hours, and Two Hours additional on Post and Packet Days, it cannot be thought severe,' concluded the notice somewhat defen­sively. 'It is therefore insisted on that the short time be devoted ear­nestly to the duties of the office."

"William Rathbone, who joined Barings in 1840, would not have felt this unreasonable. He found his life 'full of very hard and varied work, but of perfect health and freedom from anxiety or disturbance or worry of any kind'. Bates was an exacting but not unreasonable taskmaster, he 'had the knack of seeing everything without appear­ing to take any trouble to do so'. Humphrey Mildmay's son Henry Bingham was taken on in 1845, initially to copy letters. His hand­writing was not considered to come up to the required commercial standards and he was sent to take lessons from an expert in the Gray's Inn Road. His only complaint was that he had to work on Sat­urday afternoons.

"In 1828 Labouchère took a young American, Russell Sturgis, to Bishopsgate. Sturgis was amazed by the volume of business trans­acted. The postage on the letters each day amounted to £25. Sturgis remarked that the partners must have an easy time of it since all they had to do was sign their names, and was told that on that one day they would have 3000 cheques to sign for French dividends and 500 for American. (The same was still true in 1912, when Patrick Shaw-­Stewart, confronted by 500 dividend warrants, cursed the day he had opted to sign with his full name rather than as P. Stewart.) The rit­ual was that all the letters, often 200 a day, were looked at by Bates, inspected more meticulously by Mildmay and then distributed around the office. An immense part of the burden was borne by Bates, who personally handled almost all the correspondence with the United States as well as making regular visits to Exchange to buy and sell bills, draw and remit. 'This requires promptness and deci­sion, and a degree of experience,' wrote T. W. Ward, who visited Bishopsgate when the new partnership was forming. He noticed how conscientious Bates was in his attendance compared to his col­leagues or those from other houses; 'This is an advantage Bates has -- he is devoted to business and willing to labor.'"



Philip Ziegler


The Sixth Great Power: A History of One of the Greatest of All Banking Families, The House of Barings, 1762-1929


Borzoi Boo, published by Alfred A Knopf, Inc


Copyright 1988 by Barings Brothers & Co. Ltd and P.S. & M. C. Ziegler & Co.


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