Hard working bankers helped create the tyranny of the clock

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The Great Hall of the Bank of England, Thomas Rowlandson, 1808

Are you working against the clock? Struggling to make that next deadline? Operating in an environment of presenteeism where time at your desk counts for more than your actual productivity?

In a recent Radio 4 programme, Emma Griffin blamed industrialisation for the tyranny of the clock in our working lives. Eighteenth-century factory owners like Samuel Greg of Quarry Bank Mill made their fortunes by regulating the working day and extracting long hours from their workers. In doing so they transformed the lives of their employees and created a seemingly unbreakable link between time spent at work and perceived productivity.

Yet we can’t blame industrialists for this change. By 1783, the year Samuel Greg founded his mill, the City was already working to a rhythm that depended on strict adherence to clock time. In that year, the Bank of England appointed a Committee of Inspection to report on the way the institution worked. In the report we find constant references to the clock and to the timely delivery of the services the Bank provided.

The report tells us that the official working day started at 9 and, when the more than 300 clerks employed by the Bank arrived, they found Matthias Alcock, the chief door-keeper, waiting to check off their names. He drew ‘a line every day about 10 minutes after 9, to mark the names of those who do not come to their time’. Some offices were supposed to shut at 3 in the afternoon, others at 5pm but many men found themselves working late into the evening to ensure that records were updated for the start of the next business day. Like many modern workers, eighteenth-century bankers stayed at the office until the job was done. They also ate lunch at their desks when the work piled up.

The clock defined every aspect of work. There were deadlines for tasks performed throughout the day, week and year. The clerks had to coordinate their tasks with those of their fellow workers. Indeed, we can think of the Bank as a large factory in which each clerk undertook specialised tasks and synchronisation was required to achieve results. One reason for undertaking the Inspection was to improve that synchronisation and make the work more speedy and effective.

And this wasn’t a new thing. The Bank had time-based rules for working from the very early eighteenth century.

The clerks could not forget their obligation to the clock, nor could the public who used the Bank. Time was very visible. There were clocks in every office and in the public areas. There was a large clock outside the entrance to the Transfer Offices where the holders of public debt came to register their purchases and collect their dividends.

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Clock at the Royal Exchange Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Bank did not operate this system in isolation. Time is money and that has always mattered in the City. Walk around the streets in the Square Mile and note how many clocks there are on the buildings. As it does today, the eighteenth-century City operated to a rhythm and the Bank’s report shows clearly the interconnectedness of time across different institutions. The brokers and stockjobbers were at the Bank in the morning to see their business done. The notaries came in the evening to check records had been updated. Customers complained if they had to wait for service and would sometimes ‘go away to Bankers to have their business done with less delay’.

This expression of impatience is key to understanding what drove the Bank to manage its workers’ time. It needed to keep its customers happy.

What did the City’s workers think of their environment? E. P. Thompson argued that eighteenth-century employers thought their workers had a high preference for leisure and resisted the tyranny of the clock. The Inspectors at the Bank certainly found this of the senior men. Management tended to disappear by mid-afternoon! They left the Bank to the ‘vigilance & honesty of the Junior Clerks, (frequently such as are very young in Office)’.

But the junior clerks worked hard and they knew how to use time as a weapon and a tool. The Inspection uncovered a dispute between Mr Vickery, a manager in the Transfer Office, and his subordinates. In the discussions that followed both sides used accusations of laziness, inattention and tardiness to discredit their colleagues.

But the clerks in the Accountants Office turned the Inspectors’ interest in clock time to better account. They used it as part of negotiations to secure an agreement that they were paid ‘very inadequately to the additional trouble & labour bestowed by them in doing this Business’. It’s clear that the clerks’ aim here was not to secure greater leisure time but to ensure that their labour was sold at fair value.

This tells us that while eighteenth-century factory owners struggled to get their employees to accept the tyranny of the clock, the City’s workers were already thinking of their time as a medium of exchange and acknowledging it could be bought…for the right price.

If you want to know more, my article ‘Clock-watching: work and working time at the late-eighteenth-century Bank of England’ is available open access.

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Taking action against inequality in academia

In the past couple of weeks I have been at two events celebrating and promoting the careers of women academics. For International Women’s Day (8 March) the School of Humanities at the University of Hertfordshire had a series of talks highlighting women researching women’s issues, a networking lunch and a workshop where we discussed the things we felt were holding us back and what we could do about them. On 13 March I attended ‘London’s Women Historians: a celebration and a conversation’. The event was organised by Laura Carter and Alana Harris from Kings College London and has been storyfied here: https://storify.com/ihr_history/london-s-women-historians. This was an amazing and inspirational event, the room was packed and the conversation was energising.

IHR

Indeed, these were both fabulous events and I felt that, in many ways, both had achieved much. They raised awareness of our research and our shared concerns, they built new connections and networks and they allowed us to celebrate the achievements and contributions of intelligent, assertive women. The IHR event reminded me very powerfully how much my discipline – economic history – owes to pioneering women.

But there was also a depressing element to our discussions. We were there, after all, in in Continue reading

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Women were to blame for the South Sea Bubble (according to men)

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So just how do you reduce the risk of crisis in financial markets? In the aftermath of the South Sea Bubble of 1720, contemporaries reached a firm but controversial conclusion: keep women out. Click here to read more: https://theconversation.com/women-were-to-blame-for-the-south-sea-bubble-according-to-men-72439

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Christmas and New Year bonuses for eighteenth-century bankers

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A report produced by the Bank of England over the year from March 1783 to March 1784 shows that gift-giving at Christmas and New Year was regularly observed by customers and the Bank also gave gifts to valued connections.

Eighteenth-century Bank of England clerks were hardworking. They were not entitled to annual leave and the institution closed for relatively few public holidays. Christmas was an exception. They worked Christmas Eve, kept the 25-28 December as holidays and worked on New Year’s Eve but not New Year’s Day or Twelfth Night, 6 January. It is not clear whether there was a specific day for gift-giving but most clerks working in offices that dealt directly with customers could expect to receive a small gratuity during the Christmas season. The Bank tellers told the Inspectors compiling the report that they ‘partake of the Gratuities given in the Hall at Christmas in equal proportions’.[1]  The Clerks in the Bill Office received:

 ‘small sums as were given voluntarily at Christmas by such of the Gentlemen keeping accounts in the Bank as chuse to give, but on no account are ever ask’d for’.[2]

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What do we look for in a prize-winning EHS New Researcher Paper?

Don’t skip the Friday afternoon of the Economic History Society Conference, that’s when the New Researchers Sessions are scheduled and it’s often the most interesting part of the weekend. Adding to the excitement is the tension in the air because everyone knows that the presenters are competing for one of the Society’s prestigious New Researcher prizes, awarded each year to the best one or two (and sometimes three) papers.

Between 2014 and 2016 I was lucky enough to be the Chair of the Committee. Hence I got to read dozens of New Researcher papers, to observe numerous panels at the Conference and to hear and read the deliberations of my colleagues on the Committee. I concluded that, although we sometimes disagreed about the merits of a particular paper, what we were looking for was not in dispute and could be summed up in five points. If you want to know more, read by blog post on the EHS Long Run: https://ehsthelongrun.net/2016/11/29/how-to-win-the-ehs-new-researcher-prize/

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The Economic History Society Conference, 2016

Ec Hist Soc confBetter late than never, here are my thoughts on the 2016 Economic History Society conference held at Robinson College Cambridge on the weekend of 1-3 April 2016. This was the best attended of the Society’s conferences to date with over 300 delegates, nearly 50 New Researchers papers and over 100 Academic papers. There was an abundance of riches for scholars of the eighteenth-century. And the nine academic sessions and six new researcher sessions dedicated to financial history in some form this year attest to the continuing and welcome interest in the field in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis.

The EHS always begins on the Friday afternoon with the New Researchers sessions. For the past three years I have been Chair of the NR Prize Committee. This has been a welcome task because it has reminded me of the generosity of academics who give up their time to observe the sessions and read and comment on the written papers and who also eschew the bar, for a while at least, to attend late night discussions to decide the prize winners. Continue reading

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Breaking up and making up: another early modern courtship

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Silver-cased watch, London 1640-50, BM Collection

Another courtship story from the Jeake family archive….

Richard Hartshorne and Barbara Harding were the parents of Samuel Jeake’s wife, Elizabeth. Richard was desperate to marry Barbara. And, as a couple in their middle age with no parents to interfere, their courtship should have been straightforward. It was anything but. They fell in love, they determined to marry and then they fought.

Although we have only Richard’s letters, we can deduce that the argument was over a love token, a watch given by Barbara and supposed to be kept secret. But the secret had been revealed and some were gossiping. Richard reassured: Continue reading

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