How did organisations adapt to change in the 18th and 19th century: Lessons from the Bank of England Archives…

Thomas Rowlandson

Thomas Rowlandson, The Bank (London, 1792), showing a view of the Rotunda.
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Industrialisation was not the only driver of change during the eighteenth century. Recent historiography has revealed more about the financial and organisational revolutions that helped to shape the British state and the country’s economic development. The Bank of England was at the forefront of these revolutions and a pioneer of new modes of business organisation. A business that started out in a small rented space with only seventeen clerks in 1694 was, by 1815, employing nearly 1,000 workers and occupying most of the Threadneedle Street block. Yet it has been sadly neglected as a case study. What might we find in the Bank’s archives to understand how business adapted to rapid and radical change during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? Click here to read more:

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A Page in the Life of Elizabeth Jeake: unfeigned love among mercantile matters

In the absence of her own writings and her virtual absence from the many pages of Samuel’s writings, Elizabeth’s life can only be reconstructed from the letters she left behind, both those she wrote and those she received. Click here to read more:


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Sharing skills: baking, curating, presenting and surviving a sharknado apocalypse!


Every year the University of Hertfordshire History department spend a weekend at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park. Staff and students from our undergrad and postgrad communities attend and some of our alumni come too. And this year we were especially pleased to be joined by some of our colleagues from UH Geography.

We shared good food, good company and beautiful surroundings. We even had sunshine, if only on Saturday.

Aside from relaxing in a very pleasant environment, we dedicated the time to sharing our research and sharing our skills from history-themed baking and cake decorating, to exhibition curation and, courtesy of our geographer friends, surviving and rebuilding society after an apocalypse: a sharknado apocalypse that destroyed north London in this case!


My contribution to the weekend was to talk about giving presentations in class and in other environments, something that lots of people find intimidating. I suggested ways to make the process easier, focusing a lot of self-belief and preparation. In brief here’s what I said:

  • Believe in what you do and in your right to stand in front of the audience and be heard (easier said than done but it comes with practice).
  • Demonstrate that belief in yourself:
    • Speak up and be heard
    • Dress smartly but comfortably
    • Think about your non-verbal communication
      • Smile
      • Posture –stand up straight and face the audience
      • Hand movements – open and expansive
      • Eye contact – with all of the audience
  • Justify that belief:
    • Rehearse
    • Take responsibility: keep to time, stick to the brief
    • Know your stuff
    • Speak plainly
    • Share the limelight – if you’re in a group, let the others speak
    • Share the limelight – if you’re in a group, speak up, don’t hide
    • Build a relationship with your audience
    • Face the audience – never turn your back on them to read from a PowerPoint
    • Look up – try not to read from notes
    • Read the mood – are your audience engaged?
  • Justify others being there:
    • It’s hard to be a good speaker, when the audience is not paying attention. When you’re not speaking, be a good audience
    • Listen – and show that you are listening, make eye contact with the speaker
    • Give full attention – put away phones and laptops
    • Listen and absorb – listen to all of what other people are saying, even if you think it’s wrong
    • Keep an open mind
    • Ask questions 
  • Reflect:
    • What went right? What went wrong? What will I change next time?
    • But try not to worry about what went wrong, our mistakes always seem more significant to us than they do to others.
  • Your aim: not just communication, inspiration!

And for those of you who got this far just for the cakes:




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How to speculate according to the ‘merchant principle’

course of the exchangePrice data for financial instruments and commodities was relatively easy to access during the eighteenth century. We know that price lists, such as Castaing’s Course of the Exchange, were regarded as valuable, that they were kept and that they were frequently enclosed or abstracted in merchants’ and other correspondence. But isolated price data is not information. Without context, it is just numbers. If we are to understand how investment decisions were made we need to know much more about how price data was contextualised and utilised. I recently came across a letter that gives us some clues. I wasn’t looking for evidence about investment behaviour, I was trying to figure out what eighteenth-century bankers did all day. I found very little to illuminate the latter but finding a letter focusing on speculation was an unexpected delight in an otherwise rather unproductive morning.

The correspondents were Mary Bosanquet and her brother Samuel. Samuel was a merchant, and a director of the Levant Company and of the Bank of England (hence my interest in the letters).[i] Continue reading

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Hard working bankers helped create the tyranny of the clock


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.


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: This was an amazing and inspirational event, the room was packed and the conversation was energising.


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)


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:

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Christmas and New Year bonuses for eighteenth-century bankers


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]

Continue reading

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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:

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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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