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]

Although gifts might not have been ‘asked for’, the expectation of additional pay at Christmas is indicated by the fact that, in the Discount Offices presents that were made throughout the year by new customers were kept by the Chief Clerk and distributed as Christmas gratuities.

It seems that most clerks could expect to receive a few pounds but there are indications that the chief men in each office, who were generally in charge of distributions, ensured they got the lion’s share. Mr Etheridge of the Bullion Office told the Inspectors ‘The money so received is divided, three quarters between the two Chiefs equally, the remainder to the Junior’.[3]

According to Margot Finn, such Christmas and New Year gifts were intended as a reward for past service and an attempt to guarantee future attentions.[4] Certainly regular visitors to the Bank like Mr Steers, the Chancery broker, seem to have been equally regular in their gift-giving. Those whose livelihoods depended on the Bank were also generous. The man who printed the Bank’s notes tipped the clerk who attended him and tradesmen gave Christmas boxes to the Principal Door-Keeper.[5] The system, however, could cause problems. The Inspectors noted the case of a bank draft for £5,500 had been refused because the customer’s account was short by just £38. This was regarded as an error by the Bank’s directors who would have preferred to see the customer accommodated. It emerged that the customer in question did not generally offer Christmas boxes to the clerks and it was suspected that this was the reason his draft was refused.[6]

Despite the problems with customer relations that such gift-giving, or its lack, might generate, the Bank’s directors were pragmatic about the practice. They understood quite well the value of gifts and gratuities in oiling the wheels of business.

The Bank itself always paid New Year gifts to officials at the Exchequer and the Treasury. At the end of December 1782 this amounted to 340 guineas.[7]

Moreover in their final report while the Inspectors condemned the practice as giving rise to ‘dissatisfaction & heart-burnings amongst the Clerks themselves, from the unequal distributions in some of the Offices; & what is a matter of much more serious consequence, to give rise to partialities & unjust preferences, towards the Publick’, they also acknowledged:

‘we have found it so firmly established, so operating as part of the legal emoluments of Office, handed down to the Clerks from their predecessors, that we think it requires, not only solemn deliberation but an accurate & nice Judgement, to determine whether it were wiser to endeavour at abolishing the practice altogether; or to regulate it, by excluding the Chiefs from any participation, & ordering equal distributions amongst the inferior Clerks…[8]

[1] Bank of England Archive, Minutes of the Committee of Inspection, M5/212, fo. 39

[2] BEA, M5/212, fo. 29.

[3] BEA, M5/212, fo. 132.

[4] Margot C. Finn, The Character of Credit: personal debt in English culture, 1740 -1914 (Cambridge, 2003), p. 84

[5] BEA, M5/212, fo. 108; M5/213, fo. 166.

[6] BEA, M5/212, fos. 216-217.

[7] BEA, G4/23, fo. 332.

[8] BEA, M5/213, fos. 158-59.

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