Our history in East Anglia

Business historian Professor Leslie Hannah talks about Barclays' long history and its role in society during this time.

East Anglia has long been a Barclays heartland, nurturing the Gurney family of banks since the mid 18th century. The Gurneys proved pivotal in the establishment of Barclays as we know it today. The banks founded by the Gurneys, alongside Barclays, Buxtons, Birkbecks and others provided the foundations for today’s bank.

This historic legacy continuous into the present time as part of the Eastern Region which was created as a result of rounds of major branch network reorganisation throughout the 1990s. This amalgamation of branches and services saw the long banking traditions of Norfolk, Suffolk, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and parts of Leicestershire and Essex brought forward into the 21st century.

The Gurneys of Norfolk

The Gurney family is at the heart of the history of banking in East Anglia. The Gurney family were a prominent Norfolk dynasty of bankers, wool merchants and brewers. Their flagship business was the Bank in Norwich based at Bank Plain. This bank was founded in 1775 by John and Henry Gurney. The Norwich Bank was so successful that banks were established at Yarmouth, Halesworth, King’s Lynn and Wisbech in 1781 and 1782.

Like many other country merchant bankers, the Gurneys were Quakers, members of the Society of Friends. The nature of banking, where men were entrusted with not only their customers’ money but also with their financial and family secrets, fitted the character of the Friends well. By the nineteenth century, the Gurneys were one of the leading Quaker families in England. Their accumulated wealth, which stayed in the business, inspired confidence and increased the numbers of their customers.

Mortlock cheque

Mortlock cheque, 1780

The Gurneys were also a typical banking family in other ways. Their business began not in banking but as East Anglian woollen merchants and brewers and diversified into banking, providing low cost credit and other simple banking services to their local communities. Partly due to their Quaker values, they slowly made a name for themselves and developed their businesses until they had established a number of bank partnerships throughout East Anglia. The Gurney Group of Banks covered East Anglia and was described in 1838 “as exercising an influence and a power inferior to that of no banking establishment in Great Britain, that of the Bank of England alone excepted.”

However, not everything went the Gurney’s way. Overend and Gurney was a separate company, which was founded by Thomas Richardson as a bill-broking business in 1802. Members of the Gurney family became partners in the intervening years and in 1866, a year of much turmoil in the banking world, Overend and Gurney’s business failed.

The Gurneys were connected to the Barclays and several other families through their shared Quaker tradition and intermarriage. On 30 March 1896, Gurney and Company, Barclay and Company and Jonathan Backhouse and Company of Darlington made an initial agreement to form a limited company.

They agreed to acquire other banks and negotiations took place which resulted in a number of other banks joining the company. The Barclays and the Gurneys each put in £1 million in capital and reserve, by far the largest capital shares. Gurneys held £1,254,535 and Barclays £8,589,530 in deposits. The reputation of the Gurney Group suffered from the failure of Overend Gurney and company, and it is believed that is the reason for the title of the new joint stock company formed in 1896 being called Barclay and Company.

The Gurney family was very influential, not just in Banking circles but far beyond, into the world of politics and philanthropy. Much like many other prominent banking families, the Gurneys actively contributed to local civil projects and charities. The men (and occasionally women) of those families were remarkably intelligent, far-sighted, and driven individuals. Their interests extended far beyond the limits of their banks. Many pursued other business concerns and contributed to Britain’s 19th century industrial might.

Notable banking figures, Hudson and Richard Hanbury Gurney were both MPs and Hudson Gurney (1775-1864), was also renowned as a poet. In 1835 he became High Sheriff of Norfolk. John Gurney was Mayor of Norwich. Joseph John Gurney and his sister Elizabeth Fry were both active in the agitation for prison reform and another family member, Thomas Fowell Buxton, was highly influential in the abolition of slavery.

Others turned their backs on their wealth to end their days as religious preachers. The Gurneys had close ties to several other banking families, often through both business and marriage. The Birkbecks were partners in several Gurney banks. Yorkshire-based wool merchant Henry Birkbeck (1787-1848) founded the Craven Bank which joined the Barclays family by way of Martins Bank in 1968.

His mother was a Gurney and through this connection he trained in Wisbech and King’s Lynn before moving North and where he was instrumental in the development of Middlesborough and the expansion of North-Eastern railways.

The Amalgamation

In 1896, 20 private banks joined together to form Barclay and Company Ltd. In an attempt to maintain the local relationships customers had enjoyed with their private bankers, Barclay and Company set up Local Head Offices based upon each of the old Banks’ Head Offices. As Gurneys was a major partner in the 1896 amalgamation, East Anglia held a strong position in Barclays activities throughout the country. Prominent banking families, many of whom had helped set up the banks which formed Barclays in the area, such as the Gurneys, the Birkbecks and the Buxtons held positions as Local Directors throughout Norwich LHO’s history, some even making it to the main Board of Directors in London.

Barclays in Cambridge

Barclays roots in Cambridge go back to John Mortlock III (1755-1816) who founded a bank at Bene’t Street around 1780. The Mortlock family fortunes had been established by his grandfather John, who had died in 1754. His father John Mortlock II died in 1777, bequeathing to John, then just 21 years old, a profitable cloth merchant's business, ready money and considerable landed property. He began to provide banking services to his customers in an informal and friendly manner, and soon found that there was sufficient potential in these transactions to start a bank. Banking such as that carried on by Mortlock is a prime example of provincial local enterprise.

The growth of the textile trade was accompanied by an advance in banking techniques. Merchants like Mortlock were required to make loans to accomplish sales and purchases: to their suppliers who were financially weak, in order to safeguard their supplies; and to buyers from whom they had to accept deferred payment. The Mortlock family business was in an ideal position to provide these loans. The larger and neighbouring Gurney banking partnerships of East Anglia developed around the same time in a similar way. An able and ambitious man, Mortlock became a leading figure in town and university affairs, was a free burgess and at various times held the posts of Mayor, Recorder of the Borough and Receiver General of the County.

In 1784, Mortlock was returned as MP for Cambridge, but there was a dispute concerning commissioners for the land tax in Cambridge, and Mortlock’s actions earned him a severe reprimand in the House of Commons, for he had been changing the list of Commissioners without the knowledge or approval of the relevant Committee. As MPs were legally unable to resign during a parliament, Mortlock instead applied for the post of Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds in 1788. As this was an office of profit under the Crown, it legally disqualified Mortlock from continuing as an MP, thereby achieving the same end as a resignation. In the early days of private banking, a financial panic or crisis of confidence could mean ruin for a small firm.

Attempts were made by some of Mortlock’s political opponents to engineer a run on the bank by urging the university and country gentlemen to withdraw their money from the bank, and refuse to accept the bank’s bills. The bank always survived these runs, and its financial stability was never really in question. Between the 1790s and 1815 the bank's turnover grew from £90,000 to £360,000. Samuel Francis joined the bank as a clerk, but later went into partnership with Mortlock. As a result of his connection to Mortlock, Francis secured prestigious positions within the county, including Receiver General and later became Mayor of Cambridge.

The means by which these positions were obtained angered Mortlock’s political opponents, who proceeded to attack Mortlock through Francis. They involved Francis in a series of lawsuits which left him financially crippled. Threatened with bankruptcy, Francis was compelled to resign both from his county positions and his partnership in the Bank. The man who had been Mayor became a pensioner of the Corporation. John Mortlock’s political manoeuvres brought him many critics, and yet he was still held in high regard.

On his death in 1816, one of his bitterest opponents offered the following thoughts: “We differed, most essentially differed, on the subjects which particularly at that period set the father against the son and the son against the father. He was, in the Reformer’s vocabulary, a “boroughmonger”. My opinion was that this country could never be prosperous till the boroughmongering system ceased to exist.

My sentiments I never concealed from him, nor indeed from anybody else, and many a battle did we fight in defence of our respective opinions. " Without influence", he would say, "which you call corruption, men will not be induced to support government, though they generally approve its measures". For nearly thirty years we were on the most intimate and confidential terms, during which time I received many strong evidences of the sincerity of his regard. I never asked him a favour (and I asked him many substantial ones) that he did not grant with a promptitude and cordiality that greatly enhanced the value."

The Mortlock family continued to feature prominently within the Corporation of Cambridge. Between 1785 and 1820, a member of the family occupied the position of Mayor 26 times, with John Mortlock sharing the position with his sons, John Cheetham Mortlock and Frederick Cheetham Mortlock. John Mortlock's third son, Thomas, succeeded to the banking business. He took various partners into the bank, including Edmund John Mortlock by 1866 and Edmund Henry Parker in 1888.

In 1889 the Bank turned itself into a limited company, as John Mortlock and Company Limited. Mortlocks had established agencies at Ely and Littleport, the agent at the latter office being Robert Edwards, chief constable of Cambridge and a principal witness at the trial of the Littleport rioters of 1816. In 1896 a number of private banks, including Mortlocks and, of course, Barclays itself, amalgamated to form Barclay and Company Limited, a large joint stock bank.

The Cambridge Bank was unique amongst the 20 in that it was the only one that was already a joint stock company – the rest were still private partnerships. Edmund Henry Parker became a Director of the new company and went on to became Vice-Chairman of Barclays Bank Limited from 1917 to 1925.

In 1922 his many services to the University of Cambridge were acknowledged by the bestowal upon him of the honorary degree of LL.D. Both Edmund Henry Parker and Edmund John Mortlock also became Local Directors at the newly created Local Head Office at Cambridge, Bene’t Street. Barclay and Company bought the freehold tenure of 15-16 Bene’t Street from John Mortlock and Company Limited as part of the 1896 amalgamation, at a cost of £16, 850, with a further sum of £780 spent on fixtures and fittings.

The freehold of 14 Bene’t Street was purchased by the bank in 1901 for £5,724. Mortlocks had acted as bankers to the University and to most of the colleges, and this was carried over to the Barclays era. A tradition of students banking with Barclays continued from grandfather to father to son, and college bills were accepted through Bene't Street branch by post. By the 1950s there were also 'close links with civic bodies, famous printers and internationally known booksellers in the city.' Farming, however, remained the staple industry of the bank's customers well into the 20th century.