Gold Money You Could Bank On (2 December 1974)
When I was a boy the old people around me did not wholly trust the Bank of England’s £1 and ten shilling notes which had been issued in great numbers at the beginning of the 1914-18 war.
They much preferred sovereigns and half-sovereigns. If it had been possible, they would have done all their paying in notes and all their being paid in these gold coins, which they kept in special tiny purses that took them a long time to fish out from the recesses of their clothing and no time at all to put back. Younger people were amused by this, but who will say now that the instincts of the old timers were wrong?
They had grown up during a period when solid coin was the normal currency. Few had ever seen one of those large white Bank of England £5 notes that looked as though they had been personally written rather printed. Yet paper money had been in circulation in this country for at least 150 years.
I was set to dreaming of this by the Barclays Bank advertisement in the Gazette’s annual Industrial Review. It is headed “Barclays and your business.” It then goes on to state: “The running of a modern business calls for varying skills – not least, it involves financial management. And that is where Barclays comes into the picture . . .”
Well, Barclays have certainly been in the local picture longer than any other bank – since 1896, in fact, when they took over a smaller local bank that was founded in Leighton Buzzard in 1812 and which subsequently spread northwards as far as Olney.
There were very few banks outside London before the middle of the 18th century. Then they began to arise in all centres of commerce throughout the country, coincidentally with the rise of the industrial revolution, which was largely a provincial development.
Most of those early bankers, including the Barclays, were Quakers. It is not hard to see why. During a period of South Sea Bubbles and the like they already stood out among their fellows as men of scrupulous honesty coupled with business acumen. You could trust them with your money. They founded the high reputation which British banking has held from that day to this.
All this was true of the Leighton partners who had the temerity to set up their bank in the few years between the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Waterloo.
There were five of them: Peter Bassett, his son John Dollin Bassett, John Grant, William Exton and Joseph Sharples. All were men of high standing and all were members of the Leighton Buzzard Society of Friends. The Bedfordshire Quarter Sessions Rolls for 1789 record a notice that a new building called the Meeting House at Leighton’s North End was intended to be used by Quakers as a place of worship and that admission to the tenement was given to John Grant and his wife.
From the skimpy material available to me I have been unable to trace the other partnering families further back than 1812.
In those days Leighton was the most important market centre hereabouts, with Newport Pagnell second best. Villages like Great Brickhill, Stoke Hammond and Newton Longville all gravitated to Leighton. They still did so after the second world war.
The Leighton Friends’ decision may also have been influenced by the fact that an Act of 1771 banning private bankers from issuing notes under £5 was relaxed during the Napoleonic wars owing to the shortage of gold. New bankers were therefore able to start with the old pre-1771 advantage of issuing their own £1. Such notes were the chief medium of local currencies throughout the land up to 1844. Another Act then fixed a maximum to each bank’s note issue according to the size and circumstances of the bank. The Leighton bank had a note circulation of £36,829.
The original Leighton partnership did not last long. Sharples left to open a bank at Ampthill and Exton left to open a bank at Hitchin. The Bassetts and Grant carried on and in 1820 they opened a bank at Newport Pagnell, which was the first bank in this part of North Bucks.
Peter Bassett died in 1826, but his son, John Dollin Bassett lived to 1878, by which time he had been a partner no fewer than 66 years. John Grant died in 1842 and his widow became a partner until her own death in 1853.
The following year Theodore Harris joined the firm, whose title was then changed from Bassett and Grant to Bassett, Son and Harris, the “son” being Francis, son of John Dollin.
In 1864 Richard Littleboy, a Quaker and previously a miller, was made resident partner at Newport and a weekly sub-office was opened at Olney.
In 1870 the bank set up at Fenny Stratford, with a once-a-week office in a house in High Street. This continued until the old town hall was built in the 1880’s, when the bank moved to the hall’s ground floor. At first it was still open only on Thursdays, but then it became twice a week and eventually every day.
A Woburn office was also set up in 1879 and a Wolverton office not until 1892.
In 1896, however, the firm – always colloquially known as “Bassett’s Bank” – finally merged with Barclays, who had been their London agents from the very beginning.
The Barclays Bank near the old council offices was built in 1912, with Mr. J.M. Morris as the first manager. In 1921 or 1922, coincidental with the removal of the market from Aylesbury Street to the Bletchley end, a small branch was opened at the corner of Bletchley Road (Queensway) and Park Street.
Between the wars Lloyds Bank also came to the town and this, with the Barclays branch and sub-branch was how commercial banking stood in Bletchley until the town’s post-war expansion. Then the present Barclays Bank was built on the sites of the Park Street sub-branch and other adjoining properties. And now all the big banks are in the town that once only Bassetts knew.