A San introduction to the joint-stock banks of London, we avail ourselves of the following sketch of the history of joint-stock banking which we find in Mr. H. D. Macleod's elaborate and accurate work. We do this with the greater satisfaction on account of the testimony it bears, by implication, to the merits of the late Mr. Gilbart, and the "enormous difficulties" talent and energy such as his alone could have surmounted:-
"An attempt in 1823 to gain the consent of the Bank of England to give up the privileges of their Charter, so far as to permit joint-stock banks to be formed in the country, having failed, even though a bribe was offered, nothing further took place till 1826, when the disasters of the preceding year being very generally attributed to the improper management of the country banks, the Ministry were powerful enough to compel the Bank to give up its unjustifiable monopoly, and at length agreed to permit joint-stock banks to be formed beyond sixty-five miles from the metropolis. The Statute 1826, c. 46, was passed for this purpose.
"This Act made no provisions regarding the constitution or capital of these companies. Each one was allowed to devise a constitution for itself, to name its own capital, and to make any public announcement regarding it that it pleased. The formation of joint-stock banks under this Act proceeded very slowly at first, not more than four or five being formed in as many years. In fact, such bants could only be successfully formed by influential persons, and, of course, each of these had already his own bank, which he would naturally be unwilling to injure by the formation of so powerful a rival. The first joint-stock bank was formed at Lancaster, the next at Bradford, and another at Norwich, before any one was formed at one of the great manufacturing towns. It was not till the prosperous years of 1833-34-35-36, that any very remarkable increase took place in their numbers. In these years, however, they multiplied rapidly, more especially in 1836, when upwards of forty were established in the spring.
"On the renewal of the Bank Charter in 1833, it was determined to take off the vexatious restriction of preventing banking companies making their bills and notes for less than £50, payable on demand by their agents in London. And they were required to keep weekly accounts, to be verified on oath, of the amount of their notes in circulation, and make a return to the Commissioners of Stamps of the average amount in circulation every quarter.
"It was at this time that the discovery made in 1822 by Mr. Joplin, that the Bank Charter did not prohibit joint-stock banks being formed in London, and carrying on their business on the method then adopted by the London bankers, attracted attention, and, on the case being submitted to the law officers of the Crown, they confirmed this view. The flank of the monopoly of the Bank of England, as we may say, being turned in this extraordinary and unexpected manner, excited much consternation and alarm in that body, and they requested to have this omission rectified, but Lord Althorp decidedly refused anything of the sort, and told them that the bargain was that their privileges should remain as they were, and he would not consent to any extension of them. To remove all possible doubts on the subject, a declaratory clause was inserted in the Bank Charter Act, expressly permitting joint-stock banks to be formed, provided they did not borrow, or take up in England, any sum or sums of money, on their bill? or notes payable on demand, or at any less time than six months from the borrowing: thereof. This declaratory clause was not long in being acted upon; and soon after the Act was passed, measures were taken to constitute a joint-stock bank in London. This was the London and
Westminster Bank, which has since been managed with such distinguished success.
"The enormous difficulties which must have attended the successful organization of this great establishment may be conceived when we remember that it was not formed under the Joint-Stock Banking Act at all, which had no force within sixty-five miles of London, but that it was nothing but an ordinary partnership at common law. One of the least of the inconveniences of this was that it could not maintain an action at law for the most trivial debt, without enumerating all and each of the partners, and the slightest mistake in the spelling of a single name would at that time have vitiated any proceeding. This bank was the largest common law partnership which has existed in England; and all the London joint-stock banks which were formed before the Act, Statute 1844, c. 113, are nothing but common law partnerships. The excessive inconvenience attending this state of things led to a bill being brought into Parliament to enable the London and Westminster Bank to sue and be sued in the name of its chairman. This was warmly opposed by the Bank of England, and by Lord Althorp. Nothing could be more paltry than the reasons alleged by him in opposition to it, but he was beaten by a majority of 141 to 35. The
Government, however, had influence enough to have the bill thrown out in the Lords. The Bank being thus defeated, adopted the plan of making all contracts through the medium of trustees, and all the London joint-stock banks had to adopt this plan, till the Joint-Stock Banking Act of 1844. The other banks formed on a similar plan to the London and Westminster, are, the London Joint-Stock Bank, founded in 1836; the Union Bank, in 1839; the London and County Bank, in 1839; and the Commercial Bank, in 1840, which afterwards wound up its business.
"A question, however, of very great importance soon arose. It was a settled question that no partnership or corporation consisting of more than six persons could accept bills at any less date than six months, no matter whether they were a banking partnership or any other. It was clear, therefore, that the bank could not itself directly accept bills. But it did not appear that the words of the Act prohibited trustees accepting bills for a less date on behalf of the company. Nor, if trustees could accept, was there anything to prevent them accepting by procuration. Consequently, there appeared to be this method open of circumventing the monopoly of the Bank of England. On the 21st of February, 1835, the Bank of St. Albans drew a bill for £25 upon the London and "Westminster Bank, payable 21 days after date; which, on the 23rd, was presented for acceptance at the London and Westminster Bank, and was accepted in the following form :-