But in the latter end of the year 1836 another panic arrived, when it was discovered that the country circulation was again at fault. But the charge now was, not that it was unsafe, but that it was excessive; and this charge of having issued to excess was more especially directed against the joint-stock banks.
Here it may be observed, that in the panic of 1825 the amount of country notes in circulation was unknown. No returns at that time were made to the Government, and the amount of notes in circulation could only be calculated, and that very imperfectly, from the number of stamps, of different denominations, issued from the Stamp Office. But in the year 1833, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Althorp, obtained an Act (3 & 4 William IV. c. 83) which required all banks issuing promissory notes to make returns to the Stamp Office of the average amounts of notes in circulation in the quarters ending the first day of January, April, July, and October in each year. The quarterly average was to be formed from the amount in circulation at the end of each week. These quarterly returns were afterwards published in the " London Gazette."
From these returns it was evident that the country circulation had increased by the beginning of the year 1836; and as a general spirit of speculation prevailed at the same time, it was inferred that the country circulation was the cause of this speculation; and as by the end of the year the speculations had ended in panic, the country circulation was the cause of this panic.
Another panic occurred at the end of the year 1839, and here, again, blame was cast on the country notes. But the complaint now was not that the country circulation was unsafe or excessive, but that it was ill-regulated. An opinion had been adopted by some distinguished political economists that the country circulation, as well as that of the Bank of England, ought to correspond at all times with the amount of gold in the Bank of England. It is true that the circulation of the Bank of England did not fluctuate in exact accordance with this amount of gold; but the country circulation did not correspond even with that of the Bank of England. And as the fluctuations in the country circulation did not correspond with the fluctuations either of the gold of the Bank of England or with the notes of the Bank of England, it was assumed that the country circulation was ill-regulated; and, being ill-regulated, it was assumed to be the cause, or at least one cause, of the panic that occurred at the end of the year 1839.
To examine into the truth of these opinions, a Committee of the House of Commons was appointed in the year 1840, to consider the state of the law with reference to Banks of Issue. The Committee examined witnesses during the sessions of 1840 and 1841; but the only practical result was that an Act was passed requiring weekly returns of their circulation from every bank of issue.1
Before proceeding farther, it may be fair to state the replies which the country bankers at various times gave to these severe accusations.
In reply to the charge that the currency was unsafe, from the number of failures which occurred among the country banks of issue, they state in their memorial to Earl Grey, in the year 1833, "the number of London bankers that have failed is believed to be relatively greater, and the amount of their debts relatively larger, than that of country banks."
In reply to the charge that they had by an excessive issue of their notes promoted speculation, they state :-
"All experience shows that great fluctuations have originated in the speculations of influential merchants, and never originated in the channels to which the issues of country bankers are confined; their source is in great mercantile cities, and they are promoted by the issues of the Bank of England. That this is the invariable course which fluctuations resulting in excess and derangement take, is proved by the evidence of Mr. "Ward and others, before the Bank Charter Committee, and is fully explained by the speeches of the King's Ministers in the year 1826. The debts of a few speculative merchants who failed in a single year in the town of Liverpool, where country bankers' notes never circulated, amounted to between seven and eight millions sterling, and their bills were either lodged in the Bank of England for loans, or were current in all parts of the country, stimulating circulation and promoting excess."
1 4 & 5 Victoria, c. 50.
In reply to the charge that they had turned the foreign exchanges against this country, they reply :-
"Your memorialists are prepared to prove that the issues of country bankers have less tendency to promote fluctuations in the country than those of the Bank of England; and that their effect in throwing the exchanges aginst the country is comparatively insignificant. The slightest attention to facts would indicate the truth of these positions. It has been established by parliamentary evidence that the issues of country bankers fluctuated much less between the years 1817 and 1826 than those of the Bank of England; and it is indisputable that adverse exchanges, which endanger the bank, always succeed great importations of foreign produce, and that they never can be occasioned by large exportations of domestic productions. Now, it is notorious that the circulation of country bankers acts almost exclusively in promoting these productions: and that, when it is in an extended state, the direct and proper influence, even of an alleged excess of that circulation, would be to provide the means of paying for the importations of foreign produce, without causing so great an export of gold as to derange and endanger the monetary system of the country."
In reply to the charge that they had not governed their issues of notes by the foreign exchanges, they reply that such a system is not applicable to the nature of a local circulation.