"From the records of the public tribunals, it appears that a very considerable number of persons (one of the partners is said to have admitted as many as seventy-five) in London, and other places, were employed by this firm, for a small commission, to put their names to fictitious bills, which were then discounted, a large proportion of them in Glasgow; and when the house of Macdonald failed, it was found to be indebted to the Western Bank £422,000.
"For a general review of the failures which occurred in England your Committee have been indebted to Mr. Coleman and to Mr. Ball, of the firm of Messrs. Quilter and Ball, both eminent accountants in London. These gentlemen do not profess to have studied abstruse questions of currency; they do not represent themselves as particularly conversant with the operation of the Act of 1844. They, however, assign what appears to your committee an adequate cause for the recent commercial crisis. Availing themselves of their experience in 1847, the affairs of which have now been finally closed, to illustrate the transactions of 1857, which still appear in estimate, and are therefore liable to correction, they ascribe the calamities of both periods to the same principal cause-viz., the great abuse of credit, and consequent over-trading. They notice also this difference between the two periods : many of the houses which fell in 1847, they say, had once been wealthy, but had long ceased to be so. Those of 1857 had, with few exceptions, never possessed adequate capital, but carried on extensive transactions by fictitious credit. In 1847, for example, one house, which had been originally wealthy, failed, with liabilities amounting, in the whole, to upwards of £1,800,000, of which not quite £1,000,000 were to be paid by other parties, leaving more than £800,000 the direct liabilities of the house. The capital, as represented in their books at the time of suspension, was £215,000, and the assets, according to their own valuation, £800,000, or nearly sufficient to meet the whole of their liabilities. Very different, however, was the valuation of the accountant, who estimated their assets at
£185,000, and even that was materially diminished in the result. The dividend ultimately paid was only ninepence in the pound! This firm, originally merchants, insensibly advanced their capital to planters in the East Indies, until it became necessary for them to be planters themselves. They then were compelled to obtain advances from others, which they accomplished by the sale and circulation of bills in the East Indies upon the house, to a great extent. Obtaining credit in that manner they postponed their fall many years, and ultimately fell, paying only ninepence in the pound. In this case, advances had been made on the credit of the next year's crop. This was an extreme case, and was connected with peculiar considerations at that time affecting the price of colonial produce, the principal property of the house. But Mr. Coleman, from whose evidence these particulars have been taken, says, that the estates which came under his notice as insolvent in that year, paid generally very small dividends, not averaging more than 4s. "Another example of the same period is described by Mr. Ball as follows : It was that of a house which failed in 1847; they were engaged very largely as merchants in this country, and they were a house of very old standing. In the course of their business, they came under advances to a house in one of the colonies, on the security of the crops to be sent forward from time to time. The parties to whom those advances were so made failed to repay them; that is to say, to recoup the London house for them; and eventually the London house was obliged to take upon themselves the business which was originally conducted by those whom they accommodated with advances; in other words, the merchant in London did practically become the planter and the owner of estates. After he had so become the planter, his position was changed from that of being a person who made advances, and he himself found it necessary to obtain advances. Most likely the course would be this, that the house on the other side, perhaps the correspondents themselves of the London house, would draw upon the London house, or draw upon some third party, and remit to the London house; which bill the London house would take to its banker and get discounted, and by that process would be placed in funds to provide from time to time for its own engagements. The result of which would be to sustain for some time the credit of the house, after the capital of the house had been exhausted. The effect would be to enable them to hold produce in expectation of better prices; the longer it was continued, the heavier would be the ultimate loss. After an interval of ten years, this house has, within the last few months, paid a final dividend, making a total of 1s. 10d. in the pound.
"Mr. Ball is asked,-
"'Looking back to the experience of the year 1847, were the dividends that were paid by the insolvent houses generally very small?' - 'The average dividend would be small, so far as I recollect. Here and there would be a house which would pay in full, or would pay a very large dividend; but the general result was, that a small dividend upon the whole was received by the creditors.'
"'Looking back now, with your experience, to the results of 1847, is it your opinion that if the law had afforded greater facilities for obtaining credit at that time for the purpose of sustaining these houses longer, the result would have been more advantageous to the houses themselves, or to the community at large?'-' Knowing what I do of the internal state of those houses when they did stop, I should say that had they been able to obtain further credit for a continued period of time, it would only have had a temporary effect upon their position, and that most of them (of course I have a reserve of some good cases in my mind), from their internal condition being worn out, and from the want of real capital in their concerns, must have failed ultimately, and that the longer the assistance was continued simply upon their credit, the greater the ultimate loss would be.'