With Friends like these...

Review: THE QUAKERS: Money and Morals by James Walvin; John Murray pounds 22
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"This is an expensive Parker," confessed a worthy member, pulling his pen from his inside pocket, at the first Quaker Meeting I attended. "In the Society of Friends," he continued, "we tend to be well off."

Since many Quakers are in the caring professions which have been so clobbered over the ensuing two decades, they might well retort these days that they would be grateful for a chewed ballpoint. Yet the Society of Friends must once have had one of the highest per capita incomes of any religious society. It may not have had the big landowners and aristocrats on its books, but neither was it burdened with many of the poverty-stricken masses.

In the mid-17th century, Quakers would have seemed unlikely candidates for financial stability. They evolved out of the primeval revolutionary soup which produced Levellers, Diggers, Ranters - any wild group ending in "-ers". Founder George Fox set the trend: his arguments with vicars during church services would be followed by court appearances for blasphemy, followed in turn by spells in prison. This is not the way to make your first million.

Despite this precarious lifestyle, the much-hunted Fox managed to keep the wolf from his door - not that he possessed a door, in the early days. Presumably he had backers of some kind; a later holy man, Gandhi, was supported by wealthy men who spent enormous sums to keep him in the poverty to which he was accustomed. James Walvin shows that the self-sufficiency of the persecuted years brought dividends, metaphorical and actual, during the more tolerant centuries. Quakers looked after themselves, because no one else would. One of the committees at Friends House goes under the name of Meeting for Sufferings, because suffering was the main item on its agenda.

When coming out as a Quaker brought anything from social ostracism to a whipping, honesty was clearly not the easy option. But it was the policy adopted by Fox's followers. When William of Orange took over in 1688, he eased off the persecution, on the grounds that at least Quakers weren't Catholics. When the heat was off, a reputation for probity assisted Quaker businessmen. Investment in the new-fangled Stockton and Darlington railway gathered a fine head of steam as local Friends invested; it was known as the "Quaker Line". One of the investors ran a small bank which was taken over by Barclays. Lloyds too had Quaker origins, beginning as an iron company which lent money to its suppliers. By 1826 there were 74 Quaker banks.

Business beckoned because many other routes to self-advancement were blocked. Quakers had not inherited vast estates. Parliament and universities were for a long time barred to them. Being pacifists, they were not going to rise in the army and navy. The theatre was not a runner: because its emotions were simulated and therefore insincere, Friends disapproved of acting.

That left trade. A Quaker launching a business would be offered advice and possibly loans, co-operation instead of rivalry, from his co-religionists. Get-togethers on a regional or national basis gave him plenty of networking opportunities, as did the stop-overs at Friends' houses on the journey. He could also expect instant goodwill from the world at large: the conduct of Quakers in general acted as a testimonial. A 1688 text advised Friends in trade to "keep their words with all men", and, unlike Michael Heseltine, urged that "debts be not delayed".

Being uneasy with their wealth, they would not bring their businesses low with high living. They worked hard and played little, except possibly the piano. The dress-making classes, saving schemes and trips to the seaside which they organised for employees might have seemed like money down the drain; today they look more like useful ways of keeping the staff happy.

Unlike Nick Leeson or Asil Nadir, the Quaker trader belonged to a community that disciplined and indeed expelled its members for irresponsible practice. In 1707 a failed York businessman was told to sell his house in order to pay off his credits. Help would be given to bankrupts, but their accounts and actions would come under scrutiny.

No one, however, is perfect: not even the chocolate magnate whose surname lives on in today's philanthropic trusts, Joseph Rowntree. As Walvin explains, his family firm was saved from bankruptcy by what can only be described as industrial espionage. Joseph R made approaches to cocoa workers in other companies and filched his rivals' recipes. His way of finally pulling the company round was to organise a "co-operation" - or cartel - with other Quaker chocolate firms.

With Friends like this, you may ask, who needs the traditional Victorian capitalist? Walvin's conclusion is that Quaker employers were too often seen as saints when they were merely applying sound business principles. Morality and meanness could ride in tandem: no sick pay for VD, no honeymoon if the bride was already up the spout. But if you condemn paternalistic philanthropy, remember that it is better than no philanthropy at all.