When bankers were good

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Far from being socially useless, Victorian financiers campaigned to end slavery, built homes for the poor and saved fallen women. Emily Dugan finds modern-day parallels hard to come by

As Britain reels from a financial crisis largely blamed on the avarice and excesses of the banking industry, few can remember a time when the country's wealthiest financiers were also forces for good. But little more than a century ago, giving your fortune away was as laudable an achievement as acquiring it.

On Tuesday, Ian Hislop, the editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye, presents a BBC documentary looking at an age when the super-rich had consciences. In Victorian Britain, vast fortunes were amassed by bankers, but with the growth of personal wealth came a sense of philanthropic duty.

The programme will air on the same day that the High Pay Commission publishes the findings of a year-long inquiry into how senior figures in British business came to be paid astronomical sums. The commission's research will show increases of several thousand per cent in top pay over the past 30 years. Yet, unlike their Victorian predecessors, today's bankers appear mostly untroubled by their bumper salaries.

The commission is expected to conclude that excessively high pay for the UK's top executives has been corrosive to the economy, to companies and to society as a whole, rewarding individuals for failure and undermining productivity and trust in British business.

The apparent lack of major social or philanthropic works paid for by today's financiers and chief executives is doing nothing to dispel this poor image. Here we examine the philanthropic legacy of five Victorian bankers, and look at their most high-profile modern counterparts.

'When Bankers Were Good' screens at 9pm this Tuesday on BBC 2

Honoured by royalty

Angela Burdett-Coutts

In 1837 Angela Burdett-Coutts became the wealthiest woman in London overnight when she inherited her banking grandfather's enormous fortune – a sum estimated at £600,000 (now £30m) in cash and an income of £50,000 a year.

With her pots of money and her love of small dogs, she could have been the Paris Hilton of her day. Instead she went on to become the greatest philanthropist of the Victorian age, in recognition of which she became the first woman to be made a peer. Her projects ranged from funding the bells for St Paul's Cathedral, to social housing, soup kitchens, lifeboats and "ragged" schools for destitute children. One of her earliest projects was to establish, with Charles Dickens, Urania Cottage – a home for women who wanted to escape "a life of immorality" as thieves and prostitutes. She also established the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

By the time of her death in 1906, she had given away an estimated £4m, leaving a relatively modest estate of £79,000.

Douglas Flint

The chairman of HSBC was appointed CBE in 2006, not for his philanthropy, but for "services to the finance industry". His salary and bonus package amount to almost £4m, but it is not known how much of this he gives to charity. HSBC says: "It's an entirely private matter for him." However, Mr Flint is a high-profile supporter of Leap, a charity helping people from disadvantaged communities move out of poverty.

The political animal

Samuel Gurney

A Quaker and MP, as well as a banker, Samuel Gurney campaigned in Parliament for good causes. Born in 1786, he was the brother of the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry – featured on today's £5 note – whose work he supported. On one occasion, when his own name was copied by a forger, he refused to prosecute, knowing that were he to do so, it would undoubtedly end in the offender receiving a sentence of death.

He campaigned vociferously for the abolition of slavery. In 1849, in the middle of the Great Famine, in which a million people died, he went on a tour of Ireland, making generous donations. He also sent funds to the colony of Liberia, founded by former slaves; a town there was named after him in 1851. He pushed for – and helped to fund – Britain's first hospital for dock workers, established in 1855 in east London.

Stephen Hester

Parachuted into Royal Bank of Scotland as chief executive, Hester studied at Oxford and chaired the Tory Reform Group. He then pursued a career in banking and in 2008 was hired by RBS on a salary of £1.2m to overhaul the bank after the departure of Sir Fred Goodwin. In 2009 he and his board threatened to resign if they could not pay £1.5bn in bonuses to staff. He is a trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, but RBS said it did not have any further details on Mr Hester's links with charities.

The self-made man

Moses Montefiore

Before entering the world of finance, Montefiore – born in Leghorn, Italy, in 1784 but brought up in London – began work as an apprentice to a grocer and tea merchant. Success in investment banking came so quickly that he was able to retire at 40 with vast wealth. He threw himself into civic and community work, in particular helping destitute and persecuted Jews in Palestine, Morocco, Rome, Russia and Turkey. Elected Sheriff of London in 1837, he was dedicated to public service. For 36 years he was head of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. When, at the age of 90, he gave up his position, he received a farewell gift of £12,000, worth more than half a million pounds today. He donated the entire sum to build houses for the poor in Jerusalem. He also helped to fund the campaign for the abolition of slavery and continued to sign cheques for charitable causes on his deathbed. At his death, he left £375,000 to charity (now more than £22m).

Michael Spencer

A former Tory party treasurer, Michael Spencer has won plaudits for his philanthropy, though it is doubtful it is on the scale of Montefiore's. The founder and chief executive of the broker ICAP, he established its Charity Day, when all of the company's revenues are given to good causes. Last year, £12.1m was raised. Mr Spencer's personal wealth is estimated at £520m.

The Cambridge graduate

Nathan Rothschild

He could have been the spoilt brat of a banking dynasty, but Nathan "Natty" Rothschild tried to ensure that both his personal wealth and that of his family's bank were put to good use. Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, he worked as a partner at the London branch of NM Rothschild & Sons, becoming head of the bank when his father died in 1879.

He helped set up the Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Company, a model housing organisation that aimed to provide decent accommodation for the poor, predominantly Jews in east London. Rothschild himself donated £10,000 (now almost £500,000) to the project and then paid for the site of the first building. A friend of Cecil Rhodes, he helped to found the Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford University.

Ron Sandler

Compared with some of his banking colleagues, Ron Sandler, chairman of Northern Rock, has a modest salary of £250,000 a year and no bonus. But that did not stop him overseeing £13.1m in bonuses to his staff this year. A German national, he received an estimated £1m payoff from NatWest, his former employer. A spokesman for Northern Rock said: "Ron supports many [charity] initiatives that many of our colleagues undertake. Our charity this year is the Samaritans."

The American in London

George Peabody

When the American self-made millionaire and merchant banker George Peabody moved to London in 1837, he could have lived a life of luxury. Conspicuous consumption was not Peabody's style, though. He dressed plainly and had a reputation for stinginess. This turned out to be misplaced, as he began to pour money into housing for the disadvantaged. In 1864 he opened his first housing estate, in Spitalfields, east London; 150 years on, Peabody estates still house 50,000 Londoners.

When the United States government refused to fund its own section at the Great Exhibition in London, Peabody paid £5,000 to make sure the display did his home country justice. In modern money, his donations to good causes totalled more than £140m.

Bob Diamond

Like Peabody, Bob Diamond was born in Massachusetts and came to Britain to pursue a career in banking. There the similarities end. Taking home more than £4m a year as chief executive of Barclays, he famously said, in the wake of the financial crisis, that bankers should stop being remorseful. He has donated £3.7m to his alma mater, Colby College in Maine. The Diamond Family Foundation, which manages his educational donations, recently invested nearly £1m in Barclays shares – propping up Mr Diamond's own job.

Additional reporting by Antony Peyton and Oliver Poznanski

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Finance Officer

Negotiable: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education are seeking a Fi...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice