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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
news
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Sport
sport
Latest stories from i100
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

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all