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Memoirs of a Banking House
By Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, Bart. (1860)


The public is here presented with a Memoir, the genuine composition of Sir William Forbes, regarding the history of a mercantile establishment, of which he was long the chief. The manuscript having been accidentally shown to the editor, he saw in it so much that was interesting, as to be induced to plead with Sir William’s surviving friends for permission to place it before the world. It is consequently published at the distance of fully fifty-six years from the time when it was written, for the author appears to have closed his narration in May 1803.

The private banking-house so long known in Scotland in connection with the name of Sir William Forbes—merged since 1838 in the joint-stock Union Bank of Scotland—had a somewhat complicated genealogy, reaching far back in the last century—the century of progress in Scotland—and even faintly gleaming through the obscurities of the one before it, when mercantile efforts and speculations were taking their birth amidst the embers of scarcely extinct civil wars and all kinds of private barbarisms. The genealogy is here traced through a firm styled John Coutts & Co., of which the principal member was John Coutts, lord-provost of Edinburgh in the years 1742 and 1743, to Patrick Coutts, who carried on considerable merchandise at Montrose in the reign of William III. The concern is shown as the main stock from which branched off the eminent London banking firms of Coutts & Co., Strand, and Herries & Co., St James’s Street.

The earlier part of the narrative exhibits banking in its original condition as a graft upon ordinary merchandise. The goldsmith, the corn-merchant, the commission agent, were the first who gave bills of exchange or discounted private notes; and such were the only bankers known even in England till near the close of the seventeenth century. The house of John Coutts & Co. was entirely of this nature, and it had several rivals in Edinburgh. It is curious to trace the banking part of their business as rising, from a subordination to corn-dealing and other traffic, to be the principal, and finally the sole business, and to learn that the banker, in consequence of early connections, long continued to supply distant correspondents with articles which would now be ordered from the family grocer and oilman. It has strangely come about in our own time, that banking companies have, in some instances, been drawn once more into what might be called merchandise, or more properly mercantile speculation, in consequence of overgreat advances to private traffickers. But of this vice, which we have lately seen productive of such wide-spread ruin, there was little or no appearance during a long middle period embraced by this Memoir. And here lies, as the editor apprehends, one of the chief points of interest involved in the present volume. It depicts a banking-house limiting its transactions to its own proper sphere of business—yielding once or twice to temptations to do otherwise, and suffering from it, till at length it put on the fixed resolution to be a banking-house only, and neither directly nor indirectly a mercantile speculator, and thriving accordingly. The Memoir is, however, something more than this, for it exhibits a fine example of what prudence, care, and diligence may achieve with small means in one of the most exalted branches of commerce. None of the men concerned in raising up this bank were rich, and we have details shewing us that their transactions and profits were at first upon a very limited scale. But the business was conducted on an appropriate scale of frugality; the simple tradesman-virtues of probity, civility, and attention to business were sedulously cultivated. All extravagance and needless risk were avoided. The firm was accommodated in a floor of the President’s Stairs in the Parliament Close, and one of the partners seems to have dwelt on ‘the premises. The whole affair thus reminding us not a little of those modest out-of-the-way banking-houses on the continent, which we have sometimes such difficulty in finding when we are in search of change for a circular note. These unostentatious merits, which we see every day raising humble traffickers to wealth and eminence, had precisely the same effect in the case of this banking-house. The well-descended Sir William tells the lesson with great simplicity and candour, and it is one which can never be repeated too often.

The writer of this Memoir was born in 1739, heir to a Nova Scotia baronetcy, which his father held without any means of supporting it, beyond his exertions as a member of the Scottish bar. Left fatherless at four years of age, he owed much in his early days to an amiable and intelligent mother, who contrived to maintain the style and manners of a lady on what would now be poverty in a much humbler grade of life. His career as a banker, from an apprenticeship entered upon at fifteen, till he became the head of an important house, and recovered all the fortunes lost or squandered by former generations of his family, is detailed in the work now laid before the public, along with much of the analogous progress made by the country during the same period. It remains to be mentioned that Sir William, in 1770, married a daughter of Dr James Hay of Hayston in Peeblesshire, and became the father of four sons, the eldest of whom, William, who succeeded him in the baronetcy, and died in 1828, is addressed in this Memoir; the second, John Hay Forbes, became a judge in the Court of Session, under the designation of Lord Medwyn; the third, Mr George Forbes, spent his life as a member of the banking-house; the youngest, Charles, was an officer in the navy. Sir William, in 1805, presented to the world a life of his friend Dr Beattie, which met a favourable reception, not merely as an elegant narration of the biography of an eminent man, but as preserving a great amount of the general literary history of the country which must have otherwise perished. He did not long outlive this effort, dying of water in the chest in November 1800, at the age of sixty-seven.

These are but the dry bones of a life distinguished in an extraordinary degree, not merely by energy and ability in professional affairs, but by ceaseless efforts of an enlightened character for the public good, by inexhaustible private charity, by high taste and refinement, and the practice of all the active virtues. One would need to have lived through the last fifty years in Scotland, to be fully aware of the excellences of various kinds which made people speak with such veneration of Sir William Forbes, and maintain a faith in his modest private bank such as is now scarcely given to the joint-stock of large copartneries. It was but participation in a universal feeling which caused Scott to thus refer to Sir William, in addressing one of the cantos of Marmion to the amiable banker’s son-in-law and the poet’s friend, Mr Skene of Rubislaw:

"Scarce had lamented Forbes paid
The tribute to his Minstrel’s shade,
The tale of friendship scarce was told,
Ere the narrator’s heart was cold—
Far may we search before we find
A heart so manly and so kind!
But not around his honoured urn
Shall friends alone and kindred mourn;
The thousand eyes his care had dried,
Pour at his name a bitter tide;
And frequent falls the grateful dew,
For benefits the world ne’er knew.
If mortal charity dare claim
The Almighty’s attributed name,
Inscribe above his mouldering clay,
“The widow’s shield, the orphan’s stay.”
Nor, though it wake thy sorrow, deem
My verse intrudes on this sad theme;
For sacred was the pen that wrote,
“Thy father’s friend forget thou not.”
And grateful title may I plead
For many a kindly word and deed,
To bring my tribute to his grave:—
’Tis little—but ’tis all I have."

And perhaps even a more expressive testimony is given to the character of Sir William by James Boswell, when he makes the following statement in his Tour to the Hebrides: ‘Mr Scott came to breakfast, at which I introduced to Dr Johnson and him my friend Sir William Forbes, now of Pitsligo, a man of whom too much good cannot be said; who, with distinguished abilities and application in his profession of a banker, is at once a good companion and a good Christian, which, I think, is saying enough. Yet it is but justice to record that once, when he was in a dangerous illness, he was watched with the anxious apprehension of a general calamity; day and night his house was beset with affectionate inquiries, and upon his recovery, Te Dciun was the universal chorus from the hearts of his countrymen.’

R C.

Edinburgh, 1st January 1803.

My dearest William,—

You have often heard me express an intention of writing some account of our house of business in Edinburgh, from its first establishment by the Messrs Coutts.

The history of a society in which I have passed the whole of my time, from my boyish days to this present hour, during the long period of almost half a century, cannot but be very interesting to me, especially since by means of my connection with it, I have arrived, through the blessing of Providence, to a degree of opulence and respectability of position, which I had very little reason to look for on my first entrance into the world. I have often thought that such a narrative might not be without its advantage to you, as calculated to teach you the necessity of prudence and caution in business of every kind, but most particularly in that of a banker, in whose possession not only his own property, but that of hundreds of others, is at stake; and as shewing you how, by a steady, well-concerted plan, with a strict adherence to integrity in all your transactions, aided by civility, yet without meanness, you can scarcely fail, by the blessing of Heaven, to arrive at success.

From such a history, too, some general knowledge may be gained of the progressive improvement of Scotland. For, although it is no doubt true that, even where things remain in a good measure stationary in a country, the business of a banking-house, the longer it exists, has a natural tendency to increase, when it has been conducted with prudence and ability, yet it is certainly to the rapid progress of the prosperity of this country, that the very great extension of the business of our house during the last twenty years must, in a great measure, be attributed. To illustrate this part of my proposed subject, I have subjoined to my narrative a short and, I must acknowledge, a very imperfect sketch, collected from the best authorities I could meet with; to some of which, my situation as a man of business has given me peculiar access. The subject is curious, and to me extremely interesting; as I have lived in the very period when this improvement of our native country has assumed some form, and seems still to be making daily advances to yet greater prosperity—a reflection highly grateful to me as a Scotsman.

To my own memory this narrative will recall many scenes on which I cannot look back without the most heartfelt gratitude to that Almighty Being, who has been graciously pleased to shower down upon me so large a share of prosperity. Nor can I contemplate the many years I have spent in business, and the number of friends of whom death has in that interval deprived me, without the most serious reflections on the rapidity with which this life is wearing away, and the propriety of my bending my thoughts towards another—a subject of meditation at all times proper for a rational being; but peculiarly so for one who has lived so long as I have done in the hurry and tumult of a constant intercourse with the busy world—a state extremely unfavourable to sober thought and reflection.

I cannot conclude this address to you, my dearest 'William, in a better manner than by expressing my hope that this narrative will confirm you in a love for that profession which you probably adopted at first on my suggestion. My wish certainly was to insure your succession to the fruits of my labours, as far as I have had any merit in helping to raise the house to its present flourishing state. If you continue to pay the same attention to business that I have done (I trust I may speak it in this place without vanity), I have no doubt that, by the blessing of Heaven on your endeavours, you may preserve the house in credit and respectability long after I shall have paid my debt to nature. But I never can too often nor too earnestly inculcate that the continuance of that credit and prosperity, under Providence, must entirely depend on yourself. If you prove yourself worthy of the notice of your father’s friends (of which I must do you the justice to say, I have at this moment the fairest hope), you may expect their most cordial support, as well as a continuance of that favour and preference with which they have so long and so steadily honoured me. But if your own endeavours be wanting—if negligence take the place of attention to business, and economy be abandoned for profusion of expense—you may be assured that the concerns of the house will go speedily into decay, until at last that decline shall terminate in absolute ruin. For, in the course of a long experience, I can safely say that I have never known a single instance in which relaxed management and unbounded expense did not end in total bankruptcy.

That the providence of the Almighty may ever watch over you to shield you from harm, is the earnest and daily prayer of,

My dearest William,

Your fond and affectionate father,

William Forbes.

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