In May 1812, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy is walking down a London street. As has been his practice of late, he had been turning over the words of Elizabeth Bennet in his mind. ‘Had you acted in a more gentlemanlike manner’. Distracted, he doesn’t notice a shabby young man in a long coat brush past him. Israel Fagin, at the beginning of his long and disreputable career (which was to lead to literary fame and the condemned cell at Newgate), had taken something from his pocket – but what?
A Riddle by Jane Austen;
You may lie on my first by the side of a stream,
And my second compose to the nymph you adore,
But if, when you’ve none of my whole her esteem
And affection diminish – think of her no more!
In a previous post I looked at the purses or wallets in which a gentleman might carry his money, now let us consider the money itself.
Living today with a comparatively limited range of coins and notes, it is difficult to get to grasp with the complexity of money in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Now I don’t mean the pre-decimal system, of pounds shillings and pence, I am old enough to remember it and as a child found it easy enough as long as you knew the twelve times table.
Rather the complexity was caused by the sheer diversity of what you might carry in your purse of wallet. There were not only coins produced by the Royal Mint, and notes issued by the Bank of England, as there are today. There were coins issued by businesses large and small and notes by private banks.
The subject is a large one and I will consider it in a couple of blogs, this one will deal with the solution to Jane Austen’s riddle – a banknote.
An early Bank of England note
Bank notes, although they were first issued in China, began for our purposes in the seventeenth century as a way of moving money safely between the firms that were developing into banks. In exactly the same was as cheques were developing at the same time. Indeed the earliest bank notes were handwritten like cheques. As banks developed in the eighteenth century printed notes appeared, but were still individually signed and numbered, they were first made out for a specific sum, but in time were ready printed, and made out to ‘bearer’. Bank notes were both good and bad for security, good in that stolen notes were not easily exchanged as they were individually marked, bad as forgery now became widespread.
A very low value private banknote
Any bank could issue a note, and most did. The notes tended to have only a local circulation as they could only be exchanged by the bank that issued them. Banks often issued more notes than they had cash reserves and this was the cause of their disappearance. In the financial crisis that followed the Napoleonic war, banks often found themselves without enough capital and they could fail, often causing local financial disaster, as described so effectively in Cranford. The government finally acted with the Bank Charter Act of 1844, which eventually led to the disappearance of private banknotes in England and Wales.
One of Henry Austen’s banknotes
Jane Austen is going to be the next person depicted on the £10 note. She has an interesting family connection with banking as her brother Henry was a banker. He was badly affected by the financial collapse and his banks failed and he became bankrupt.
I am currently working on a project called Picking Darcy’s Pocket, where I will be using objects that might have been found in the pocket of a Regency gentleman, to discuss various aspects of the period. In due course I will be doing this as a lecture/ performance, but for now I am just collecting the objects real or facsimile