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Response to Review no. 771

Despite the critical tone of Dr Gregory’s review I would like to thank him for taking the time to read my book, Guilty Money, with such care and attention. I found his review most illuminating as it helped reveal to me why I had such trouble getting anything published on this particular topic unlike my mainstream work on financial history. This is why my preface was so defensive. His review makes me feel like a poacher who has strayed onto a feudal estate, despite the prominent ‘Keep Out’ signs, and has now been peppered by a gamekeeper armed with a shotgun. Initially I though the real opposition to what I was writing came from those who specialised in literary criticism. I was straying into their territory by making extensive use of novels as evidence for contemporary views, perceptions and feelings. What I obtained from novels were clues about what was rarely spoken but was widely believed, as with the underlying anti-Semitism of Victorian and Edwardian society. This was heavily directed towards the City of London because of its association with money-lending, despite the fact that Jewish financiers were a small minority and by no means the main perpetrators of fraudulent business activity. I now realise that opposition to my approach is deeply entrenched among those historians who study the past in a different way from me.

My approach is that of the social scientist who sees in the past a means of exploring certain ideas whether driven by economics, politics or sociology and then drawing conclusions that have contemporary relevance. In the case of Guilty Money its relevance is in the way that financiers have been perceived and the implications that has. What I have tried to show is that there was an enduring perception that money made in finance, especially the money and capital markets of the City of London, is viewed as ‘Guilty Money’, and so tainted all who came into contact with it. Prior to 1914 this perception appears to have had no effect upon the performance of those who worked in the City or its success as a global financial and commercial centre. The reason for that is because the perception was not accompanied by curbs on the operation of markets, restrictions on the way that business was conducted or disproportionate taxes levied on individuals and companies. How that conclusion leaves the widely held belief that Britain was developing an anti-industrial culture in this period, and its supposed responsibility for the decline of manufacturing industry, is for others to judge. I do draw a few conclusions as it seems far from credible to blame an antagonism towards industry, which faded as the 19th century wore on, for the problems that beset British manufacturing. My book was about contemporary perceptions of the City of London not a rebuttal of the Weiner thesis. The findings also have implications for that other widely held belief in the fusion between finance and the land as expressed by the term ‘gentlemanly capitalism.’ What emerges is an enduring antipathy between those whose roots lay in rural England and those whose fortunes derived from urban finance. Again, though, my task was not to correct the misconceptions of the City as expressed in the work of Cain and Hopkins, but to reach a wider understanding of the City of London in contemporary culture and trace its changes over time.

What drove me to write Guilty Money was a combination of my ongoing professional research in financial history and my leisure reading. This consisted of hundreds of novels written between the 1830s and 1914, many of which are now long forgotten,  that touched on the twin themes of finance and the City of London. What it did not involve was becoming immersed in the scholarly historical literature that covers every aspect of Victorian and Edwardian life, ranging from the court circles of Edward VII through the life stories of novelists to the everyday trials and tribulations of the investing class. If I had done that the book would never have appeared. As it was it has taken me around 25 years to find and read the novels and then fit them into a story driven by my researches into the operation of the City of London as a financial centre and the history of the global securities market. As an historian I have only one life to read and these have been the themes I wished to concentrate upon. I am sorry that I have not written the book that Dr Gregory would wish to read for that has led him into the trap that should be avoided by all reviewers. That trap is to review what they read not against what the historian wishes to achieve but against what the reviewer would have done if they had chosen to pursue the same topic. Dr Gregory does mention favourably other authors whose work touches on finance and the City. I have read all but one of these with the exception being a recent article in Victorian Studies. They are listed in my bibliography and referenced, though the impression given in the review is that I am unaware of their existence. In the contrary I have consulted them and most postdate my own work on the subject. However, their approach was not the one I wished to adopt. Some of these authors even use my factual work on finance in their work, such as my history of the London Stock Exchange. Surely we can each value what the other has done and the particular contribution made while appreciating the differences that exist.

In Guilty Money I have tried to answer a puzzle that has long eluded me. During the period before the First World War the City of London reached a position of power and influence in the commercial and financial world that no other centre has achieved either before or since. That has long impressed me, and have sought to explain it in a variety of books, articles, and contributions to edited volumes as well as teaching a Special Subject on the City of London since 1985. While undertaking that research and teaching I became aware that this achievement did not translate into either the public acceptance of the City of London, or even a reluctant regard for the success it enjoyed and the wealth it created both for individuals and collectively. Instead, it appeared to be viewed with suspicion and even outright hostility, especially in the sensational accounts of cases involving City financiers. Such views have a resonance both with the City of London at the time of Big Bang in 1986, when I started to conduct this research, and today in the wake of the Credit Crunch and the disgrace of bankers, hedge fund managers and the like. I doubt whether my book has resolved this puzzle but it does provide a wealth of evidence on the topic culled from the novels that I have read. In reading these novels I remained focussed throughout on what they had to say about the City and finance and so did not divert my attention, or that of the reader of Guilty Money, into the wealth of detail and sub plots that also existed. Interesting as were the views of novelists on spendthrift aristocrats, medical negligence and the paths to marriage, to have covered all that as well would have destroyed what the book was about. Guilty Money is a surgical operation that penetrates deep into the body not a general examination that produces a preliminary diagnosis.

In the selection of novels Dr Gregory notes that there are a few others with a City content that I was not aware of. I am grateful for that and will endeavour to read them in the years to come. It is a pity that Dr Gregory is not more magnanimous in crediting me with what I have done rather than what I have not. One of the objects I had in the writing the book was to tease out new leads and, at least, it has achieved that. Hopefully more might follow including the name of the author of Commercial Tales. The anonymity of that book, as well as the shadowy knowledge that exists about many Victorian authors, is one reason that I chose not to use that approach in my book. If I had it would have given prominence to the well known literary giants not of the run-of-the-mill popular novelist. Since completing the book I have already discovered a number of other novels with a City theme and am currently reading one of them. If any novelist does deserve a revival, which is a question that Dr Gregory poses, then I would single out Charlotte Riddell, especially her novel Austin Friars. I really enjoyed reading it but possibly its description of the mechanics of bill finance does not appeal to everyone. Though Dr Gregory is unaware of it I am well aware of her background and output and the only reason I can find for her neglect over the years is that she is favourable to the City, but then only in certain respects. But, then, I am no judge of literary merit. Another novelist whose more general output I am well aware of is that of E. Phillips Oppenheim, and it was only after reading quite a number of these on different themes that I came across those that did have a significant City content. I am sure Dr Gregory is right that in years to come it will become easier to find the works of fiction that refer to finance and the City in digitised books and periodicals, though putting London or finance into search engines produces more hits than any one person can deal with in a lifetime. That is also true of what to select from a Victorian triple-decker and in that task I gave priority to the work of lesser authors spread throughout the period rather than the dominant figures of the 1845–75 era on which so much emphasis has been put in the past. Hence the fact that Dickens does not figure as highly in Guilty Money as might be expected.

Dr Gregory also complains about the repetitive nature of the plot lines in the sequence of novels that I use. That is to miss the point about what remains the same and what changes over time. Surely the importance of evidence and chronology is something all historians can agree upon or am I to be criticised for those as well as the fact that the outcome is boring? There is no reason why he should be aware that I am already at work on a number of specialist papers that combine rhetoric with reality. One investigates Jewish financiers and the City of London in the 19th century while another looks at investors between 1830 and 1930. I am also contemplating a paper entitled ‘The Race for Wealth’ which combines the writings of Riddell and the paintings of Frith and places them in the context of Britain at the time of Overend Gurney. In my judgement the thematic approach was better suited to articles in this case and the chronological approach more appropriate for the book. I was attempting to show that there was to be no rehabilitation of the City before 1914, as has been claimed by those who focus on particular periods and are mislead by a brief but temporary rehabilitation in the eyes of the public, when there was a lull in financial activity.

I could take issue with other aspects of Dr Gregory’s review but I feel I have done enough to show that what he has written is both flawed and misleading, being driven by an approach to the study of history which I do not share and is apparent in Guilty Money. He is clearly not in sympathy with either the approach or structure of the book I have written and has a low regard of my proof reading and other editorial skills. Those latter errors I am willing to accept though in a book of this length and nature such mistakes do occur. Which of us is free of blame in this respect when even professionals make mistakes? However, the few errors that Dr Gregory is pleased to itemise hardly detract from the book as a whole. Finally, I should warn historians of Dr Gregory’s ilk that the past is no more their exclusive territory than the novel is that of the literary critic. As Arnold Schwarzenegger so eloquently said in Terminator, ‘I will be back,’ and so will all the other social scientists who have make such an important contribution to the study of history over the last 100 years.