Searching for honest and competent bankers during the Napoleonic Wars

Guest blog by Dr Anne Murphy, senior lecturer in early modern history

What qualities are required of a competent and honest banker? We might be forgiven for thinking that this is a question that never crosses the minds of today’s recruiters. But their nineteenth century predecessors worked hard to find the best men for the job.

Sources preserved at the Bank of England reveal that, before being considered for employment, applicants’ backgrounds, experience and integrity were all subject to the greatest scrutiny. The Bank prized individuals who were sober, virtuous, debt-free and not involved in any political activism.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Bank of England. Five Pound Note Office
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Records of interviews and the test scores of over 500 men who applied to the Bank between 1800 and 1815 are being used to create a profile of the Bank’s workers and explore the skills that were valued in Britain’s early banking industry.

The research shows that, despite drawing applicants from all over the country and indeed the empire, well-qualified men were hard to find. Numeracy was the most elusive skill. A large proportion of applicants performed poorly in tests of both the ability to add columns of figures and the facility to accurately compute various heaps of cash.

On the job training, therefore, proved far more important to the Bank than the schooling of its workers or their prior experience. And undoubtedly, successful applicants had to learn fast. They entered the Bank during perhaps the most difficult and certainly one of the busiest periods in its history: the wars with Napoleonic France. The financial challenges of this conflict meant that their skills were soon put to a very stern test.