Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 14 - Commercial London

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IN the London Bankruptcy Court, at times, melancholy revelations are made-revelations which, indeed, do "point a moral," though they can hardly be said "to adorn a tale." Too generally the manifestations are the same - the hastening to be rich, which to so many has been a snare  - the vulgar attempt to keep up appearances and impose on the world - the recklessness and want of honour and principle which prevail where we should least have expected it, in the middle classes, who, as the heart and core of the nation, at times are apt to be too indiscriminately eulogised. Last week an illustration of what we mean occurred. It came out in evidence that a bankrupt had goods from a London wholesale house, not for his legitimate trade, but merely that, by their sale at less than cost price, funds might be provided for the passing exigencies of the hour. These goods were not unpacked, but at once sent up to a London auctioneer and sold. Nor, it seems, was this an isolated case-the custom is a common one; it is but what takes place [-150-] every day. Again, a tradesman is in difficulties - he goes to his principal creditor, who says, "Well you must not stop yet - you must try and reduce my debt first," - goods are ordered from Manchester or Birmingham - and, perhaps without being unpacked, taken to the warehouse of the London creditor - the tradesman then applies to the Bankruptcy Court, and, as his books are well kept, a sine qua non with the Commissioners - and, as the principal creditor makes things as smooth· as possible, the man gets a first-class certificate and begins again. Bill discounters tell you of the number of forged bills which pass through their hands, and which are sure to be taken up when due. Even the oldest and proudest firms are not free from shame. My readers need not that I remind them of the conduct of Gurney, Overend, & Co. with reference to the forged spelter warrants. A city lawyer, a man of considerable practice and experience, once assured me he did not believe there was such a thing as commercial morality - but we must hope that he had seen so much of the dark side, as to forget that there was a bright side at all, but that the true feeling in the city is not of the highest character is evident if we recall the sympathy displayed toward the directors of the Royal British Bank - and again exhibited in the case of Strachan and Sir John Dean Paul, or remember the ridiculous manifestations of the gentlemen of the Stock Exchange and Mincing Lane, of which Tom Sayers was the embarrassed subject. How wide-spread was the delirium of the [-151-] railway mania - what rascalities have been laid bare by the bursting of some of our insurance and other companies. Take that list just published by Mr. Spachman, Jun., of the losses sustained by public companies through the inadequate system of the audit of accounts. The list is short, but not sweet.

    "The Royal British Bank. - Stopped payment in 1856. The failure was caused by making advances to directors and others on improper and insufficient securities. Capital, £200,000; deposits, £540,000; on which 15s. in the pound has been returned; deficiency, 5s. in the pound; £135,000; total, £335,000.
    "The Tipperary Bank.- Failure caused by the frauds of Sadleir. Accounts were wilfully falsified. Capital, £500,000; deposits, £700,000; total, £1,200,000. The whole has been lost.
    "The London and Eastern Bank.- In this case the notorious Colonel Waugh appropriated to himself an amount equal to the whole paid-up capital of the bank, and has since absconded and set his creditors at defiance. The loss exceeds £250,000.
    "The Crystal Palace Company.- The frauds of Robson, committed by tampering with the transfer-books, entailed a loss of £100,000.
    "The Great Northern Railway Company.- Redpath's frauds, committed in a similar manner to Robson's. The auditors here were greatly at fault, as I understand that dividends were paid on a larger amount of stock than had been issued. Loss, £250,000.
    "The Union Bank of London.-The frauds just discovered, committed by the head cashier, William George Pullinger, by means of a fictitious pass-book, representing the account between the Union Bank and the Bank of England. The frauds are said to have extended over a period of five years, and with a proper check in the audit, ought to have been detected in the first half-year.
    [-152-] The men who did these things - the Redpaths, and Sadleirs, and Colonel Waughs - were men known and respected, be it remembered, in London life.
    The Times says our law is worthy a nation of savages. We have a great deal to do yet, just remember the Hudson testimonial. There were our merchant princes, men of integrity, of talent, of skill-men who have made the name of British merchant a term of honour as far as our flag can reach. If London wished to reward successful industry, it might have looked amongst them. In this great city there was more than one lord of thousands, who came here with hardly a penny in his pocket, or shoes on his feet. London might have raised a testimonial to one of them; and had it done so, every unfledged clerkling and embryo Rothschild would have glowed as he saw how industry, and wealth, and honour, went hand in hand. With what delight would the young aspirant for wealth have returned to the study of those refreshing maxims in ethics which grandmammas so zealously impress upon the juvenile mind, and of which the British public are not a little fond. But a testimonial was given to Mr. Hudson for none of these things. It was not for honesty, or industry, or worth, that he was rewarded. It was simply for speculation - for a course of conduct utterly hostile to legitimate business, which has made many a decent tradesman a bankrupt, and which has turned many an honest man into a knave. England stamped with its approval a system the morality of which is somewhat questionable. It bade the young man eschew the dulness [-153-] of the counter and the office for the magic wand of speculation. It passed by the industrious merchant, the philanthropist, the patriot, to worship the golden calf, as did the Hebrews of old.
    Eighteen hundred years back, on the plains of Palestine, appeared a carpenter's son, with a divine mission but a human heart. He preached no cash gospel - He was no prophet in the eyes of the rich. He had His testimonial - He reaped it in the bad man's deadly hate. Alas! the Hebrew nature is the true and universal one. In Mr. Hudson's, there is the testimonial of the rich- for the Christ, and those who would follow in his steps, there is the thorny path and the open tomb. Let us not imagine that we are one whit better than the Hebrew. The Hudson testimonial proves a common paternity. Gold has still more charms than God. As Mr. Bright, if not in so many words, but in spirit, says, "Perish Savoy, rather than not trade with France," so the London merchant and tradesman ignore too often honour and conscience, and morality, for vulgar gain.
    It requires great. philosophy to get over the effects of City Life. "Let any one," says Addison, "behold the kind of faces he meets as soon as he passes Cheapside Conduit, and you see a deep attention and a certain feeble sharpness in every countenance; they look attentive, but their thoughts are engaged on mean purposes." This feeling is perpetuated. Addison remarks of a gentleman of vast estate, whose grandfather was a trader, "that he is a very honest gentleman in his [-154-]  principles, but cannot for his life talk fairly; he is heartily sorry for it, but he cheats by constitution, and overreaches by instinct. I heard of such a one the other day - A, a city merchant, married his daughter to B. A proposed that A and B should stock the cellar of the young couple with wine - B agreed - A purchased the wine-got a discount - and charged B full price for his share - yet A was rich as Croesus. I have seen this grasping displayed by city boys. The writer was once accosted by some little children with a request that he would contribute something towards a "grotto," on his declining any assistance, he was politely informed that he was no good, as he had "got no money."
    London abounds with Montagu Tiggs, and a genuine article of any kind in any trade, if by any possibility it can be adulterated, by painful experience we know it, is utterly impossibly to buy in trade, words have long ceased to represent things. We need not dwell at length on the wrong thus inflicted on the community at large, all feel the minor evils resulting from such conduct, and occasionally we hear of sickness induced, or of life lost,- and for what? merely that Brown may get an extra farthing on the rascally rubbish he sells as the genuine article. I fear these are not times in which we may argue for the abolition of death punishments. Such things as these sadly teach us that in London commercial morality is in danger of undergoing gradual demoralisation - that we are in danger of becoming absorbed in the pursuit of material wealth, [-155-] careless of the price it may cost-that our standard of morality is not now as it ought to he in a city that boasts its Christian life and light, and that from London the evil circulates all over the British realm.
    In proof of this, we may appeal to the occurrences of every day. Our great cities are shadowed over by the giant forms of vice and crime. Like a thick cloud, ignorance, dense and dark, pervades the land. Ascending higher to the well-to-do classes, we find bodily comfort to be the great end of life; we find everything that can conduce to its realization is understood-that the priests and ministers of the sensual are well paid-that a good cook, like a diamond, has always value in the market. M. Soyer, as cook, in the Reform Club, pocketed, we believe, £800 a year. Hood, in the dark days of his life, when weakened by the fierce struggle with the world and its wants, became the prey of the spoiler, and would have died of starvation had not Government granted him a pension. Many a man, in whose breast genius was a presence and a power has been suffered to pine and starve; but who ever heard of a cook dying of starvation? How is it, then, that such is the case, that so much is done for the body, and so little for the mind? that at this time the teacher of spiritual realities can but at best scrape together as much salary as a lawyer's clerk? We are not speaking now of wealthy fellows who repose on beds of roses, but of the busy earnest men who from the pulpit, or the press, or the schoolmaster's desk, proclaim the morality and truth without which society [-156-] would become a mass of corruption and death. How is it that they are overlooked, and that honour is paid to the soldier who gives up his moral responsibility, and does the devil's work upon condition that food and raiment be granted him-to mere wealth and rank - to what is accidental rather than to what is true and valuable in life? The truth is our civilization is hardly worthy of the name? We may say, in the language of Scripture, we have not attained, neither are we already perfect. We have but just seen the dim grey of morn, and we boast that we bask in the sunshine of unclouded day. Our commercial morality brands our civilization with a voice of thunder, as an imposture and a sham.
    Undoubtedly we are a most thinking, rational, sober, and religious people. It is a fact upon which we rather pride ourselves. It is one of which we are firmly convinced, and respecting which we are apt to become somewhat garrulous, and not a little dull. On this head we suffer much good-natured prosing in ourselves and others. Like the Pharisees of old, we go up into the temple and thank God that we are not rationalists, like the Germans, or infidels, like the French. We are neither Turks nor Papists, but, on the contrary, good honest Christian men. It maybe that we are a little too much given to boasting- that we are rather too fond of giving our alms before men-that when we pray, it is not in secret and when the door is shut, but where the prayer can be heard and the devotion admired; but we are what we are - and we imagine we get on indifferently well. We might, pos-[-157-]sibly, be better  - certainly we might be worse; but, as it is, we are not particularly dissatisfied, and have ever, on our faces, a most complacent smirk, testifying so strongly, to our pleasing consciousness, of the many virtues we may happen to possess, but in spite of all this we need a considerable increase and improvement as regards what is called commercial morality.