Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894

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UP WEST - CHAPTER IV
    
MODERN STOCKBROKERS—TOPSY-TURVYDOM
    
   Changes in stockbroking—The aristocratic "runner "—His way of con­ducting business—stock Exchange gambling amongst women—Its cause—A typical case—The conversation at modern dinner-parties —An old friend—Strawberry Hill—The Grange—My life at Bushey— The new system.
    
   PERHAPS no business in the world has passed through more changes than that which is pursued with so much profit in Capel Court and the neighbourhood.
   Within my own recollection, stockbroking has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis. My oldest memories of stocks and shares date back to 1846, the year of the railway mania, when George Hudson reigned as king. The whole of my information was picked up from the conversations that took place upon the domestic hearth, for I am afraid mine were long ears even for a lad of twelve. By-the-bye, one thing is proved by this reminiscence: in whatever other ways matters have changed since then, fortunes were won and lost on the Stock Exchange half a century ago as rapidly as they are won and lost in the present day.
   Not only were sales and purchases of stock not conducted in my young days as they are now, but both the firms and .their clients were of a totally different calibre. In fact, I think I shall be able to show, before completing this chapter, that there has been an absolute topsy-turvydom in this busi­ness. I had almost written "in this profession"; but, had I done so, I should most assuredly have incurred the displeasure of any of the old school under whose notice the expression might have come.
   At the time of which I am speaking, the business usually [-138-] descended from father to son, and it not infrequently hap­pened that a head clerk was taken in as partner, in reward for many years of faithful service.
   In those days, members of the nobility who had money to invest, or, at any rate, a great many of them, were in the habit of visiting the City, and personally arranging with their brokers, not for mere time bargains, but for real and per­manent investments.
   The stockbrokers of that period enjoyed wisely the good things Dame Fortune had been bounteous enough to shower upon them. Most of them had West End houses, some owned country seats, a few sat in Parliament, and I am bound to say that the great majority of them were charitable and generous to their poorer brethren. Punctuality and regularity were their watchwords, and the eldest member of the firm would always be as methodical in his attendance at the office as the youngest clerk.
   The stockbrokers rarely speculated, being content with the commission they received from their private clients, or—in the case of those who had the good fortune to be connected with a joint-stock or other bank—the interest that accrued from lending out money, either from day to day or from account to account. Now the whole aspect of things has changed, as I shall briefly show.
   In former days, when any young sprig of the aristocracy occupying a position in the Army, diplomacy, or civil service, came to grief, he generally, as a last resource, tried his hand at the wine trade. This course had its advantages, for the young man was very likely, on account of the amiability of his disposition, or the position and influence of his friends, or both, to hake sufficient income to jive upon fairly comfort­ably. In the event, moreover, of pecuniary reverse and failure, there was generally a sufficient residue of champagne or brandy in stock to enable him, with very little trouble and with extraordinary rapidity, to pass into those realms where the weary are at rest.
   Of recent years, when it has, been necessary for the son of Lord This, or of Sir Harry That, to earn his living, he has shown a marked preference for the Stock Exchange, and, as I think, with very good sense. It may be taken for granted that he has no capital. Having, therefore, nothing to lose, he has everything to gain. The position he attains is that of "runner," as it is termed, to some firm of stockbrokers.
   [-139-] The representative of the Strawberry Leaves or of the Bloody Hand thus obtains a chair in a stockbroker's office, and it is arranged that he shall receive half commission on all business introduced by him. He gets on little by little, and in due time, by taking out a certificate, becomes what is, known as an "authorised clerk," and has admission to the sacred precincts of the "House."
   This new way of conducting business, which has been rapidly on the increase during the past ten years, has, in my humble opinion, been productive of a very great deal of mischief.
   The young "runner," who has perhaps been in the Grenadier or Life Guards, or some other crack position in life, belongs to various clubs and has many friends. He repeats to them, innocently enough, all that has been told him by those with whom he mixes in the City; how these shares are bound to turn out well, how those others are safe to run up next week, and how much money must of necessity be gained by the immediate purchase of De Beers, etc. he relates how, by investing in the last-named securities, a friend of his realised over eight thousand pounds in a fortnight, from account to account.
   "Indeed; but how?" is the question asked.
   "Oh," is the reply, "the thing is very simple. There is no actual money required. You only have to give an order to sell or buy until the next account day."
   Further questions are asked, and answered satisfactorily, and in the end the "runner" receives an order, which he cannot run fast enough to execute.
   The moth has singed his wings. The first step has been taken in the very worst kind of gambling of the day. It makes very little difference whether the client wins or loses. If successful, he decides to have "another flutter for more;" if unsuccessful, he resolves to try his luck again, and see if he cannot win back his losses. The result is obvious; facilis descensus Averni
   The hard part of the case is that the punter has not brought his misfortune upon himself. He has ,not been enticed by the glowing newspaper advertisements of the out­side .brokers, and he has not sought out and been caught in the Daedalean webs of those gentry; the temptation has been carried to him by his own friend, whose word he would not dream of doubting. Anxious to share in the good fortune of [-140-] which he hears so much, and delighted to do an "old pal" a good turn, he plunges headlong into a stream which is com­posed entirely of whirlpools.
   But the mischief does not stop here; this is not the worst outcome of the new way of conducting Stock Exchange business. Women—I mean, of course, society women—are fellow-victims with their brothers and husbands.
   The women of to-day have a keen relish for gambling. How many hundreds, nay thousands, have delighted in poker, baccarat, and other games of that description! If you have watched these pastimes, where have you found anxious greed most manifest—in their eyes, or in those of their male com­panions? I appeal to the experience of any man of the world. Again, what scores of women gamble on the turf; at Epsom, Newmarket, Ascot, and elsewhere! Look in at Sandown or Kempton—places almost invented for "grandes dames" and their pleasures—and you will find the betting pretty equally divided between the sexes.
   Among the women of the beau monde, Stock Exchange gambling is rapidly becoming as dire a disease as baccarat and horse-racing. Why is this? The explanation is as plain as the nose in your face. It is all owing to the "runner."
   As I have already indicated, the individual in question has been nursed in society's lap. He is a good-looking, dashing, agreeable young English gentleman, whose superior, nay, whose equal, is to be found in no other country with which I am acquainted. He has been the pet of all the young débutantes who, season after season, have dropped their first graceful curtsy -to her most gracious and Imperial Majesty. These have in time married, and no guest is more welcome at their different houses, come when he may, than this young friend and companion of their girlhood. What is the con­sequence? Without meaning any harm, when he calls to afternoon tea, or at other visiting times, he brings his tempting trade with him.
   Young Lady C— has heard what a run of luck Mrs. B— has had in the City during the past few months. She has also heard that that lady's business has been conducted through a certain firm of stockbrokers, and by whom? Why, by "dear old Georgie "—to wit, the "runner." Lady C——at once determines what to do, and sits down and writes the following letter:
    
   [-141-] "DEAR GEORGE,
   "Just saw you for a moment from my boudoir window this morning riding in the Park. Fancy you be­coming so industrious as to be compelled to join the Liver Brigade! I want to speak to you. Most important business. At home on Thursday afternoon after five. Come early. I'm going to make some money, and you must help me.
   "Yours truly,
   "AGATHA ——"
    
   Thursday afternoon arrives, and her ladyship has not long to wait after the clock has struck the appointed hour. Her visitor is duly announced, and as he shakes hands he cannot help exclaiming:
   "Why, ever since we were boy and girl together I've never seen you looking so lovely."
   "My dear George," says the hostess, slightly blushing, and pushing him into a chair, " we have no time for bandying compliments. I'm in a most serious dilemma. I want money, and money I must have. Of course I have some, but not nearly enough for the straits I am at present in, and so I thought we'd have a little gamble — only a little one, you know. I hear you have done wonders for Mrs. B—-—, and that you and your firm are absolute conjurers in your know­ledge of good things —that's the proper term, isn't it, George? —and you must reserve one of your straight tips for me."
   "What is it to be?" he asks gaily. "Berthas (Brighton A's), or Sarahs (Midlands), or Brummeys (Birminghams)? Why do you shake that business-like head of yours? Not railways?"
   "No, not railways. Something foreign, of course."
   "Indeed; and so you're not scared by the Baring crisis?" he replies, laughing.
   "Oh, no, I'm not so silly. You see, George, I want to win a lot. The fact is I've not paid my bills, I mean my personal bills, for the last three years. Madame F——, of Bond Street, and some other big tradespeople are getting very tiresome, and beginning to bore me to death. I seem never to get a moment's peace. The Earl, I know, is himself rather hard hit—he backed Orme for a large amount—I can't possibly ask him, and so what is to be done?"
   [-142-] The conversation continues, and they eventually decide in what securities the speculation shall take place. Whether successful or not, it is not the business of this article to say. I have merely given an example of the way in which the movers in the fashionable world often enter upon their specu­lations.
   At modern dinner-parties, if the conversation does not turn on racing, it is usually about the Stock Exchange. The young men- 1 have endeavoured to describe are considered most eligible guests. Many a young lady having business transactions is not above arranging with her hostess to be taken down to dinner by one of the individuals in question. Instead of the usual society chat, which, Heaven knows, was usually as dull and stupid as it well could be, everybody discusses past City ventures, and the successes which the future may have in store.
   Is this or is this not a most unhappy state of things, and is happiness or misery likely to be the outcome of it?
   My personal experiences of members of the Stock Exchange date a great many years back, and are associated in my mind with some very pleasant memories.
   Years ago, soon after I was called to the Bar, I was living with my wife and a very young child in Gordon Street, Gordon Square; and while we were located there I made the acquaintance of a man for whom I came to enter tam the sincerest regard, and for whose memory I shall always have the deepest respect. He lived a simple life with his family—to whom he was much attached —in a large house in a neighbouring square. He was a stock­broker and the head of his firm, his only partner being his son. They did a thriving business, and were sole brokers to one of the largest and most influential private banks in the City.
   My friend's tastes were of the simplest description. He delighted in having one or two intimates to dinner every now and then, and cigars and pictures were his only extravagance. He kept no horses or carriages, either for himself or for his family. Punctually at twenty minutes to ten every week-day morning the same four-wheeled cab would call for him and take him to the City; and he was never known to keep it waiting three minutes. The same vehicle brought him back in the evening. His first wish, after his business was done, [-143-] was to get back to his family. He -never stopped on the road, save at rare intervals when he called at a club to which we both belonged.
   In the vacation—and he allowed himself a very short rest —my friend was in the habit of taking a furnished house on or near the banks of the Thames. He was careful to keep within easy hail of the City, for fear his services should be required there at a moment's notice. The houses he took were usually in the neighbourhood of Twickenham, Teddington, Walton, or Shepperton.
   I have always, in thinking over my past life—its pleasures and pains, its successes and disappointments, its bitters and its sweets—come to the conclusion that my happiest days were spent at the period to which I am alluding.
   Besides the family I have referred to, I had many friends living up the river, and it is not surprising, therefore, that, as soon as I could afford it, I pitched my own summer tabernacle there. Who that knew the neighbourhood at the time of which I am speaking will ever forget it?
   In those days Frances, Countess of Waldegrave, afterwards Lady Carlingford, reigned supreme at Strawberry Hill. What a beautiful house, and what lovely surrounding country! What gardens, and what a perfect boat-house in the meadow across the way—not "with roses at the door," but covered all over with clusters of them ! Who among the many that enjoyed it will ever forget the hospitality of the Grange, the charming country residence of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Lawson, where every Sunday were gathered together the elite of journal­ism, literature, and the law, and all that was clever, witty, and bright.
   Consider what all this was to one who had spent the whole week grinding away in the filthy atmosphere of the closest of law courts! The reader can imagine what were nay feelings when, rushing off to Waterloo just in time to catch the train, I proceeded to our cottage at Bushey, a little dwelling just facing the Teddington gates of the Park, and overlooking those glorious avenues of chestnuts which are so lovely at the end of May, but which, alas, flourish for so short a time.
   How glorious it was to hurry into one's flannels, bolt up the village, and get old father Kemp, or his son William, or Joe Baldwin to take one out after the barbel for an hour [-144-] before dark; or, if too late for this sport, to hasten up to. Messenger's, jump into one's boat, scull up to the weir, and either lie to in the expiring rays of the sun, or go on shore tad ask the genial master of Weir Bank for a cooling drink!
   But alas! all this has passed away, never to return.
   I, too, have wandered far from my theme. I crave pardon, and can only plead as my excuse that memory was a little too much for me.
   My pen carried me astray while I was describing the place where the summer vacation was passed by my friend, whom I have instanced as a typical member of the Stock Exchange in those days. It was at Teddington, I think, that he took his last furnished house. He afterwards became more attached to his London home, and contented himself with taking rooms up the river for his boys, to whom he would pay brief visits from time to time. As he once skid to me: "My halcyon days are gone."
   My friend has now been dead some years. He is to this day spoken of with respect and affection by persons of all grades with whom he came in contact. He died very fairly off, but no millionaire. How could it have been otherwise? As I have said, he never gambled, but was always content with his legitimate commission.
   At the time of his decease, the proprietors of the private bank with which his firm had business dealings hinted at a desire to make fresh arrangements with reference to their brokers. They had an interview with the remaining member of the firm, and the matter was discussed. Some of these bankers were related to certain members of the aristocracy who had lately set up in business on the Stock Exchange, and at the interview the former agreed to leave their custom in the old channel on condition that their noble kinsmen were taken into the broking firm as partners. The arrangement was ultimately agreed to, and with the new blood was in­augurated the new system.
   In days gone by, there was practically only one person to live on the profits of the firm, and I have shown that his income was not a particularly large one. Now there are -several partners, each of whom keeps up a much larger establishment than my deceased friend was able to do. The head of the firm—a somewhat extravagant fellow, but with [-145-] many of his father's good qualities—spends, I should say, not far short of fifty thousand pounds a year.
   I think, then, I have proved that a great deal of the business of the Stock Exchange is very different now to what it was in my young days.

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