The Beginning of Banks in Bristol

The era of truly local banking had some dramatic ups and downs.

Rolinda Sharples, The Stoppage of the Bank

Rolinda Sharples, The Stoppage of the Bank (1831). The scene is set in a fictional Guinea Street, which has a certain resemblance to Bristol's Corn Street. On the right is a bank whose closure is causing dismay. Behind it is the famous Dutch House which stood on the corner of Wine Street and High Street until destroyed in the Blitz. In the background is All Saints Church, which Sharples has shifted to a new position for artistic effect. (Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery.)

Before banks existed, the wealthy might deposit money for safe keeping with a goldsmith, who of necessity had better-than-average security. Over the centuries goldsmiths were gradually drawn into the business of banking. The venerable Coutts Bank can be traced back to a goldsmith's shop in London founded in 1692. Here in Bristol John Vaughan set up business as a goldsmith in the Dutch House on the corner of Wine Street and High Street. He was the father of Bristol banking. The Corporation used him for their banking needs in the early 18th century.

First true bank in Bristol opened in 1750. It was one of a handful of banks in England outside London and was an instant success. The tellers could barely keep pace with the demands of customers. It was simply called the Bristol Bank, but after Miles' Bank began in 1752, the original bank became known as the Old Bank. It is still with us today in spirit. The Old Bank merged with Miles' Bank in 1877. A series of other mergers followed culminating its acquisition by the National Westminster Bank in 1970.

The senior partner in the Old Bank had the prophetic name of Onesiphorus Tyndall. Onesiphorus means bringing profit. His father, a cadet of the Tyndall family of Melksham Court in Gloucestershire, set out to make his fortune as a merchant in Bristol. So Onesiphorus was born into the merchant class in 1689. Like many another Bristol merchant of the time, he waxed rich on the slave trade. In 1743 he inherited Royal Fort estate from his brother John. The deep pockets of men such as this could provide enough capital to keep a bank secure.

Tyndall did not run the bank on a day-to-day basis though. The first manager of the Old Bank was Matthew Hale. He and his family lived above the bank, which was probably no more than a shop in front for public transactions and parlour to the rear for private interviews. Most banks were arranged like this at the time. When the Old Bank moved to 35 Corn Street in 1798, the Cock Alehouse at the rear was converted into living quarters. The Georgian banker's house is still there today, behind Pizza Express.

Old Bank plaque on Nat West Bank

One of a pair of oval plaques which keep alive the name of Bristol's first bank. They are on the National Westminster Bank in Corn Street, but were once on the building opposite which is now Pizza Express.

The huge commercial demands of England's second city had banks springing up like mushrooms. There were thirteen in Bristol by 1811. Unlike today, banks could all issue their own bank notes. But those that did not have enough reserves of capital failed at the first crisis in the money market. When war broke out with France in 1793, there was financial panic throughout the land. Bristol was hard hit. Many building speculators were ruined. Yet most of the Bristol banks were strong enough to survive. Only Thomas Wigan's bank in Bridge Street came to grief.

The stock market crash of 1825 was even worse. As the country recovered from the Napoleonic Wars, the economy went into over-drive. In the euphoria of this boom, even sober bankers made risky loans. The bubble burst in April 1825. By the autumn a number of country banks had failed. But it was the collapse of several London banks which caused outright panic in December. It was a financial catastrophe, which led to widespread ruin and misery. Picture the plight of those who had all their capital invested in a failed bank. This is the drama that Bristol artist Rolinda Sharples illustrates. Bristol bankers were so weakened that the number of banking houses in Bristol was reduced by half. Yet only one Bristol bank actually failed. The Bristol Bullion Bank stopped payment on 20 December 1825.

The bank failures of 1825 forced the government to permit the formation of joint-stock banks, which allowed the risk to be spread amongst many proprietors. And so from the ashes of disaster grew our modern banking giants.

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