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A History of our Firm
Chapter XVI - Retrospective and Discursive
Reminiscences of Commercial Liverpool Sixty Years Ago


SECTION VI - REMINISCENCES OF COMMERCIAL LIVERPOOL SIXTY YEARS AGO

For many years after I entered the office cable messages were somewhat rare with us, afterwards becoming more frequent, and the inland telegraph, then in the hands of the Electric Telegraph Company and the Magnetic Telegraph Company (the Post Office only took the business over on 5 February, 1870) was used sparingly.

The first cable to America worked only a few hours. The first messages on the 1867 cable were received at the Magnetic Telegraph Company's office on the Liverpool Exchange Flags.

One who was present on this occasion told me that to a company mustered around, somewhat in a state of nervous excitement, there early came a message, read aloud off the instrument as was the system: 'Pre-pare-to-die.' All gasped. The gag was applied, and a repetition of the message soon brought the innocent, and to the recipient no doubt useful instructions :-' Prepare to dye 500 pieces of silk.' True, messages then cost, I think, £20, but I cannot imagine a greater revolution in business methods than that which was brought about by the cablegrams. America, formerly at a safe nine or ten days' distance, was suddenly brought, as it were, within ear-shot. India, till then six weeks off, told the merchant as he returned from lunch how the day's market there had closed. To-day, an order despatched from our Cotton Exchange at four minutes to four can be transmitted direct on to the New York Exchange, executed and cabled back in time to be valid before the Exchange closes at four o'clock. The law of chances and eventualities on which the merchant had hitherto operated was completely displaced; views, however shrewd, no longer availed, the remotest parts were on an even plane as regards information. Our markets, of course, had to be supplied as before, but methods hitherto successful, if clung to, only spelt loss. Businesses had to be specialized. The more subtle German was the first to take in the situation; he quickly recognised that to store till the effective rise came would eventually spell ruin. The producer and consumer were to be brought more closely together, always provided he was the sole intermediary. He went so far as to consider that to sell what he had not got, for a fall, an idea at that time almost repugnant to the British mind, was as legitimate as to buy for the rise. Germans abounded. They had been preceded by a strong and not unacceptable colony of Greek merchants. Slowly the British mind recognised the altered situation, and eventually, as is our way, has come out on top.

These are not the only changes in practice which I have witnessed in the past sixty years.

Formerly a business man had his banker, his lawyer, and his doctor, and whether on consideration of etiquette or for other reasons, would never have dreamt of concurrently employing any other. A radical change, of course, he might make. A firm that kept an account at two banks in the same town was deemed to do so because it was indifferently trusted by both. Now the business man of repute thinks nothing of straying into the rival bank's parlour and higgling with the manager over the business his own bank has quoted for. So, too, with his lawyer—he does not hesitate to go to another lawyer if he considers that he has had more experience in cases similar to that he wishes to put, or can give a stronger opinion on the special legal point. Again, in regard to our doctors we now specialise. On the other hand the shopkeeper aspires to combine all the trades he can under his one roof. In this country we have combinations, in America trusts, for regulating and controlling immense industries; and in both countries continual amalgamation of insurance companies, banks, etc. The two methods are utterly at variance. Will combination, generally initiated upon an inflated basis of value, in the result defeat natural competition and individual effort? Surely it is to the man who wants to rise—not to the man who wants merely to keep— that Great Britain, as in the past, so in the future, has to look.

In my early days at the office, whether there was much or little to do in the early part of the day, it was the practice not to begin letters until after 'Change time, 4 p.m. Earlier still it had been the custom in Liverpool for the merchant to go home at four o'clock, the fashionable hour then to dine, to look in afterwards at the Union Newsroom—now Messrs. Walker's office, in Duke Street—and then return to the office upon the arrival of the London mail-coach, in order to despatch their replies by the return mail-coach, which left early next morning. This might account for the continuance of the habit of starting the correspondence so late. Old customs and practices die hard. It was the junior's duty to get the letters, morning, noon and evening at the Post Office Private Delivery Office. On the arrival of the American mail especially he had to go over early, and at his imminent peril join the waiting crowd and get the mail as soon as he could after the curtain was drawn up. Weight told— the point of vantage was to cling on when one could to the iron railing behind which the P.O. clerk was ensconced. It was useful to stand well with the P.O. clerk and to propitiate him—a more or less delicate matter.

A special card for the Private Delivery Office was issued by the Post Office, the charge for which was D 3s per annum, and how much the privilege of this private-box delivery was esteemed may be assumed when I say ours, alphabetically, under letter 'R' was No. 64. On the occasion of an afternoon delivery of the American mail the junior partners would anxiously watch from our office windows and record any rival hastening past who had been fortunate enough to get his letters before US. Occasionally we had Saturday afternoon deliveries—an achievement (ten days) for the Cunard Company then—and these were as much in favour with the partners as they were to the distaste of the staff. Then there were the replies for abroad to get off, and the late fee letter-box for the outgoing American mail, closing at nine-thirty, was on such days more frequently than not availed of. Thereafter the cargo documents brought by mail had to be attended to; invoices had to be copied; bills of exchange therefor had to be entered; and letters covering the documents to be written and despatched to the drawees, whatever the hour.

American inward mails were directed to the Liverpool firm, and therefore reached us first. When the letters had been read and digested, copies were taken by hand and sent to Glasgow; similarly Glasgow sent us hand copies of their replies and we of ours to them. This involved laborious work for the juniors. The office doors on such Saturdays were locked after 6 p.m. lest some enterprising minion from Brown, Shipley & Co., or Baring Bros. and Co. should force entry and present Bills for acceptances, and so gain two days' interest. It was then the accepted practice that if a Bill of Exchange could be ' presented,' no matter what the hour, it had to be accepted as on that date. Liverpool banks at that time had few or no direct foreign connections —such Exchange houses as I have named were the intermediaries, but competition has altered that. Those Saturdays were bustling days, and Sunday came as a welcome relief. I never remember ushering it in at the office, but I do remember often coming very near doing so, not to mention many Sunday hours privately put in on occasions when hard pressed.

At the time of the American War there was no Atlantic cable; news came by the mail steamer which called at Queenstown, and thence messages per Reuter were forwarded by telegraph. When the steamer failed to make a Saturday arrival—and only some of them could so arrive--business men (it is to be hoped after Church) repaired at one o'clock on Sunday to the Exchange News Room (open  to 2 o'clock) to read the War telegrams sent from Queenstown.

At this period, too, there was a system whereby recognised telegraph agents at either end, New York or Liverpool, 'packed' messages for private firms, and these were similarly sent to or from Queenstown on the departure or arrival of the steamer. It was a system we utilised to some extent. Up to and during part of William Strang's time at Liverpool (and I presume the same obtained at Glasgow) the dress-coat, then recognised as the 'swallow-tail,' and the silk hat, were invariably worn during business hours. That custom may seem odd, but surely it was more decorous than the felt hat and the short go-as-you-please coat of the business man of to-day.

Two men at any rate in my day still adhered to the swallow-tail coat and they added the white choker of many plies. Both were, of course, advanced in years and were regarded as 'characters'—Dawson, of the Canon Iron Company, and Bolton, a merchant of intermittent but very large transactions. His house—now gone and the land built over—lay in Dempsey's Hollow, off the Aigburth Road, close to my present house. He was credited with breakfasting there at two p.m., and the four o'clock omnibus brought him into town direct to the Exchange Newsroom. The room then kept open till seven p.m., and he, with Mr. Dawson, were the last to leave. Merchants in those days received from such quarters of the globe as their horizon covered, printed 'prices current,' and carefully studied and filed them. The Newsroom had them from all quarters. The cable has altered things—the few 'prices current' now received from abroad, I doubt, on reaching their destination go promptly into the waste-paper basket. Bolton was a 'whole-world' man, and wanted carefully but especially quietly to ransack the Newsroom files. It was not to see his fellows he went there, for he rarely spoke to anyone. Thence he proceeded to his office, dismissed his clerk or clerks, and took up his correspondence or whatever else. He started on his three-mile trudge home about midnight, often later, and people said, would not permit of anything being prepared and left for his arrival; he preferred to investigate the larder for himself. Silently he went about down town, silently acting entirely within himself he matured his plans; months might elapse without him doing any business. One day it would be known that Bolton was importing, because the Customs Bill of Entry showed so, and his astonished staff, who meantime knew nothing, would have to wake up, for when he did move there was nothing small about his operations. I describe him, I think, without exaggeration, to illustrate the change, whether as regards dress or business method, that has come about in my time—more correctly, perhaps, a little before my time. The man himself was quite familiar to me till about 1867, perhaps later.

The old school prided themselves on their punctuality. Nine o'clock saw the cotton broker principal in his saleroom.

Not the Greenwich gun, but Roskell's shop in Church Street gave us our standard time, and such was the punctuality of our neighbour Mr. Benjamin Arkie, of Leyland & Bullins' bank, that Roskell's were credited with setting their clock by him; at any rate every morning (Sundays excepted) at nine o'clock sharp he paused at their door to -verify their time.

Our predecessors were frugal, too. It was told of the above Mr. Leyland that when the Bank was in York Street and he one winter's evening in his dwelling-house next door, a customer was ushered in. The old gentleman who was sitting in darkness assumed that the purpose of the call was to bank some belated cash, and promptly lit a candle. Finding, however, that the client had only come to discuss a loan in private, he said: 'Ah, well, we can quite as well talk that over in the dark,' and promptly blew the candle out.

The figure of old William Rathbone VI, in rigid Quaker dress and hat, waiting at the corner of Brunswick Street at about three minutes to five for the Mossley Hill omnibus, was a familiar one to me.

In the light of to-day's practice, when payment by cheque is universal, it seems strange to think of the time when, in Liverpool at any rate, payments were made solely in cash, and this as late as 1875. Country cheques and even very disreputable-looking country bank-notes we had to take. There was a sound principle in our office never to refuse money in whatever shape. Instances were quoted where it had not been offered a second time, nor could be collected, and the parties who should have received it mourned. Especially in such business as cotton and other clean trades, the youth who tendered a Liverpool cheque at the counter was not favourably received. He was asked why he had not brought down banknotes, and the cheque was sent in hot haste for collection. That so much money should have been carried through the streets in the pockets of often very irresponsible apprentices and boys, and with so little loss, seems marvellous. It must be said that the banks by their action largely discouraged the adoption of the system of payment by cheque. They charged a bank commission on all withdrawals, i.e., cheques, bills payable, etc. The consequence was that firms did not bank their money as it came in, but put it into a cash box which, again at some risk, was at the close of business carried up town to their bank, or to Jones' the silversmiths, and deposited in their vaults till the morning. It was truly a ridiculous practice, one which entailed hundreds of thousands of pounds failing to enrich the coffers of the banks, and so swell their resources. The Bank of England alone waived the commission, and it was there we banked.

Light sovereigns, too, were the cashier's bÍte noir—the Bank of England unceremoniously cut any tendered at their counter, then offered 195 6d or whatever the short value; consequently the other banks would not, for fear of such loss, receive them, except from their own customers. During the year we did a merchant business, not a little of which was on the grain market. Why it was I cannot tell, but the grain trade made the bulk of their payments in gold, and the lightest of gold at that. When at the Cashier's desk I have known us to have £8,000 or £9,000 of light metal in our safe, despite all efforts to work it off. I might write much more about the Old Liverpool of my day—business and otherwise—but what I could write is much better given in Sir William Forwood's Reminiscences, recently published.


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