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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

The Gurney family and banking in Norwich

The Gurney Family and Banking in Norwich.

Several banks combined to bring into being the great institution now known as Barclays Bank.  Not the least of these smaller streams running into the main was the successful bank started by a Quaker family in Norwich which owed much to their business sense but also to the extreme trust and reliability engendered by the way they lived their lives.  All of the contributory banks were partnerships and many were country banks.   The earliest banks in Britain developed from the goldsmith trade but these were in London and did not seek to extend their business outside the capital.  However they did hold the accounts of country merchants who financed their trade through bills of exchange.  Some of these merchants provided services for neighbours whose businesses were not large enough to justify maintaining an account of their own.  From these beginnings country banks were formed.  Many trades led to banking but the most common one was textiles, one of the first to produce a surplus.

John Gurney

It was in 1667, a young man called John Gurney, following the death of his father in tragic circumstances after difficulties in his business affairs, left his home in Maldon and travelled to Norwich to live and work among the Quakers of the city.   This community was experiencing a hard time, mainly due to persecution, but John was welcomed and was given the task of caring for a rectangular plot of ground that had been purchased by the Norwich Friends with the intention of using it as a burial ground and with the hope a Meeting House would also be built there.  These hopes were realised and today one may view the Gildencroft Meeting House, rebuilt after being destroyed by enemy action during the Second World War, and its remarkable burial ground containing the graves of many members of the Gurney and associated families.  The grave of Amelia Alderson, who was to marry John Opie, the painter, is also to be found there.  It needs a little seeking out; it is perhaps best approached from St Augustine‘s Street, but the effort will be well rewarded.

John Gurney‘s early years in Norwich were not easy, with others he suffered imprisonment for his beliefs, but he endured and gradually the City authorities saw the value of the Quaker community to the city as its members were good citizens indeed.  He took to himself a wife, Elizabeth Swanton of Woodbridge, brought her back to Norwich where they lived at the sign of The Three Pigeons in the fork of two streets at different levels known then as Over and Nether Westwyke and now as St. Benedict‘s Street and Westwick Street. The building was replaced in 1878 but the site and the street configuration is still quite unmistakable opposite St. Gregory‘s Church.  Elizabeth was to bear John of Maldon eight sons, four of whom were to grow to manhood. 

The Gildencroft burial ground

John Gurney of Maldon died in 1721 aged sixty-six, and was to be buried in "...the old Dutch garden that the Friends had bought as their burial ground, the Gildencroft or Buttercup Field...."   this was the field John had been given to tend when he first arrived in Norwich.  Two of his sons, John of St. Augustine‘s and Joseph of Magdalen Street, were to establish branches of the family that were to play a most significant role in a great banking story.  John of Maldon had prospered, as did his sons and grandsons, in the building of a substantial woollen fortune.  It was two sons of John of St. Augustines, John (1719 - 1779) and Henry (1721 - 1777), who after a period of adding simple banking transactions to their increasingly prosperous woollen trade, entered into partnership and thus formally established Gurneys Bank.  The year was 1775 and the business was conducted at 35, Tooley (now Pitt) Street.  Only two years later Henry died, and his place was taken by his son Bartlett, who was largely responsible for the Bank moving to more commodious premises at Redwell (now Bank) Plain.  The buildings bought were those of Alderman Poole, a wine merchant, and the spaces where the Alderman‘s fine wines and madeiras had been stored were soon taken up by safes for bullions and valuables.

The influence of the Society of Friends remained strong in the Bank for many years, but gradually, as the years passed, younger members of the family began to drift away from membership.  For example, Bartlett Gurney was not as strict a Quaker as his uncle John.  Hudson Gurney, a younger member who had become a partner in 1800, was disowned by the Norwich Meeting of Friends in 1804, for subscribing towards the raising of a volunteer force to defend the country against the French.  This was regarded as contrary to the principle of the Friends.

Prosperity and expansion across East Anglia

The Bank prospered, and extended to Great Yarmouth (1781), King‘s Lynn (1782), and Wisbech (1782).  Here the Gurneys joined with the already established banking business of Jonathan Peckover. A branch at Halesworth was established in 1782 and at Fakenham ten years later.  At King‘s Lynn, John Birkbeck, who had left his family banking business in Westmorland and who had married the sister of Bartlett Gurney was taken in as a partner.  This introduced in to the Bank the second of the families to be and to remain prominent in its affairs.

Life for country bankers was not always easy in the nineteenth century.  Gurneys were threatened when Overend, Gurney and Company of Lombard Street, with which the Norwich Bank was indirectly connected, failed on May 11th, 1866, known as "Black Friday".  Then in Norwich itself, the Crown Bank, or Harvey‘s Bank, failed.  It occupied, near the top of Prince of Wales Road, premises later used by the Post Office and more recently by Anglia Television.  A fall in prices caused by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War uncovered speculation that put the bank in a hopeless position.   Gurney and Co. stepped in to advance money to meet the weekly wages of farmers and manufacturers and ultimately acquired the bank.  This brought more branches into the Gurney fold in Ipswich and Colchester and gave them coverage of most of East Anglia.

Barclays Bank

In 1896, eleven private banks joined together under the name Barclays to meet the competition of the joint stack banks.   The largest component parts were Barclay Bevan Ransom Tritton Bouverie and Co, of Lombard Street in the City of London, and the East Anglian Gurney group of banks with its centre in Norwich, where it had been founded at the end of the eighteenth century.

So a story that started with a young man seeking a better life in our old city and being given a humble task to perform, ended with the largest of the country banks involved making a significant contribution towards the creation of one of the country‘s great financial institutions.  It is a story of which Norwich can be justly proud.

References:

  • Friends and Relations, Three Generations of Quaker Families, Verily Anderson, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1980
  • Barclays Group Archive, Manchester.

Andy Anderson

November 2007