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British Banking History Society

Messrs G Barker

Amongst the more obscure cheques in our collections is that of G Barker & Co. The firm does not rate an entry in the Bankers Almanac's "Amalgamations and Liquidations since 1700" section. Its collapse, although sensational at the time, did not affect the course of banking history as far as recorded in any of the standard books. It did, however, play a part, ultimately unsatisfactory, in the spread of banking amongst families with small savings.

The founder was George Barker. He was born in 1815. By the 1890's he was a wealthy man with a varied business career behind him, for the firm covered not only the bank, but also a brewery and public house in Widegate Street, a provisions business in the Central Market and an auctioneer in Great Tower Street, all in London. It is not clear when the bank may have started, but it does not appear as such in the Post office directories prior to 1875. In fact, the banking arm may have been largely the work of his sons, whom he took into partnership in 1877. These were Hilton Cassenet Barker (born 1849) and William Barker (born 1852). They certainly developed that side of the business and by the 1890's it was clear that although the father was still a partner, he had no control and little knowledge of the firm's activities.

In 1878, the sons founded and became highly paid directors of The Consolidated Corporation Co. Ltd, a "bill of sale" company (presumably it lent money on the security of personal goods, taking ownership, but leaving possession with the borrower). This was followed in 1885 by the Tower Furnishing and Finance Co. Ltd, which rented out domestic furniture. These companies were reconstructed in 1888 as the Consolidated Co. Ltd. and the Tower Assets Co. Ltd. In April 1889 the brothers formed the United Printing Co. publisher of three newspapers. Through G Barker & Co. acting as bankers, the brothers closely controlled the cash flow of all these companies.

G Barker, Mark Lane
Despite or because of this activity, in June 1892 the partners filed for bankruptcy, attributed to the brothers' over speculation. The figures were impressive: a deficiency estimated at 569,000, of which 412,000 was owing to their companies. one wonders how many households had to surrender their dining room furniture. The private fortunes available against this deficit was a very substantial 153,000 in the case of the father, and only 7,000 between the sons.

The bank had some 4,000 deposit accounts, an extraordinary number for a single office. From 1888 to 1892 it had extensively circulated a pamphlet offering 3% - 6% on deposit accounts. Prosecuting counsel stated that the pamphlet had been distributed "in thousands and millions all over the country". If literally true, perhaps 4,000 depositors was a poor reward, but in February 1893 the sons were charged with obtaining 500 from a Mr Matthew Middleton by false pretence. because the pamphlet represented the bank "was doing a large profitable business" whereas the sons knew it was insolvent. Mr Middleton, a journeyman carpenter, gave evidence of receiving the pamphlet by post, unsolicited; of questioning the brothers as to the firm's stability and of then transferring his savings from the Birkbeck and Charing Cross banks to the Mark Lane bank. (He might just as easily have lost his money in any of these banks!). others gave similar evidence and it was shown that as far back as 1887, a Mr Mackay had been appointed manager and had produced a balance sheet showing the bank was insolvent.

The trial was adjourned after the first day, and then came to a dramatic end, for on the 22 February, Hilton Barker shot himself in a train near Wimbledon. At the resumed hearing, the prosecution announced, perhaps a little strangely, that the charges against William would be dropped as "in view of the peculiar circumstances the defendant had already been sufficiently punished".

The bank is therefore worth a minor footnote in history, for together with the Birkbeck and Charing Cross, it must have satisfactorily spread the banking habit amongst many whom conventional banks ignored. It is their fate to be remembered, if at all, because they collapsed.

Geoffrey L Grant

Click here for a large size picture of a Messrs G Barker & Co cheque

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