The Development of Banking in the Industrial Revolution

The Bank of Scotland in Scotland, Edinburgh

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As well as industry, banking also developed during the Industrial Revolution as the demands of entrepreneurs in industries like steam led to a vast expansion of the financial system.

Banking Before 1750

Before 1750, the traditional ‘start date’ for the Industrial revolution, paper money and commercial bills were used in England, but gold and silver were preferred for major transactions and copper for daily trading. There were three tiers of banks already in existence, but only in limited numbers. The first was the central Bank of England. This has been created in 1694 by William of Orange to fund wars and had become a foreign exchange storing foreign country’s gold. In 1708 it was given the monopoly on Joint Stock Banking (where there’s more than 1 shareholder) to try and make it more powerful, and other banks were limited in size and resources. Joint stock was declared illegal by the Bubble Act of 1720, a reaction to the great losses of the collapse of the South Sea Bubble.

A second tier was provided by less than thirty Private Banks, which were few in number but growing, and their main customer was merchants and industrialists. Finally, you had the county banks which operated in a local area, e.g., just Bedford, but there were only twelve in 1760. By 1750 private banks were increasing in status and business, and some specialization was occurring geographically in London.

The Role of Entrepreneurs in the Industrial Revolution

Malthus called entrepreneurs the ‘shock troops’ of the industrial revolution. This group of individuals whose investment helped spread the revolution were based mainly in the Midlands, a center for industrial growth. Most were middle class and well educated, and there were a substantial number of entrepreneurs from non-conformist religions like the Quakers. They have been characterized as feeling they had to be challenged, had to organize and succeed, although they ranged in size from major captains of industry to small-scale players. Many were after money, self-improvement, and success, and many were able to buy into the landowning elite with their profits.

The entrepreneurs were capitalists, financiers, works managers, merchants, and salesmen, although their role changed as the business developed and the nature of enterprise evolved. The first half of the industrial revolution saw just one individual running the companies, but as time went on shareholders and joint stock companies emerged, and management had to change to cope with specialized positions.

Sources of Finance

As the revolution grew and more opportunities presented themselves, there was a demand for more capital. While technology costs were coming down, the infrastructure demands of large factories or canals and railways were high, and most industrial businesses needed funds to start up and get started.

Entrepreneurs had several sources of finance. The domestic system, when it was still in operation, allowed for capital to be raised as it had no infrastructure costs and you could reduce or expand your workforce rapidly. Merchants provided some circulated capital, as did aristocrats, who had money from land and estates and were keen to make more money by assisting others. They could provide land, capital, and infrastructure. Banks could provide short-term loans, but have been accused of holding the industry back by the legislation on liability and joint-stock. Families could provide money, and were always a trusted source, as here the Quakers, who funded key entrepreneurs like the Darbys (who pushed forward Iron production.)

The Development of the Banking System

By 1800 private banks had increased in number to seventy, while county banks increased rapidly, doubling from 1775 to 1800. These were set up mainly by businessmen who wanted to add banking to their portfolios and satisfied a demand. During the Napoleonic Wars, the banks came under pressure from panicking customers making cash withdrawals, and the government stepped in to restrict withdrawals to just paper notes, no gold. By 1825 the depression which followed the wars had caused many banks to fail, leading to a financial panic. The government now repealed the Bubble Act and allowed joint-stock, but with unlimited liability.

The Banking Act of 1826 restricted the issuing of notes—many banks had issued their own—and encouraged the formation of joint stock companies. In 1837 new laws gave joint-stock companies the ability to acquire limited liability, and in 1855 and 58 these laws were expanded, with banks and insurance now given limited liability which was a financial incentive for investment. By the end of the nineteenth century, many local banks had amalgamated to try and take advantage of the new legal situation.

Why the Banking System Developed

Long before 1750 Britain had a well-developed money economy with gold, copper, and notes. But several factors changed. The growth in wealth and business opportunities increased the need for both somewhere for money to be deposited, and a source of loans for buildings, equipment and—most crucially—circulating capital for everyday running. Specialist banks with knowledge of certain industries and areas thus grew up to take full advantage of this situation. Banks could also make a profit by keeping a cash reserve and lending out sums to gain interest, and there were many people interested in profits.

Did Banks Fail Industry?

In the US and Germany, industry used their banks heavily for long-term loans. Britons didn’t do this, and the system has been accused of failing industry as a result. However, America and Germany started at a higher level, and needed much more money than Britain where banks weren’t required for long-term loans, but instead for short-term ones to cover small shortfalls. British entrepreneurs were skeptical of banks and often preferred older methods of finance for start-up costs. Banks evolved along with British industry and were only a part of the funding, whereas America and Germany were diving into industrialization at a much more evolved level.

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Wilde, Robert. "The Development of Banking in the Industrial Revolution." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Development of Banking in the Industrial Revolution. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Development of Banking in the Industrial Revolution." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).