Last May, the Bank organised an economic history workshop at the St Clere Estate, home of former governor Montagu Norman. In this guest post, one of the speakers, Barry Eichengreen from the University of California Berkeley, looks back at Montagu Norman’s time as governor.
Montagu Norman’s aura is palpable at St. Clere. It is said that Norman spent many of his weekends and holidays at his estate in Kent, overseeing improvements and admiring the vistas. His legacy is, if anything, even more prominent at the Bank of England. Norman supervised the design of the present Bank building. His portrait, along with those of the other members of his Court, was displayed on the first-floor landing in the Bank’s main atrium; he is only a handful of governors so honored. The Bank’s recent St. Clere workshop thus provided an opportunity to ponder some of the enduring themes and legacies of Norman’s quarter-century as governor.
In the first age of financial globalisation, from around 1880 to 1913, many countries tied their currencies to the mast of gold. The Bank of England’s unparalleled influence over this period is depicted by the Lady of the Bank, seated on the globe with a shower of gold coins to one side, which is carved into the Bank’s pediment. There was an old saying in the City that the Bank’s rate could draw gold from the moon. But could it?
A railway boom in America’s Midwest goes spectacularly bust. Sixty-two of New York’s commercial banks close – out of sixty-three. Meanwhile in Britain, a decade gilt-edged by gold discoveries in Australia and fuelled by the Crimean War was beginning to lose its lustre. Thus the scene was set for the first global financial crisis shaking markets in New York, London, Paris and across the world. A crisis so severe it forced the Bank of England to “break the law” to survive.