In the 19th and early 20th century, bankers were seen as the aristocracy of clerks. They were paid more and had better conditions. Sound familiar doesn’t it?
But what doesn’t sound familiar at all was that a banking career was then seen as a moral duty.
In 1912, AW Kerr, a senior figure in Scottish banking, gave an address to a packed meeting of the Institute of Bankers in Edinburgh.
“The banker engages in capitalistic economising not purely as a matter of expediency, of constrained adaptation to the mundane necessity of making a living, but in the expectation that such activity would test his inner resources as a person in charge of his own existence, and affirm his human worth,” he said.
Those were different times. Though, curiously, since the financial crisis top bankers are once again banging on about human worth.
Just a couple of months ago the new head of Barclays gave a speech in which he told staff that if they didn’t hold values such as respect, integrity and stewardship dear, they should quit.
Kerr, I think, would have approved.
Then, as now, the rank and file may have seen it rather differently.
A sketch by Robert Shirlaw, who worked at the bank in 1900, shows a clerk who has climbed a stair of ledgers and is waving a victory flag. He looks pretty pleased with himself there at the top, yet trapped below him are squashed clerical workers.
The caption reads: “We climb upwards on the stepping stones of our own dead selves.”
So doing God’s work and minting it ain’t new.