When Bankers Were Good

60 minutes 8.4/10 based on 4 votes

Ian Hislop presents an entertaining and provocative film about the colourful Victorian financiers whose spectacular philanthropy shows that banking wasn’t always associated with greed or self-serving financial recklessness.

Victorian bankers achieved wealth on a scale never envisaged by previous generations, but many of them were far from comfortable about their new-found riches, which caused them intense soul-searching amidst furious national debate about the moral purpose of money and its potential to corrupt.

Like so many other Victorian bankers, Samuel Gurney was a Quaker. Banking and its rewards seemed at odds with a faith that valued modest simplicity, but Gurney’s wealth helped the work of his sister, prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, who is immortalised on today’s five-pound note.

Self-made millionaire George Peabody was a merchant banker who made an enormous donation to London housing. 150 years on, his housing estates still provide accommodation to 50,000 Londoners.

Angela Burdett-Coutts became an overnight celebrity after she inherited the enormous Coutts fortune. With her love of small dogs and her vast stash, she could have been the Paris Hilton of her day. Instead, she went on to become a great philanthropist.

Perhaps the richest of them all was Natty Rothschild, who tried not just to ensure that his personal wealth did good, but that his bank’s did too.

Deploying his customary mix of light touch and big ideas, Ian champions these extraordinary and generous individuals. Along the way, he meets Dr Giles Fraser, until his recent, dramatic resignation canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, chairman of the FSA Lord Turner, philanthropic financier the current Lord Rothschild, historian A N Wilson and chief rabbi Lord Sacks.

Released 23 Nov, 2011. 60 min. Director: Helena Braun. TV documentary.

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  • PaulMax

    America’s moral compass has become increasingly unreliable because of the magnetic distortions of unbridled greed. The most powerful individuals among us corrupt our government to their own selfish ends; then resent paying taxes to support the corrupt institution that enabled them to succeed! So, we’re left asking “who’s to blame?”

    The answer, of course, is ourselves: we get the government we deserve.

    • Maestra Sierra

      Really? How so? Not all of us are greedy in the negative sense of the word. >_> Most people are too busy trying to live paycheck by paycheck…how are they to blame in a system that was created to have just 1% successful, over-privilege, bunch, whereas the rest are at the poverty line? How can you blame an ignorant, uneducated large portion of our society for the greedy nature of our government? Seriously. Only a person with an education higher than high school would say such an overzealous statement as ““who’s to blame?” The answer, of course, is ourselves: we get the government we deserve.” Please get off your high horse and only include yourself for being too lazy to fight against your own government and leave the rest of us who are trying to survive alone…out of your arrogant comments and big mouth.

  • Ryan

    Wow, a time when bankers did the honorable thing and killed themselves when they destroyed the economy.

  • Maestra Sierra

    The code of the Samurai ought to be enforce into our modern bankers and business people. Maybe making the wealth and pride of a nation top priority over all else, make those goals as a personal obligation and interest, would set these people right and we can finally see some real growth and changes in the world… not because it is the good thing to do but that it benefits all. The best example I’ve seen of this, in it’s truest form, are from Argentine ants. I have yet to see a true human equivalent to what these tiny creatures have accomplished.

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