Bertram Wodehouse Currie
Portrait of Bertram Wodehouse Currie, 1870s. © RBS 2015.
Bertram Wodehouse Currie (1827-96) was one of the leading bankers of his generation. He was a partner in Curries & Co, and later Glyn, Mills, Currie & Co.
Background and early life
Bertram Wodehouse Currie was born on 25 November 1827 in Harley Street, London, the second of six children of Raikes Currie and his wife Laura Sophia, daughter of the 2nd Baron Wodehouse.
He was educated at Dr Mayo’s school in Cheam from 1836 and went to Eton College in 1840. As a youth he travelled to Weimar, where he learned German, and in 1846 returned to London to begin work as a clerk in the family’s banking business Curries & Co, just as his older brother George had done before him.
Curries & Co, established in 1771, was a small but well-run bank, where Currie learned much about banking theory and practice. In 1847, the year after Currie joined the bank, harvest failure and ‘railway mania’ led to a major financial panic in England and suspension of the gold standard. Currie & Co was barely affected, but the severity of the crisis was to have a profound impact upon Currie’s own financial and economic views.
In the late 1840s Currie travelled widely in Europe and the Americas, including a visit to Weimar in 1848, during which he began a lifelong friendship with fellow London banker Edward Baring. After his return to the bank he began to have a much stronger direct effect on its strategic decision-making. It was he who urged the creation of a reserve fund for the bank. In 1864 he arranged the bank’s merger with the prestigious London private bank Glyn, Mills & Co to create Glyn, Mills, Currie & Co. Currie and his father were the only partners to transfer to the new bank.
He soon became one of the bank’s most able and active partners. He came to believe that traditional private bank partnerships had little future, and so led the reorganisation of the bank in 1885 into a joint stock company with unlimited liability, publishing an annual balance sheet in 1885. This move, severely criticised at the time by other private bankers, was later followed by them all.
When the Baring crisis struck in 1890, Currie’s widely respected banking knowledge and longstanding friendship with Edward Baring made him the ideal person to work in partnership with Benjamin Buck Greene of the Bank of England on an investigation into the affairs of Messrs Baring. It was their report, supported by Glyn, Mills’ generous contribution to the resultant guarantee fund, that averted the collapse of financial confidence in the City of London. In his memoirs Currie later said that the Baring crisis was the ‘most important episode of my banking life’.
Currie continued to attend to business regularly at the bank until a few months before his death.
Currie was a widely recognised authority on economic and fiscal matters. He sat on the board of the Council of India, 1880-95, serving as its financial adviser. He was a leading gold monometallist, and gave evidence to the Gold and Silver Commission in 1887. In 1888, George Goschen, Chancellor of the Exchequer, consulted him on the reduction of interest on the national debt and later invited him to act as one of the British delegates to the Brussels International Monetary Conference in 1892. In 1894 Currie sat on the Royal Commission appointed to enquire into the financial relations between Great Britain and Ireland.
Currie was originator and champion of the Gold Standard Defence Association, which was founded in 1895 – at his bank’s premises in Lombard Street – to refute the arguments presented in the growing body of bimetallic literature. The Association’s records are held in the RBS Archives.
Currie was also a magistrate in Hampshire and Surrey, high sheriff of London in 1892 and high steward of Kingston upon Thames in 1893.
Early in his career Currie’s father tried unsuccessfully to secure a parliamentary seat for him. Nonetheless Currie remained a confirmed Liberal in politics. He was a friend of Prime Minister William Gladstone, and chairman of the City of London Liberal Association. Gladstone once held a Cabinet meeting at Currie’s Surrey home and later said of Currie that ‘it would have been a grave shock to me to find myself differing from him on any economical question.’
In 1860 Bertram Wodehouse Currie married Caroline Louisa (1836-1902), daughter of Sir William Young. They had two sons together, Isaac (1861-85) and Laurence (1867-1934).
Currie owned residences in Whitehall, London; Coombe Warren, near Kingston-upon-Thames; and Minley Manor on Bagshot Heath in Hampshire. He was an enthusiastic collector of French 18th century books, oriental china and works of art. He also undertook extensive building and garden improvement works at his three residences.
Currie’s brother, Sir Philip Currie, was British ambassador in Constantinople. His friends included many of the most noted intellectuals of the era, including John Stuart Mill and George Grote.
Currie died at home in London on 29 December 1896, having suffered from cancer of the tongue for over a year. He was buried at Minley Manor, Hampshire. Upon his death The Times noted that ’in Mr Currie the City of London loses one of its most prominent and respected men, and probably its first authority upon banking’.
Related publications and online resources
- Bertram Wodehouse Currie 1827-1896, Recollections, Letters and Journals, vol. 1 (Manresa Press, 1901)
- Obituaries, Bankers’ Magazine, vol. lxiii, 1897 and The Times, 30 December 1896
- R Davenport-Hines, 'Bertram Wodehouse Currie' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- R Fulford, Glyn's, 1753–1953: Six Generations in Lombard Street (1953)
- Eric Gore Browne, The History of the House of Glyn, Mills & Co (1933)