Image: engraving of Edward Backwell, undated © RBS 2018
Edward Backwell (c.1618-83) was a goldsmith and prominent London banker. Some of his banking archives are inscribed on UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register, in recognition of their importance to our shared cultural heritage.
Background and early life
Edward Backwell was born in around 1618, the son of Barnaby Backwell, a yeoman of Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire. In 1635 he was apprenticed to Thomas Vyner, a prominent London goldsmith. Vyner was one of the first goldsmiths to diversify into the provision of financial services, and was involved in financing the Cromwellian government. Edward Backwell finished his apprenticeship with Vyner in 1651, when he became free of the Goldsmiths’ Company.
From 1653 Edward Backwell traded on his own account as a goldsmith-banker in Cheapside, moving in the following year to premises at the sign of the Unicorn in Lombard Street. He was one of the earliest goldsmiths to make banking his primary trade, and by the late 1650s was a prominent banker. He was one of a score of men who in the middle years of the seventeenth century laid the foundations of the modern banking system.
The profession of banking emerged at this time from two separate and quite distinct traditions – those of money scrivening and goldsmithing. Most early banking developments were concentrated in London, due to the importance of England’s capital in raising and servicing government finance and in international trade. Scriveners or scribes were commonly employed to copy financial and legal documents. Most specialised in conveyancing but a few, in managing clients’ estates and trusts, developed money broking functions. In this role they served the landed gentry as financial intermediaries, although their fortunes and activity declined from the 1660s as the volume of land transactions diminished.
Goldsmiths were, by contrast, a group of craftsmen whose position was entrenched during the later sixteenth century by the sudden increase in gold supplies consequent upon the dissolution of the monasteries during the 1530s. Many goldsmiths developed strong connections with the Crown, fashioning precious ornaments for the royal family and serving in senior positions at the Mint. During the early seventeenth century a few also became money lenders to the Stuart kings. From the 1640s most goldsmiths began to take in valuables for safe keeping in their plate and jewel vaults. The seizure by King Charles I of private gold deposited in the Tower of London, followed closely by the Civil War and its unsettled aftermath, made the well-to-do justifiably fearful for the security of their wealth.
By the 1650s some goldsmiths had begun to offer their clients credit on the security of valuables deposited with them. These early loan accounts were sometimes referred to as ‘pawn’ accounts. The goldsmiths maintained ledgers to manage their clients’ accounts, and when clients wished to pay a goldsmith for plate or jewellery their transaction would often be carried out by transferring money from credit to debit in the goldsmith’s ledgers. The goldsmiths soon extended their banking activities by accepting money deposits in trust, returnable on demand, and known as ‘running cashes’ The goldsmiths’ receipts became a transferrable form of paper money, the forerunners of modern banknotes.
By the early 1660s there were a score of such goldsmith bankers who combined their original trade with the new banking business, and over the remaining decades of the century many of these men, including Vyner and Backwell, gradually reduced their role as goldsmiths in favour of their more lucrative banking activities.
These new bankers were a closely-knit group, often linked through apprenticeship relationships, and they worked together to clear each other’s banknotes and ‘drawn notes’ (the early form of cheques) and to support each other during times of crisis. Nineteen other goldsmith bankers maintained accounts with Backwell, and probably also with each other.
Backwell's own clientele was dominated by merchants and tradesmen, but also included departments of government and the royal household, City livery companies and chartered overseas trading companies, including the East India Company. During the 1660s it was generally only those individuals with substantial income or wealth who needed a personal bank account, and Backwell provided banking services to noblemen and landed gentry, doctors and lawyers, naval and military officers, and ship-owning consortia. Among his thousands of clients were the king himself (whose account was entitled ‘the King’s Most Excellent Majestie’); Prince Rupert; the Prince of Orange; the Earl of Sandwich; and the Countess of Castlemaine. The diarist Samuel Pepys, himself a client, made more references in his diary to Backwell than to any other financier of the 1660s.
Although the provision of financial services occupied most of his time and provided the bulk of his income, Edward Backwell maintained a substantial business as a goldsmith and provider of jewellery until the Great Plague of 1665, when it is thought that the death of his chief clerk Robert (also known as Robin) Shaw led him to reduce his involvement in the trade.
His principal clients were Crown and government officials and merchants, and tableware predominated, including trenchers, meat dishes, cups, basins and ewers. Some of the items he provided were of the ‘new fashion’ or ‘French fashion’, mostly sold to aristocratic customers, including two gilt cups to the Queen Mother and chased salvers and dressing plate for the Earl and Countess of Carlisle. He provided other one-off items, including a very heavy trumpet and a ‘fine barratone’, which might have been a large French horn, possibly to be presented to one of the French noblemen involved in the sale of Dunkirk to Louis XIV of France in 1662. He also commissioned mourning rings by the hundred from several jewellers on behalf of his clients.
Involvement in public finance
With substantial resources at his disposal, Backwell became involved in financing the court of Charles II. He acted as a tax farmer, advancing money to the Crown and paying a fixed rent for collecting taxes, in return for which he received interest on the advance and was permitted to retain any taxes collected in excess of the agreed rent. As well as this direct involvement in revenue collection, he lent vast sums to the Treasury from his banking deposits, and also took over existing loans. In 1670, for instance, Backwell acquired £365,000 of royal debt.
Such activities came with an associated risk, and it was the Crown’s need for money to finance participation in the Third Dutch War which in 1671 prompted Charles II to suspend repayments of debts which were owed mostly to the bankers. This eventually brought Backwell, and others, to their knees as it left them unable to pay their depositors.
When in 1677 the amounts owed by the Crown to bankers following the 1672 Stop of the Exchequer were calculated, Backwell was shown to be owed £295,994 including capitalised interest, which was just over 22% of the total of £1,328,526. Although Backwell’s fellow-banker Robert Vyner was owed a larger sum, Backwell’s figure represented around a quarter of the Crown’s annual peacetime income.
Other business ventures
As well as diversifying into banking, Edward Backwell was keen to engage in any business which might offer a reasonable return. He bought and sold at a profit former Crown property at Hampton Court and as early as the 1650s was dealing in bullion. In 1656 he was authorised to export £47,000 of bullion payable by agreement from Portugal to England, and in 1657, in partnership with Thomas Vyner, he handled £43,000 of plate and silver captured from Spanish ships. Some of this was used in the first coinage minted using Pierre Blondeau’s revolutionary edge-marking process for milled coins. In 1658 Backwell began an involvement with the town of Dunkirk, which Oliver Cromwell had acquired from Spain, acting as treasurer for the English garrison there and later personally handling the payment made by Louis XIV to Charles II when the town was sold to France in 1662. Backwell worked with Vyner in supplying money to the royal household and was later to be involved in a number of royal commissions, including a secret mission to Antwerp in 1665. He also acted as agent for the collection of the dowry of Charles II’s Portuguese Queen, Catherine of Braganza.
Even after the collapse of his banking business he continued to act as a financial agent of the Crown. He was comptroller of customs in the port of London and travelled to the Netherlands in 1674 to try to collect the debts owed to Charles II by the United Provinces. He returned to the Netherlands in 1680 on royal business, though the precise reason for that visit is unknown.
Edward Backwell also owned shares in a number of ships and cargoes engaged in overseas trade; was actively involved in cattle farming; and traded directly in a number of commodities, including tin, silk stockings and calicoes. He had agents throughout Europe, from Hamburg to Cadiz, supporting the use of bills of exchange for international trade, and allowing him to conduct foreign exchange and bullion business.
Civic and political activities
Backwell was elected an alderman of the City in 1660 and member of parliament for Wendover in Buckinghamshire in 1673, though unseated in the same year. He held the same seat again from 1679 to 1681.
In 1660 he served as prime warden of the Goldsmiths Company.
In 1682, a decade after the Stop of the Exchequer, Backwell was declared bankrupt. A private Act of Parliament was passed in 1698 in order to settle his outstanding debts to his creditors.
By 1653 Edward Backwell had married Sarah Brett, daughter of a London merchant, and they had at least one child, John, who worked with Edward Backwell in a number of ventures.
By 1662 Sarah had died and Backwell had married Mary Leigh, daughter of Richard Leigh. They had three sons and two daughters together. Mary died in 1669.
One of Edward and Mary's sons, Leigh, was apprenticed to his father in 1682. Two of his great grandsons, Barnaby and William Backwell, were partners in the London bank Child & Co between 1736 and 1756. It was among the archives of Child & Co that Backwell’s surviving records were preserved.
Edward Backwell died whilst in the Netherlands in 1683. Although his body, having been embalmed and transported from the Netherlands, was initially buried in June 1683 at the church of St Mary Woolnoth in Lombard Street in the City, it was exhumed in 1685 and re-buried at Tyringham in Buckinghamshire.
Related publications and online sources
- ‘The Dunkirke affaire’, Three Banks Review, June 1956, vol.30, pp.40-50
- DK Clark, ‘Edward Backwell as a royal agent’, Economic History Review, 1928-9, 1st series, vol.9, pp.45-55
- CL Grose, ‘The Dunkirk money, 1662’, Journal of Modern History, 1922, vol.5, no.1, pp.1-18
- JK Horsefield, ‘The 'Stop of the Exchequer' revisited’, Economic History Review, 1982, 2nd series, vol.35, pp.511-28
- DM Mitchell, ‘Innovation and the transfer of skill in the goldsmiths' trade in restoration London’, in D Mitchell (ed.) Goldsmiths, Silversmiths and Bankers: Innovation and the Transfer of Skill, 1550 to 1750 (Stroud: A Sutton, 1995), 5-22
- DM Mitchell, ‘”To Alderman Backwells for the candlsticks for Mr Coventry”. The manufacture and sale of plate at The Unicorn, Lombard Street, 1663-72’, The Silver Society Journal, 2000, vol.12, pp.111-124
- FG Hilton Price, ‘Some notes of the early goldsmiths and bankers’, Transactions of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, 1881, vol.9, pp.225-281
- FG Hilton Price, ‘Some account of the business of Alderman Edward Backwell, goldsmith and banker in the 17th century’, Transactions of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, 1890, vol.6, pp.191-230
- FG Hilton Price, The Marygold by Temple Bar (London: privately published by Bernard Quaritch, 1902)
- S Quinn, ‘Balances and goldsmith-bankers: the co-ordination and control of inter-banker clearing in seventeenth-century London’, in D Mitchell (ed.) Goldsmiths, Silversmiths and Bankers: Innovation and the Transfer of Skill, 1550 to 1750 (Stroud: A Sutton, 1995), 53-76
- RD Richards, ‘A pre-Bank of England English banker - Edward Backwell’, Economic History: Supplement to the Economic Journal, 1928, vol.1, pp.335-355
- RD Richards, The Early History of Banking in England (London: PS King & Son, 1929)
- RD Richards, ‘The Stop of the Exchequer’, Economic History: Supplement to the Economic Journal, 1930, vol.2, pp.45-62
- ‘Edward Backwell’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- ‘Edward Backwell, c.1618-83’ in The History of Parliament
Summary of our archive holdings
- customer account ledgers 1663-72, including accounts relating to his own business ventures: source overview (PDF 3.4MB)
- 'Dunkirk' ledger 1656-77
- list of tallies 1668
- payment instruction 1671