James Simpson Fleming
James Simpson Fleming, c.1890 © RBS 2015
James Simpson Fleming (1828-99) was a solicitor and banker. He was cashier and general manager of The Royal Bank of Scotland, 1871-92.
Background and early life
James Simpson Fleming was born in Forfar in 1828, and baptised there on 7 March 1828. He was educated at the local burgh school before serving an apprenticeship to a Forfar solicitor. He then undertook further studies in Edinburgh and St Andrews.
Western Bank of Scotland
In March 1847 James Simpson Fleming took up employment as a clerk in the secretary’s department of the Glasgow-based Western Bank of Scotland. He left the bank in 1852 to devote himself to his own legal practice, but in March 1854 he returned to the bank as its law officer, a role he maintained alongside his separate legal firm.
Although outwardly very successful, Western Bank’s finances were actually in a fragile and deteriorating state. In 1857 Fleming was asked by the bank’s board to investigate certain accounts that had begun to appear questionable. In July 1857, to aid his ability to investigate effectively, Fleming was appointed assistant manager. In mid-September, he became joint manager. Just a month later, the bank’s existing manager left, and Fleming was left in sole charge of one of Scotland’s largest banks, at the age of just 29.
The bank’s actual state became public in November 1857, and Western Bank of Scotland ceased trading. The bank’s shareholders, aware of his innocence in the affair, asked him to become chief liquidator. He refused, but agreed to serve as one of four liquidators, for a period of one year. The liquidators were judged to have performed their task well, and all four went on to manage large Scottish banks or insurance companies later in their careers.
In around 1847, at the same time as becoming a clerk in Western Bank of Scotland’s secretary’s department, James Simpson Fleming began attending law classes at Glasgow University. In 1852, having qualified as a solicitor, he left the bank to start his own legal practice. In 1854 he returned to Western Bank of Scotland as its law officer, a role he fulfilled while continuing his separate legal practice.
The crisis that engulfed Western Bank of Scotland towards the end of the 1850s took up more of Fleming’s time, but from the end of 1858, when his obligations as a liquidator ended, he devoted himself once again to legal affairs, by this time as a partner in the firm of McGrigor, Stevenson & Fleming. He remained in this firm until 1871.
The Royal Bank of Scotland
In September 1871 The Royal Bank of Scotland appointed James Simpson Fleming as its cashier and general manager. The next decade was to be a pivotal one for the bank, and its success was in no small part due to the specific skills and experience of the man at its head.
In 1873 the bank began preparing to establish an office in London. This was a special advantage the Scottish banks had at their disposal; English banks had to choose between a presence in London and a banknote issue, whereas Scottish banks, governed by slightly different laws, could have both. The situation for The Royal Bank of Scotland was, however, slightly more complicated. Its original charter of 1727 had limited it to Scotland only, and an act of parliament was needed to enable the bank to enjoy the same benefits as all the other Scottish banks. James Simpson Fleming, with his extensive legal background, was instrumental in helping the bank successfully through that process.
Two years later, the English banks organised an objection to the Scottish banks’ ‘invasion’ of England. The immediate cause of the protest was Clydesdale Bank’s expansion into Cumberland, but the Scottish branches in London also became a matter of contention. Fleming led the Scottish banks’ defence of their position, and the London branches were allowed to remain open.
A more urgent crisis struck the Scottish banks in 1878, when City of Glasgow Bank collapsed, threatening to provoke a financial disaster far outweighing anything that had been seen in the wake of the Western Bank failure. The Scottish banks worked closely together to keep the situation under control, and their quick, careful management of events prevented a bad situation from becoming truly terrible. Nobody knew better than James Simpson Fleming the lessons that could be learned from Western Bank’s collapse, and once again, his leadership was central to the Scottish banks’ success at a difficult time.
James Simpson Fleming remained cashier of The Royal Bank of Scotland until January 1892, when he retired on medical advice.
Character, memberships and interests
James Simpson Fleming served as secretary of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce during the 1860s, only giving up the role when he moved to Edinburgh to take up his post at The Royal Bank of Scotland in 1871.
He was a director of the Scottish Widows’ Fund from about 1871 until 1898, shortly before his death.
In 1876 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was a Justice of the Peace for the County of Stirling and the City of Edinburgh.
In 1877 he published a short book entitled Scottish Banking: a Historical Sketch.
A biographical sketch published in the Bankers' Magazine in 1887 described Fleming: ‘With quiet manners, giving him an air of being at home among his family and friends, but with an alert intellect notwithstanding his sixty years, this is the least self-assertive man on earth.’ ‘He is necessarily reticent, shrinking from publicity and controversy.’
Family life and death
On 2 November 1852 James Simpson Fleming married Elizabeth Reid. They had five children who survived into adulthood: two sons and three daughters. Elizabeth died in 1894.
James Simpson Fleming died at home in Edinburgh in July 1899.
- Biographical notes in Glasgow Herald, 6 October 1858
- Biographical sketch in Bankers' Magazine, 1887
- Obituary in the Evening Telegraph, 10 July 1899