Photograph of Sir John Lubbock, early 1900s © Coutts & Co 2015
Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913) was a politician, naturalist and banker. He was a partner in his family banking firm Robarts, Lubbock & Co.
Birth and early life
John Lubbock was born on 30 April 1834 in Eaton Square, London, the eldest son of Sir John William Lubbock, 3rd baronet (1803-65), and his wife Harriet Hotham (d.1873). He was educated for a few years at Eton before entering, at the early age of 14, the family’s private bank, Lubbock, Forster & Co in London.
Robarts, Lubbock & Co
Lubbock, Forster & Co had been founded in 1772 and the Lubbock family had been represented among its partners ever since. When John joined the bank in 1848 his father was managing partner.
In 1860 the firm merged with Robarts, Curtis & Co to form Robarts, Lubbock & Co. Lubbock had already been taking increasing responsibility for the bank’s affairs for some years, but following the merger he formally succeeded his father as managing partner.
In 1864 Lubbock considered a merger with the private bank of Curries & Co, but this did not proceed. His family bank, small but influential, remained independent.
Lubbock gave up daily attendance at the bank in 1882, but remained closely involved in its affairs. In his later years he was particularly concerned with developing the trustee business of banks.
In 1914, the year after Lubbock’s death, the bank was absorbed by Coutts & Co. At that time it had capital reserves of £500,000.
Other banking activities
Lubbock championed the introduction of a clearing system for provincial banks in 1858, so that country banks could send their cheques in a single parcel to London for clearing.
He was secretary of the London Bankers’ Committee, 1863-97; chairman of the Committee of Clearing Bankers, 1898-1913; president of the Central Association of Bankers, 1897-1913; and the first president of the Institute of Bankers, 1879-1913.
He frequently represented Britain’s bankers at government level and sat on such bodies as the International Coinage Commission.
After a couple of narrow defeats in West Kent, Lubbock became a Member of Parliament in 1870. He represented Maidstone, 1870-80, and later the University of London, 1880-1900. In 1900 he was elevated to the House of Lords.
His political interests were focused on promoting the study of science in schools; bringing down the national debt; reducing the working hours of shop workers; and protecting ancient monuments. He is best known for championing the Bank Holidays Act 1871 which secured national holidays for workers. Although church-sanctioned ‘Holy Days’ had existed for centuries, this was the first time the state had defined and declared secular public holidays. For a while, they were popularly referred to as ‘St Lubbock’s Days’ in recognition of their champion.
Lubbock also pushed through the Bills of Exchange Act, which codified the law regarding these important financial instruments. In all, he originated 30 private members’ bills and was a highly successful and active backbencher.
Naturalist and archaeologist
Lubbock’s father was an amateur astronomer and mathematician and counted many influential scientists amongst his circle of friends. Lubbock himself was keenly interested in nature from childhood. From 1842 Charles Darwin was a close neighbour of the Lubbock family in Downe, Kent. Darwin encouraged the young Lubbock’s interest in natural history and introduced him to his scientific associates. The two remained close friends until Darwin’s death and when controversy erupted following publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, it was Lubbock, along with TH Huxley, who was Darwin’s principal supporter. Lubbock’s own interests as a naturalist focused particularly on insects and crustacea. He wrote a large number of popular books on botany, biology, geology, sociology and zoology.
He also wrote extensively on archaeology. His first book Prehistoric Times as Illustrated by Ancient Remains (1865) was probably the most important Victorian book on the subject and invented the terms Palaeolithic and Neolithic to distinguish between the Old and New Stone Ages. He bought the Stone Age site at Avebury in 1871 in order to protect it from a speculative builder and led moves to prevent the construction of a railway through Stonehenge.
Lubbock was vice chancellor of the University of London 1871-9, president of the London Chamber of Commerce 1888-92 and chairman of London County Council 1890-2. He sat on a number of Royal Commissions and was president of 25 learned societies at home and abroad.
Lubbock married Ellen Frances, daughter of the Reverend Peter Hordern of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Lancashire, in 1856. They had three sons and three daughters together. Ellen died in 1879.
Lubbock was married for a second time in 1884, to Alice, daughter of the archaeologist Augustus Pitt-Rivers. They had three sons and two daughters.
Upon his father’s death in 1865 Lubbock succeeded to the baronetcy. When raised to the peerage in 1900 he chose the title 1st Baron Avebury, named for the Wiltshire archaeological site which he had saved from destruction.
Lubbock died on 28 May 1913 at his home, Kingsgate Castle, near Broadstairs, Kent. His obituary in the Bankers' Magazine remarked that ‘both by reason of his abilities, his high and amiable character, and his very many years of experience, he had come to be regarded almost in the light of the father of banking in the city’.
Related publications and online sources
- R J Pumphrey, ‘The forgotten man – Sir John Lubbock, F.R.S.’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, vol.13, no.1 (June 1958)
- ‘Sir John William Lubbock’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- ‘John Lubbock’, David J Jeremy, Dictionary of Business Biography, vol.3 (Butterworth, 1985)
- Portrait of Sir John Lubbock, Bart., MP, in Bankers' Magazine, 1886
- Obituary of ‘The late Lord Avebury’, in Bankers' Magazine, vol. 96, 1913
- Edna Healey, Coutts & Co 1692-1992: The Portrait of a Private Bank (Sevenoaks, 1992)
- W G Hutchinson, Life of Sir John Lubbock, Lord Avebury (London, 1911)
- P E Smart, 'A Victorian polymath. Sir John Lubbock', Journal of the Institute of Bankers, 100, 1979