Image: photograph of Walter Leaf, undated © RBS 2018
Walter Leaf (1852-1927) was a banker and classical scholar. He was chairman of Westminster Bank from 1918 until 1927.
Early life and education
Walter Leaf was born in Upper Norwood on 26 November 1852, the son of Charles John Leaf and his wife Isabella Leaf, née Tyas. He had a younger brother, Herbert.
Charles Leaf was a partner, with his father and two brothers, in Leaf, Sons & Co, a merchant house specialising in fashionable silks and ribbons.
The family travelled extensively during Walter’s childhood. He recalled first going up Snowden on a pony at the age of 7; visiting Switzerland at 9; and Italy at 11. These early experiences gave Leaf a lifelong love of travel.
In 1865 Walter Leaf won a scholarship to Winchester College, but his parents feared that living conditions for boarders there would be too harsh, so he was not allowed to go. Instead, they took a house in Harrow, so that he could attend Harrow School as a day boy.
Leaf started attending Harrow School in April 1866. He enjoyed academic life, and formed lasting friendships with a number of the school’s masters, but otherwise felt distant from school life, partly because of his status as a day boy, and partly because his poor eyesight made him very bad at all ball games. He later recalled, ‘I grew accustomed to being told that I was ‘a beastly little swat’.’
In 1869, at the age of 16, Leaf was awarded a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. Instead of beginning his undergraduate studies that October, when he would still have been under 17, he deferred his formal entry to the university for a year. Nevertheless, he took lodgings near Cambridge and spent the year there in preliminary studies.
He became an undergraduate in October 1870, initially intending to take a double degree in mathematics and classics, but later dropping mathematics to give more attention to classics, to maximise his chances of becoming senior classic – that is, the highest-graded candidate in the university’s final examinations in classics.
Leaf took his final examinations in 1874, and tied with another student for both senior classic and the chancellor’s medals. He was awarded a fellowship of Trinity College the following year.
In his autobiography, Leaf remembered his university years as ‘beyond comparison the happiest period of my life.’
In 1874, the year Leaf took his degree, a succession of misfortunes befell his family. In the spring, his father returned from holiday gravely ill with typhoid fever. In July, his grandfather died, and then in October his uncle Frederick died. Father, grandfather and uncle had all been partners in the family firm Leaf, Sons & Co, which now faced a severe crisis. Two of Walter Leaf’s cousins had already entered the firm, but they had very little experience of running a business.
Walter Leaf had always expected to embark on a legal career after his degree, but he now reluctantly concluded that his family needed him, so went to work for Leaf, Sons & Co, learning – alongside his two cousins – how to manage a business as he went along.
He started work in the firm in February 1875, although he took a leave of absence later that year to prepare for his fellowship examination at Trinity College, Cambridge. After he was successfully elected to the fellowship in October 1875, he turned his full-time attention to the family business.
After spending nearly two years learning about the business, he became a partner in the firm in 1877, with particular responsibility for conducting its finances. Although his father never regained enough strength to re-enter active business life, he remained interested in the business. Walter constantly strove to balance his father’s conservative opinions against the demands of a difficult period for a business such as Leaf & Co, which was closely tied to changeable fashions.
In 1893 Leaf finally negotiated the sale of the company to a competitor. He retained a directorship of the merged business, but withdrew from all active involvement.
In 1891 Leaf was invited to join the board of London & Westminster Bank. The offer, he said, ‘came to me as a complete surprise; I had never dreamt of banking as a career.’ Nevertheless, in the remaining 35 years of his life, he was to become closely involved and associated, not only with Westminster Bank, but with the wider British banking sector.
In 1909 London & Westminster Bank entered into a major merger and became London County & Westminster Bank. In the same year, Leaf became the merged bank’s deputy chairman.
The outbreak of war in 1914 brought new challenges for people, communities and businesses everywhere. For Walter Leaf, it meant taking on many of Viscount Goschen’s duties as chairman of London County & Westminster Bank, as Goschen was called away to participate in the national war effort.
In 1918 the bank took over Parr’s Bank. In the same year, Walter Leaf officially succeeded Goschen as chairman. His speeches to the bank’s annual general meetings developed an audience well beyond the bank’s shareholders, for their insightful commentary on the state of banking and economic affairs.
Walter Leaf was active in the formation of the British Bankers’ Association, which arose from a recognition that the existing organisations had not been equipped to deal effectively with the special wartime demands placed upon banks.
He was also deputy chairman and then chairman of the Committee of London Clearing Bankers. He served as president of the Institute of Bankers in 1919 and 1920.
International Chamber of Commerce
Walter Leaf was a co-founder in 1919 of the International Chamber of Commerce. He attended its first meeting in Paris in June 1920, and was unanimously elected to the Council for Great Britain, representing the banking interest.
When the first chairman of the British National Committee died in 1923 Leaf became his successor, at the same time becoming one of the vice-presidents of the Chamber. At the Brussels conference in 1925 he was elected President of the International Chamber of Commerce.
In 1878 Walter Leaf’s close friend John Henry Pratt died. Pratt had been working on a school edition of The Iliad, and following his death the publishers approached Leaf to ask him to complete the work. He did so, and this marked the beginning of Leaf’s distinguished academic career.
In 1882 he produced a new translation of The Iliad in collaboration with Andrew Lang and Ernest Myers.
In 1886-8 his own version of The Iliad appeared, followed by a much enlarged edition in 1900.
He also translated works from Russian and Persian.
List of publications
Walter Leaf’s published works include:
- The Story of Achilles from Homer’s Iliad, translation with notes and introduction, with John Henry Pratt, 1880
- The Iliad of Homer, done into English Prose, translation, with Andrew Lang and Ernest Myers, 1882
- The Iliad, edited with English notes and introduction, 1886-8
- A Companion to the Illiad for English Readers, 1892
- A Modern Priestess of Isis, translated from Russian, 1895
- Versions from Hafiz: an essay in Persian metre, translated from Persian, 1898
- The Iliad, edited with apparatus criticus, prolegomena, notes, and appendices, 1900-2
- Troy: a Study in Homeric Geography, 1912
- Homer and History, 1915 (the NW Harris lectures, due to be delivered at Northwestern University in 1914, but cancelled due to the First World War)
- Quatrains from the Greek, translation, 1919
- A Byzantine Pleiad, translation, 1920
- Little Poems from the Greek, translation, 1922
- Banking, 1927
Although Leaf disliked sport at school, when he went to university he discovered an enthusiasm for rowing, a sport which he found was unimpeded by his very poor eyesight.
He had a lifelong love of mountain climbing. He first set foot on a glacier in 1867, at the age of 14, and climbed his first mountain over 10,000 feet two years later. He took walking holidays in Europe throughout his adult life. He climbed Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, and undertook the first ascents of Becca di Ciardonnay (1890) and the Fluela Schwarzhorn (1893). In later life he twice visited America and Canada, and although his health was failing, he relished visiting the Canadian Rockies, Yosemite National Park and the Grand Canyon.
According to his wife, he was an excellent ice skater.
He was a fluent speaker of several European languages, including French, German and Italian.
He was interested in psychical research.
He enjoyed photography, and was a fine pianist. He counted among his friends Matthew Arnold and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It was said of him that on a wide range of topics, from mathematics to astronomy and botany, he was generally ‘the best-informed person in the room.’
Walter Leaf married Charlotte Symonds on 22 May 1894. They had a son and a daughter together.
Last years and death
Walter Leaf continued to travel widely after the end of the First World War. In 1919 he undertook a lecture tour of the US and Canada which had been postponed from 1914. He visited America again in 1923.
In April 1926 he suffered a heart attack while delivering an address to the Essen Chamber of Commerce, in his capacity as president of the International Chamber of Commerce. His family brought him home to England, but his health remained very delicate thereafter.
Early in 1927 his doctors advised him to go to Torquay for a few weeks for the sake of his health. He died there on 8 March 1927. His funeral was conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
One of his obituaries noted, ‘he was as renowned in the field of classical scholarship as in the realm of high finance, and may be regarded as ranking in the succession of a series of scholar-bankers…of which Mr Leaf was, perhaps, the last surviving example.’
Related publications and online sources
- ‘Walter Leaf’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Charlotte M Leaf, Walter Leaf 1852-1927: some Chapters of Autobiography, with a Memoir by Charlotte M Leaf (London: John Murray, 1932)