Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Backwell, Edward

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BACKWELL, EDWARD (d. 1683), alderman, a celebrated London goldsmith, and the principal founder of the banking system in England, was descended from a family which at a very early period had settled at Backwell, Somersetshire. The earliest member of the family of whom there is special mention is Roger de Backwell, who was one of the squires to Lord James Audley at the battle of Poictiers in 1356. Edward Backwell was the second son of Barnaby Backwell of Backwell, who, after his marriage to Jane, daughter of John Temple, Esq., of Burton Dasset, Buckinghamshire, settled in that county (Pedigree from manuscript in possession of William Praed, Esq., of Tyringham, printed in Libscomb's Buckinghamshire, iv, 376). Possibly the father had some business connection with London, for John, the eldest son, like his younger brother Edward, married the daughter of a London merchant. The earliest mention of Edward Backwell in the State Papers is under date 30 April 1650, as having been asked to 'provide 500l. in pieces of eight.' In 1653 he has a bill of 1,380l. for the victualling of ships. That he was already a person of considerable wealth and enterprise is proved by his purchase from the parliament of Old Bushy Park and other grounds connected with Hampton Court Palace, which after a long negotiation were rebought from him by the Commons, in the beginning of 1654 for 6,202l. 17s. The principal causes of the rapid fortunes made at this time by the more enterprising of the goldsmiths are stated, in a curious pamphlet, published in 1676, entitled 'The Mystery of the New-fashioned Goldsmiths or Bankers discovered,' to have been the facilities afforded them for obtaining large profits by melting down money of more than the proper weight, and the introduction of the system of taking money on deposit and lending it again at a higher rate of interest. The deposit system may be said to have originated about the time of the civil war. After Charles I in 1640 seized 200,000l. which, according to the custom of the period, was lodged for safety in the Tower, it gradually became a habit to lodge money with the goldsmiths. The goldsmiths,who already were money changers, now became money borrowers and lenders. For the money deposited they gave receipts called 'goldsmiths' notes,' the earliest kind of bank notes issued in England. There is every reason to suppose that Backwell was the chief originator of the system, as he was undoubtedly the most successful and best known banker of his day. Besides the rents of the country gentlemen, the goldsmiths received clandestinely from servants the money of their masters, which was lent them at the rate of 4d. per cent, per day. The deposits were lent out by the goldsmiths at a high rate of interest to necessitous merchants; and in addition to this, as is stated in the pamphlet above quoted, 'when Cromwell usurped the government, the greatest of them began to deal with him to supply his wants of money upon great advantage, especially after they had bought those dollars whereof he robbed the Spaniards to about the value of 300,000l.' The 'dollars' referred to are the 'eight-and-thirty wagonloads of real silver' (Carlyle, Cromwell, iv.:224) taken by Blake when he captured and burned the Plate fleet, and which Cromwell sold to Sir Thomas Viner and Edward Backwell, who together paid for it 130,000l., and coined it at the Tower mint on their own charge.

The dealings of Backwell with Cromwell were not remembered against him at the Restoration, for he was not only able to carry on a much more lucrative banking business under the auspices of Charles II, but was employed to negotiate the king's principal money transactions. 'As soon,' we are told, 'as the parliament had voted the king certain sums of money out of particular taxes, the bankers advanced at once the money voted by parliament, and were repaid in weekly payments at the exchequer as the taxes were received.' In 1660 (or 1666) an accusation was brought against Backwell for concealing large sums from the king; but, as it had no result, it probably originated in envy. In addition to the king and the queen mother, most of the nobility and persons of celebrity, the farmers of customs, the excise, several city companies, the East India Company, and all the leading goldsmiths had accounts with Backwell. His shop, which bore the sign of the Unicorn, was situated at the south end of Exchange Alley, next to Lombard Street, its site being now probably occupied by No. 70. In 1663 his premises were greatly extended, but they were burned down in the great fire of 1666, when, at the request of the king, he obtained accommodation in Gresham House. Pepys, who was on intimate terms with him and mentions him frequently in his 'Diary,' refers to his having a residence in Mark Lane. He was the owner of several farms, one of which was at Crestloe near Aylesbury, and he also bought in 1668 an estate at Buckeworth, Huntingdonshire, in addition to which his name several times occurs in county histories as the temporary possessor of estates which doubtless had come into his hands through the pecuniary difficulties of their owners. The wife of Backwell, whom Pepys praises for her beauty and sprightliness, was his second wife Mary, daughter of Richard Leigh of Warwickshire, wlio died in 1670, and was buried in St. Helen's Church, Bishopsgate (Malcolm, Londinum Redivirum, iii. 556). Of the death of his first wife, Alice Brett, the daughter of a London merchant, there is no record.

In October 1662 Backwell was sent to Paris to receive the money (180,000l.) for the sale of Dunkirk to the French; and for discharging this duty he obtained from the king in 1664 a present of 1,500l. That he was employed by the king in negotiations of even greater importance, is evident from a entry in the State Papers in 1664 of 12,000l. paid to him for secret services without account, and in 1665 of 1,750l. After the treaty of Dover in 1670 he was also a frequent intermediary in the money transactions between Charles II and Louis of France. Under date of 21 Jan. 1666, there is an entry in the State Papers of a 'warrant for Edward Backwell to be a baronet;' but possibly he declined the honour. The prediction of Pepys that 'the king and kingdom must as good as fall with that man' was scarcely fulfilled; for when Charles in 1672 found himself involved in hopeless money difficulties he had recourse to the expedient of closing the exchequer. Of the l,328,526l. in the exchequer, the amount borrowed from Backwell was 295,995l. In the same year as appears from the 'Commons' Journal,' h name was sent to the House of Commons as elected to represent Wendover, but on petition the name of Thomas Wharton was inserted instead. Towards the close of the year, we find from 'Hatton's Correspondence' (Camden Society, 1878, i, 101) that he had been sued by several of his creditors and judgment given against him. Indeed was currently, though erroneously, reported that it was for refusing to interfere on his behalf that Sir Orlando Bridgman, the lord keeper, was removed from office. 'Backwell says Hatton, 'moved the late Ld Keeper upon pretence yy he had lent all ye money to ye king, whose exchequer was now shut up, to grant him an injunction to stop e proceedings of all his creditors, and for denying this it is generally reported ye seales were taken away.' Whether Backwell subsequently obtained an injunction to stop the proceedings of his creditors does not appear, but possibly it was at this time that, as tradition has it, he took refuge in Holland. He discontinued in any case his banking business, and in the list of the merchants and bankers of London for 1677 (the oldest printed list, republished in 1878) the name of John Ballard appears as occupying the shop at the Unicorn, Lombard Street. In whatever way he satisfied the claims of his creditors, he continued till 1674 comptroller of the customs at a salary of 250/l a year and he was also frequently employed by the king in receiving sums of money from abroad.

The letters patent granted under the great seal in 1677 to each of the goldsmiths who had lent money to the exchequer, 'of a yearly rent for ever upon the revenue of the excise, equal in value to the interest of their debts after the rate of 6 per cent, per annum,' must have removed the money embarrassments of Backwell, and, as the whole debt was discharged in the reign of William IV, his heirs ultimately suffered no pecuniary loss by the transaction. The statement of Mr. Hilton Price that Backwell removed to Holland in 1676 and died there in 1679, is contradicted, not merely by the pedigree printed in Libscomb's 'History of Buckinghamshire,' which gives the year of his death as 1683, but also by the fact that he was a member for Wendover in the parliament of 1679, and in the Oxford parliament of 1680. Backwell was chosen an alderman for Bishopsgate ward in 1657, and from a list given in Northbrook's 'History of London' it appears that a new alderman was chosen for that ward in 1681; but possibly the change may have been connected with the disputes between Charles and the city. The tradition that Backwell took refuge from his creditors in Holland and died there seems to have had its origin in a statement of Cole (MSS. xxxviii. 389) that he heard the two maiden daughters of Tyringham, grandson of Edward Backwell, say in their father's lifetime at Tyringham, that 'Alderman Backwell, on some failure of the government security, was forced to retire to Holland, where he died, and being embalmed was brought over to England and buried at Tyringham.' As Tyringham Backwell died in 1754, or only seventy years after the death of his grandfather, the main substance of his daughters' statement is doubtless correct: but as there is no record of a failure of government security after 1677, he had no reason for remaining after this in retirement in Holland, and possibly at the time of his death was there merely on business. John Backwell, eldest son of Alderman Backwell by his first wife, succeeded to the property of Tyringham through marriage with Elizabeth, only daughter of Sir William Tyringham. John Backwell's son Tyringham married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Francis Child, banker, by whom he had two sons, Barnaby and William, both of whom became partners of Child. The latter son in 1756 began a bank of his own in Pall Mall.

[Libscomb's History of Buckinghamshire; Diary of Samuel Pepys; Cole's MSS. vol. xxxviii.; State Papers, Domestic Series;The notices of Backwell by F. G. Hilton Price in Temple Bar or some Account of 'Ye Marygold' (1875), in Handbook of London Bankers (1876), and especially in vol. vi. part i. (1883) of Transactions of London and Middlesex Archæological Society, pp. 191-230, These notices are in several respects incomplete, but contain various interesting particulars of Backwell, gleaned from his ledgers in possession of Messrs. Child.]

T. F. H.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.11
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
321 ii 9 Backwell, Edward: for Libscomb's read Lipscomb's
322 ii 25 for the same year read 1673
323 i 18 for 1680 read 1681
20·25 for 1657 and .... and the city read 31 Jan. 1659-60, and was discharged from that office on payment of 700l. on 13 June 1661
7f.e. for Libscomb's read Lipscomb's