My father lived in Wisbech as a child. The market town is on the River Nene in The Fens of Cambridgeshire. The fenlands are reclaimed from the sea. Flat like The Netherlands, whom helped drain it, the region with is rich farm soil is criss-crossed with dykes and man-made cuts (rather like canals). Originally the Great River Ouse ran close to the town, but this silted up and the tidal River Nene was diverted to serve the town instead. The town is an inland port and although it initially resisted the draining, it came to benefit from it.
Wealth brings money, and in 18th century that meant cash and bankers. Jonathon Peckover arrived in 1777 and established a grocery. As a Quaker, he was respected for his honesty and kept hold of his customers’ money for safe keeping. Down from the Old Market, where my father’s family owned a business, is a townhouse on the banks of the river. Built in 1722, Jonathon decided to acquire the property in the 1790s and turn it into a bank.
Jonathon entered into business with the help of established Quaker bankers in Norwich and Kings Lynn. A purpose built chamber was added to the house and trading continued until 1879 when the bank was moved to the Old Market square and eventually became what is now Barclays Bank.
Why were Quakers so well known in the banking business? Because Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) reject the established Church of England and won’t swear oaths, they were barred from entering university and many professions until 19th Century. However, they could run businesses and trades. Communities could be tight knit because inter-marrying was the norm and marrying out meant expulsion from the Society – this changed in 1869. With their strong belief in ethical standards, people trusted Quakers with their money, especially at a time when corruption was rife.
They built banks – Lloyds and Barclays being the most well known. They made shoes (Clarks), chocolate (Cadburys, Roundtrees, Frys) and biscuits (Carr’s) and their practices spread so far that a Japanese Quaker was the founding president of Sony.
Jonathan named his bank the Wisbech and Lincolnshire bank (informally Peckover’s Bank and the house was known as Bank House) and it remained in the family’s hands until 1893 when they handed it over to Barclays. Jonathan issued his own notes, in addition to the Bank of England ones, which enabled people to carry ‘money’ without fear of losing gold coins, which were weighed as a means to determine their value. The banking hall of Peckover House was partially demolished in 1879, but the vaults beneath the house remain.
The North Brink is a line of Georgian houses including Peckover. Across the other side of the river, is the South Brink, and one of the founders of the National Trust Octavia Hill lived in a house there. In 1907 Alexander Peckover in recognition of his services to the county was created Lord Lieutenant, a ceremonial role, which meant he was the monarch’s representative in the county. Alexander was the first Quaker to be conferred the title and the town was very excited on his behalf.
In 1943, Alexandrina Peckover, the last descendant handed over the house to the National Trust and with it the legacy of its banking history and Alexander’s fine collection of early printed books in its library.
“Beautifully written mystery weaves a spell around the house and the people connected to it.” Goodreads reviewer
Pre-order The Women of Heachley Hall – release date 4 May.