The Rise and Fall of the Haverfordwest Bank (1783-1826)

The desperate financial crisis of 2008 which threatened a collapse of the British banking system provided a salutary reminder of the dangers inherent in any capitalist system and was the most recent demonstration of economic boom and bust. Although the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 is the best remembered of these cyclical downturns, the British economy has had to sustain several such episodes since industrialisation.  The Panic of 1825 was one dramatic such episode partly arising from speculative investments in Latin America and the excessive issuing of banknotes by county banks. Sudden loss of sentiment resulted in a run on the banks with the result that around seventy London and provincial banks became insolvent and foundered. One of the casualties was the Haverfordwest Bank which had been established in 1783 by Samuel Levi Phillips, a Jewish émigré.

In the middle of the eighteenth century two Jewish brothers, Samuel and Moses Levi arrived at Haverfordwest via London and Frankfort. Samuel had been born in Germany in around 1730, while the date of Moses’ birth has been variously estimated at around 1733-35. What brought the brothers to the south western extremity of Wales is not known but they doubtless spotted business opportunities in the town which was then a bustling port as shown in the famous Buck print of 1748. Jewish enterprise had been a feature of Haverford back in the middle of the thirteenth century when the presence of ‘Jews of Haverford’ has been recorded. The Jews were a persecuted minority who were expelled from England in 1290 during the reign of Edward I and only be permitted to return during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in 1655-6. One possible reason from the brothers settling in Pembrokeshire’s county town was the presence of one Benjamin Gabriel perhaps a relation, who arrived before them. The Levi brothers were befriended by a local gentleman named Phillips, and to reflect their respect for their patron, and wishing to assimilate locally, they adopted the surname of Phillips and converted from Judaism to Christianity.

Moses married Ann Morgan of the Parish of St. Mary’s, Haverfordwest in 1754 and the following year the parish register records

‘Moses, a Jew called Moses Phillips, aged about two and twenty years, was baptised on 23 June 1755.’

Upon his wife’s decease Moses contracted a second marriage to Dorothy Evans (d. 1809) on 8 January 1758. The couple had at least nine children including a son named William, later Purser on HMS Bonetta and Moses, a descendant of whom, Gordon Alexander Phillips, became a member of the Adelaide Stock Exchange and granted his own coat of arms described in Burke’s Landed gentry complete with its own motto. The other brother, Samuel Levi Phillips was married at St. Mary’s Church on 11 November 1753 to Dorothy Hood, a couple of weeks after his own baptism which took place at St. Thomas’ Church on 28 October 1753 in a ceremony performed by the Rev Hugh Bowen. The other Jewish migrant, Benjamin Gabriel, aged around ‘nine and thirty years’ at the time of his baptism on 23 June 1755 occurred almost a month to the day before his own marriage to Judith Hoare (21 July 1755).

Samuel Levi and his wife had six children including Nathaniel, born 9 January 1761 (and baptised on 18 February), John and a daughter Alicia whose husband was Thomas Bushe, son of the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. After Dorothy’s death Samuel re-married Mary, daughter of Stephen Jones of Prendergast and he had a further three children by her and also acquired a number of step-children. An early glimpse of Samuel’s occupation occurs in his father-in-law’s will in which Samuel was described as a ‘jeweller.’ The buying and selling of precious metal goods, rings, bracelets, necklaces and so forth also brought cash advances against items and the charging of interest on pawned goods. These were the transactions which brought about the establishment of Pembrokeshire’s first bank at Haverfordwest in 1783.

Many provincial banks were started as a means of generating capital for investment in agriculture or brewing. By 1798 there were around 300 country banks in existence. Their banknotes, usually in denominations of one pound or one guinea and were redeemable for gold. If this demand could not be met then the enterprise was deemed insolvent and bankruptcy would inevitable follow. Samuel’s acceptance into local society was ably demonstrated by his signing a Loyal Address to King George III from the borough of Haverfordwest and dated 18 October 1775 in which their pledge their troth in the troubles with the rebellious American colonies. Eighteenth and nineteenth century occupations could be highly fluid. Thus Samuel was  once listed as a chapman while another described him as a jeweller in a lease of property at Cinnamon Hill in St. Thomas’ Parish (6 February 1782). He had an interest in the intriguingly named locale Pesthouse Back, a clear reference to the pesthouse where the 1652 plague victims convalesced. In 1790 another transaction at this location, with one Thomas Morris, maltster, had Samuel still described as a jeweller despite his having established his bank eight years before.

The Haverfordwest of the 1790s and early 1800s was a town of considerable charm and gentility with Georgian architecture, cobbled streets, handsome merchant warehouses fronting Quay Street and well into Bridge Street. The whitewashed cottages and hanging gardens struck visitors while the bustling port and genteel society saw an affluent professional class of wealthy merchants, doctors, lawyers and clergy. The enduring impression is of agile chairmen carrying Sedan chairs to the Assembly Rooms from Mary Morgan’s famous travelogue published in 1795. The Cambrian Travellers Guide on 1813 described the borough which had 643 houses as beautifully situated upon the ‘west Cleddau’ and noted for its fine castle even if the town walls and gates were ‘all down.’ Scathingly it remarked how the building of the county gaol within the castle walls was a violent outrage against common sense.

The Haverfordwest Bank prospered despite the political uncertainty of the 1790s and food rioting in 1795, part of the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars. Samuel’s second wife Mary died in 1806 and he died six years later in 1812. The extent of his wealth is clearly shown in his will dated 3 July 1811 in which his property is bequeathed to close family. His son Philip received a property in Prendergast named the Barley Mow plus three more houses and property in the new town of Milford and £1,000 which Samuel had invested in the capital of the Milford and Pembrokeshire Bank. Roland Thorne relates how this west Wales bank was established in 1802 and was styled ‘Charles Philipps, Thomas Philipps & Co’ It collapsed in July 1810 having issued £52,717 in notes.

Samuel Levi Phillips bequeathed to his son John, six houses in St Thomas’ parish plus £100 while Stephen received a leasehold house at Lambeth, Surrey, £100 plus £600 which was due on a promissory note. Nathaniel Phillips was to receive the residue while Samuel’s daughters Sarah Charles and Lucy Collins were to receive £1000 each and the grandchildren £100 each. Samuel was duly buried in St Thomas’ churchyard and Nathaniel succeeded as the sole manager of the Haverfordwest Bank. He was very active in property transactions being concerned with a property named White Aprons in Prendergast parish, houses in High Street and Cartlett limekilns (1819).

The precise circumstances which caused the failure of the bank may never be fully understood but the end result was clear as the London Gazette published his bankruptcy on 31 January 1826. The effects of this failure were felt immediately in the locality. On 11 February 1826 the Royal Cornwall Gazette, Falmouth Packet & Plymouth Journal published a letter from a traveller in Pembrokeshire remarking at the distress caused by the foundering of the Haverfordwest Bank. The men of the Pembroke Dockyard received the bank’s notes as their wages, some £700 being disbursed each week, while the Collector of Customs stated at a public meeting how he circulated £50,000 in their notes annually.

Being the sole proprietor Nathaniel Phillips was entirely liable for the bank’s debts which meant that all his personal property and assets were liable to be liquidated to meet his obligations. Over subsequent months the local newspapers, especially the Cambrian (there were no Pembrokeshire newspapers until the herald appeared in 1844) advertising sales of Nathaniel’s property, land, shipping and financial instruments. By order of the assignees of the estate and effects of Nathaniel Phillips, a sale took place on 29 April 1826 at the Castle Inn of his elegant town-built carriage with harness and later his stock, crops, cows, agricultural equipment and rick of hay at Loo Choo near Haverfordwest. The most substantial portion of his estate went under the hammer on 19 June 1826 when red Hill farm, White Aprons were sold off together with the George & Dragon public house (occupied by William Golding), a 32nd share of the schooner Lady Day of Newport, property in Broad haven, Pater Church, Monkton, Milford and five Turnpike tallies each yielding 4 per cent on the toll road leading from Tavernspite to Pembroke, Tenby and from ‘Hubberston to Haking.’ Perhaps most poignant was the sale of Nathaniel’s chattels, plate, linen, china, household goods and furniture  showing just how unforgiving business failure was in the early nineteenth century before the days of limited liability.

The Bankruptcy commissioners met at the castle Inn from time to time to receive proof of debts owned by Nathaniel. The great majority of the surviving notes issued by the Haverfordwest Bank bear two large cancellation holes with various printed endorsements including ‘At the castle Inn, Haverfordwest, 3 March 1826, exhibited to us under a commission of bankruptcy against Nathaniel Phillips.’ Eventually note holders received back 11 shillings and 4 pence in the pound thanks to the liquidation of the estate. An interim dividend of eight shillings was made to creditors upon application at the late Banking House in High Street in November 1826.

Poor Nathaniel found himself without means, although not without friends or sympathisers according to one 1830 newspaper report. He died shortly afterwards. The £1 notes issued by the Haverfordwest Bank bear his personal signature and are a fascinating piece of commercial and social history and shows the chimerical nature of business. They were potent symbols of power and prestige which this migrant’s son once possessed.

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