Ian Hislop presents an entertaining and provocative film about the colourful Victorian financiers whose spectacular philanthropy shows that banking wasn’t always associated with greed or self-serving financial recklessness.
Victorian bankers achieved wealth on a scale never envisaged by previous generations, but many of them were far from comfortable about their new-found riches, which caused them intense soul-searching amidst furious national debate about the moral purpose of money and its potential to corrupt.
Like so many other Victorian bankers, Samuel Gurney was a Quaker. Banking and its rewards seemed at odds with a faith that valued modest simplicity, but Gurney’s wealth helped the work of his sister, prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, who is immortalised on today’s five-pound note.
Self-made millionaire George Peabody was a merchant banker who made an enormous donation to London housing. 150 years on, his housing estates still provide accommodation to 50,000 Londoners.
Angela Burdett-Coutts became an overnight celebrity after she inherited the enormous Coutts fortune. With her love of small dogs and her vast stash, she could have been the Paris Hilton of her day. Instead, she went on to become a great philanthropist.
Perhaps the richest of them all was Natty Rothschild, who tried not just to ensure that his personal wealth did good, but that his bank’s did too.
Deploying his customary mix of light touch and big ideas, Ian champions these extraordinary and generous individuals. Along the way, he meets Dr Giles Fraser, until his recent, dramatic resignation canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, chairman of the FSA Lord Turner, philanthropic financier the current Lord Rothschild, historian A N Wilson and chief rabbi Lord Sacks.
Released 23 Nov, 2011. 60 min. Director: Helena Braun. TV documentary.