#FromtheArchives - Reports on Business Houses

How did merchant banks learn about their potential clients in an era without computerisation and databases? The Baring Archive’s Reports on Business Houses show how Barings developed an evolving network of overseas agents to assist them in gathering and forwarding relevant news and information.

These agents recorded their unfiltered views on potential clients and partners, collating data from past performances and current holdings, as well as considering local standing and hearsay when making their judgements. Some are lengthy, whereas others are short and definitively damning. For example, in the first volume of the series John Beit was simply described as “Decidedly bad in every sense of the word.” While, J A Droop was considered to be, “Very rich – credit unlimited”.

One particularly lengthy entry is for Suse & Sibeth, a Dutch general merchant operating in London and trading primarily with Holland in indigo and sugar. They were “Considered great rivals by all the other Houses and are not at all liked”, “very shy” and “the most determined, pushing characters that can be met with among the Foreign Merchants”. Mr Suse was “considered a first rate man of Business.” While Mr Sibeth was “extremely active and attends more particularly to indigo in the export of which they do a very extensive business.”

Detailed information was included on their most recent transactions with the purchase of 1100 chests of indigo at a value of £100,000, equivalent to almost £12,000,000 today according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator.  The importance of local knowledge is also demonstrated: “This establishment has excited much attention of late… and it is generally understood that neither of them could be possessed of property at the commencement of their career, and as Indigo is a money-article, they must require large funds to present such a business. It is conjectured and from the enquiries the writer has made, he thinks it not improbable that they have a sleeping partner in the house.”

Suse and Sibeth are considered “anything but expensive men” and the writer recommends giving “them a fair capital if that have not incurred losses by speculation”.

Modern day methods may have changed but the principle of knowing your customer remains. How did it work out for Suse and Sibeth? A spot check of the ledger indexes didn’t reveal an account for Suse and Sibeth so perhaps Barings did not end up doing business with them after all. What is clear however is that the newly digitised Reports on Business Houses contain incredible insights into 19th century business networks ready for historians to explore.

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Posted on Thursday, 25th November 2021

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