Contributor: E.J. Clery
Location: Lloyds Bank Archive and Museum, UK
Description: This creased and uncharismatic scrap of paper bears a name to conjure with, Robert Herries, visible in the design at either end: in addition to the Herries armorial bearings there are three ‘hurcheons,’ otherwise known as hedgehogs. This is a ‘circular note,’ precursor to the travellers’ cheque. It is a rarity; these notes were routinely destroyed after cancellation but this one is unused and therefore uncancelled. It was scanned from a guard book [ref A/26/b/3] by Karen Sampson of the Herries archive at Lloyds Bank. We do not know its provenance.
The template is in French, the international language of the day, and indicates that payment can be drawn at the Paris headquarters of the bank. The bank also had offices in Dover and London. On the note, there are spaces for the addition of a date and the customer’s signature. Upon completion, with presentation of a letter of ‘indication’ or identification, and after a wait of ‘sept jours,’ the circular note would yield cash in the local currency at banks and businesses in a network stretching from Calais to Moscow, and even further afield. It permitted a new, more informal, style of travel across Europe in the Romantic period.
Robert Herries, inventor of the circular note, was a true cosmopolitan. Born in Scotland, he trained as a merchant and financier in Rotterdam, cultivating business interests in Barcelona and Marseilles before settling in London. By the age of 30 he was rich and immensely well-connected, primed to turn into reality his dream of ‘a new monetary service for the grand tour, a market which he estimated as worth £1.5 million per annum.’ As a biographer states, ‘Bills of exchange and the more usual letters of credit were both disadvantaged, the former by inflexibility, the latter by fees paid at each withdrawal.’ (1) Herries’ new device meant that promissory notes in sterling could be cashed at agencies without deduction. The ‘correspondents’ abroad were paid a small commission by Herries. Herries himself profited from the purchase money until the circular note came home to roost. ‘It was a brilliant win-win idea, and Herries began to issue his circular notes for the first time in 1769, in partnership with… Coutts & Co,’ before setting up independently. (2) On the back of his success as a financial innovator Robert Herries was knighted and became a member of the political establishment. He died childless in 1798, but his bank went from strength to strength.
In the 1780s, Jane Austen’s widowed aunt Philadelphia Hancock was one of many who made use of the Herries’ correspondence network, while raising her daughter Eliza cheaply on the Continent. (3) Austen was no doubt aware of Herries’ main claim to fame when she met the extended family in October 1815. She was in London, staying with her banker brother Henry at his home in Hans Place near Sloane Street, while negotiating a contract for Emma with the publisher John Murray. Henry and Jane were invited to dine at the home of Colonel Charles Herries, younger brother of Sir Robert, at No. 15 Cadogan Place, the other side of Sloane Street. She found ‘a large family party’, Jane wrote to Cassandra, ‘clever & accomplished’. (4) The dinner party may also have included the Colonel’s son, John Charles Herries, who lived a few doors away at no. 21 Cadogan Place. If so, Jane Austen would have sat down to table with the man who, behind the scenes, was determining the destiny of Europe. Unknown to the public, he had worked with Rothschilds Bank to transfer smuggled French gold to the British war chest. Among his other talents, he was handy with a pen, frequently defending government monetary policy and active in the founding of the Tory Quarterly Review. Henry Austen had previously cultivated Whig aristocrats; they were integral to his web of patronage, stemming from his time as a militia officer. The cultivation of the Herries family was also in line with Jane’s move to the Tory publishing powerhouse, John Murray.
Circular notes were one dimension of a multi-dimensional money market drawing Europe together even as it was torn apart by war. The Herries network of aggregated banks expanded in the early 1790s, reaching its widest extent in 1795. Yet there is no doubt that Herries’ vision did suffer from the long grind of the Napoleonic wars. The main problem was disruption to the postal system, resulting in substantial loss of circular notes. In 1815, however, when Austen met the ‘Herrieses,’ as she called them, the circular note was on the cusp of a post-Waterloo renaissance. The meeting may have added inspiration for Austen’s ‘Plan of a Novel’ (1815-16), a zany satire on ad hoc travelling heroinism: ‘Heroine and her Father never above a fortnight together in one place… No sooner settled in one Country of Europe than they are necessitated to quit it and retire to another — always making new acquaintance, and always obliged to leave them.’ Their ultimate destination, Kamchatka, was only just beyond the Herries network which once stretched to Constantinople, Smyrna and Aleppo. In Emma (1816), Frank Churchill, looking over ‘views of Swisserland’ experiences the post-war itch for continental travel:
“I shall go abroad,” said he. “I shall never be easy till I have seen some of these places. You will have my sketches, some time or other, to look at–or my tour to read–or my poem. I shall do something to expose myself.” (III, vii).
The sense of spontaneity voiced in both the ‘Plan’ and Emma is pertinent: the circular note permitted a different, more informal, style of travel than the cumbersome Grand Tour of old. Formerly, travelling in style involved fixed itineraries, and the laborious establishment of credit through correspondence between travellers and their banking house. The circular note was the economic equivalent of a magic carpet and the vehicle for some of the most famous literary Romantic journeys. In 1814 Percy Bysshe Shelley’s elopement to France and Switzerland with Mary Godwin and her stepsister Claire Clairmont was apparently free-spirited, but he was in fact well provided with circular notes from a competitor to Herries. Lord Byron, we know, kept sufficient circular notes by him for a year’s living expenses. (5) In the Spring of 1817 Jane would remark of a friend that she had ‘frisked off like half England, into Switzerland.’ (6) Circular notes fuelled Continental travel from England for more than a century, before competition arrived in the form of Cook’s package holidays and even more streamlined currency services.
Date: undated, but with date in the 1700s to be completed. Between 1769 and 1799
Creator: Sir Robert Herries (c 1731-1815)
Subject: circular note, precursor to the travellers’ cheque. Sir Robert Herries (c 1731-1815)
Media rights: by permission of the Lloyds Bank Archive and Museum
Object type: promissory note; banking instrument
Format: ink on rag paper
Publisher: Lloyds Bank Archive and Museum
Catalogue number: Lloyds Bank Archive and Museum, reference A/26/b/3
- John Booker, ‘Sir Robert Herries,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Online, 2004).
- RBS History in 100 Objects: Object 92: Lettre d’indication, 1860s; https://www.rbs.com/heritage/rbs-history-in-100-objects/history-in-100-themes/going-the-extra-mile/lettre-d-indication-1860s.html
- Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen’s ‘Outlandish Cousin’: The Life and Letters of Eliza de Feuillide (London: The British Library, 2002), 40-41.
- Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Deirdre Le Faye, 3rd Edition (Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1995) 291, Letter 121.
- John Booker, Travellers’ Money (Stroud: Allan Sutton, 1994) 64-65.
- Jane Austen’s Letters, 341, Letter 159.