Records of Edward Backwell (c.1618-83), goldsmith banker

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

  • customer account ledgers, 1663-72
  • 'Dunkirk' ledger, 1656-77
  • list of tallies, 1668
  • payment instruction, 1671

Administrative / Biographical History

Edward Backwell was born in around 1618, the son of Barnaby Backwell, a yeoman of Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire. In 1635 he was apprenticed to Thomas Vyner, a prominent London goldsmith. Vyner was one of the first goldsmiths to diversify into the provision of financial services, and was involved in financing the Cromwellian government. Edward Backwell finished his apprenticeship with Vyner in 1651, when he became free of the Goldsmiths’ Company.

Backwell had set up his own goldsmiths ‘shop’ by 1653 and, given his apprenticeship with goldsmith banker Thomas Vyner, it is likely that he ventured into banking from the start. In 1665 Backwell was one of the first goldsmith bankers to transfer his business focus almost entirely to banking and related financial affairs.

Backwell provided a range of financial services to a very varied clientele among whom the largest group were merchants and tradesmen. The Little London Directory of 1677 lists around 1,800 merchants, and although this source dates from a few years after the last of Backwell’s extant ledgers, a significant proportion of those named had held banking accounts with Backwell.

His clientele also included departments of government and the royal household, City livery companies and chartered overseas trading companies, including the East India Company. During the 1660s it was generally only those individuals with substantial income or wealth who had need of a personal bank account, and Backwell provided banking services to noblemen and landed gentry, doctors and lawyers, naval and military officers, and ship-owning consortia. Among the thousands of his clients were the king himself (whose account was entitled ‘the King’s Most Excellent Majestie’), Prince Rupert, the Prince of Orange, the Earl of Sandwich and the Countess of Castlemaine. Backwell also had agents throughout Europe, from Hamburg to Cadiz, supporting the use of bills of exchange for international trade, and allowing him to conduct foreign exchange and bullion business.

Backwell was one of the leading bankers of his day, but his business, and that of other prominent bankers, was ruined by the Stop of the Exchequer of 1672. Many of his clients also held accounts with other bankers, possibly to spread their risk, and it is known that a significant number additionally banked with Thomas Vyner’s nephew and successor Robert Vyner, who was also ruined by the Stop.

Although the provision of financial services occupied most of his time and provided the bulk of his income, Edward Backwell maintained a substantial business as a goldsmith and provider of jewellery until the Great Plague of 1665, when it is thought that the death of his chief clerk Robert (also known as Robin) Shaw led him to reduce his involvement in the trade.

Charles II had an approach to life quite different to that of the previous regime, and lavish expenditure on luxury goods was one feature of the new Restoration order, providing a spur to Backwell’s work as a goldsmith. According to his ledgers the quantity of gold and silver items sold in 1663 and 1664 amounted to 6% of the total touched at Goldsmiths’ Hall, and he also had a significant role as a provider of jewellery. His principal clients were Crown and government officials and merchants, and tableware predominated, including trenchers, meat dishes, cups, basins and ewers. Some of the items he provided were of the ‘new fashion’ or ‘French fashion’, mostly sold to aristocratic customers, including two gilt cups to the Queen Mother and chased salvers and dressing plate for the Earl and Countess of Carlisle. He provided other one-off items, including a very heavy trumpet and a ‘fine barratone’, which might have been a large French horn, possibly to be presented to one of the French noblemen involved in the sale of Dunkirk to Louis XIV of France in 1662. He also commissioned mourning rings by the hundred from several jewellers on behalf of his clients.

With substantial resources at his disposal, Backwell became involved in financing the court of Charles II. He acted as a tax farmer, advancing money to the Crown and paying a fixed rent for collecting taxes, in return for which he received interest on the advance and was permitted to retain any taxes collected in excess of the agreed rent. As well as this direct involvement in revenue collection, he lent vast sums to the Treasury from his banking deposits, and also took over existing loans. In 1670, for instance, Backwell acquired £365,000 of royal debt.

Such activities came with an associated risk, and it was the Crown’s need for money to finance participation in the Third Dutch War which in 1671 prompted Charles II to suspend repayments of debts which were owed mostly to the bankers. This eventually brought Backwell, and others, to their knees as it left them unable to pay their depositors.

When in 1677 the amounts owed by the Crown to bankers following the 1672 Stop of the Exchequer were calculated, Backwell was shown to be owed £295,994 including capitalised interest, which was just over 22% of the total of £1,328,526. Although Backwell’s fellow-banker Robert Vyner was owed a larger sum, Backwell’s figure represented around a quarter of the Crown’s annual peacetime income.

Backwell inhabited much the same world as Samuel Pepys. Both interacted with the leading court and political figures of the day, both lived in the City of London with property interests in the country, and they knew each other well. Pepys refers to Backwell more times that any other financier of the 1660s, and indeed Pepys held personal and business accounts with Backwell. Whereas Pepys describes and comments on those he knows and observes, Backwell records to varying degrees the fluctuating fortunes of his own clients, the majority of whom lived or worked in the City. Many of the diarist’s subjects were also the banker’s clients, and so these two unique sources complement and mirror each other in many ways. Whilst many of Backwell’s fellow bankers also shared his experience and a similar range of clients, none have left such a written legacy recording their own and their clients’ lives and times in the City. Pepys’s numerous references to Backwell are wide-ranging, describing various visits to him, including that of 23 November 1663 ‘with Alderman Backewell talking of the new money [the new milled coinage] … I found him as full of business, and, to speak the truth, he is a very painfull [painstaking] man, and ever was, and now-a-days is well paid for it’. Backwell had a reputation for his business dealings and on 19 April 1665 Pepys records that ‘[Thomas Povy] made it plain to me that money will be hard to get, and that it is to be feared Backewell hath a design in it to get the thing forced upon himself’.

On 6 July 1665 Pepys noted that ‘Alderman Backewell is ordered abroad upon some private score with a great sum of money; wherein I was instrumental the other day in shipping him away [to Antwerp]. It seems some of his creditors have taken notice of it, and he was like to be broke yesterday in his absence; Sir G[eorge] Carteret telling me that the King and the kingdom must as good as fall with that man at this time’ had the Exchequer not provided support, such was the Crown’s dependence on him. On 26 July 1665 ‘poor Robin Shaw [also known as Robert Shaw, Backwell’s first apprentice and by then chief clerk] at Backewell's died, and Backewell himself now in Flanders. The King himself asked about Shaw, and being told he was dead, said he was very sorry for it’. Shaw’s death must have hit Backwell hard for on 23 July 1666 Pepys ‘did also meet Alderman Backewell who tells me … that what by his being abroad and Shaw’s death he hath lost the ball; but that he doubts not to come to give a kicke at it still, and then he shall be wiser and keepe it while he hath it. But he says he hath a good master, the King, who will not suffer him to be undone’, as otherwise he must have been, and I believe him’. On 15 November 1667 when Pepys ‘discoursed with [Backwell] about the remitting of this £6,000 to Tangier … and he with some vain glory told me that the business of Sherenesse [when the Dutch fleet entered the Medway] did make him quite mad, and indeed might well have undone him’.

Following the destruction of much of the City in the Fire of London, Backwell’s ledgers include his own very detailed accounts for the building of new premises in Lombard Street. The diarist records that on 12 April 1669 Backwell ‘showed me the model of his houses that he is going to build in Cornhill and Lumbard Street; but he hath purchased so much there, that it looks like a little town, and must have cost him a great deal of money’. It was on that same occasion that Pepys first visited Backwell and his second wife: ‘I do, contrary to my expectation, find her something of a proud and vain-glorious woman, in telling the number of her servants and family and expences: he is also so, but he was ever of that strain’.

As well as diversifying into banking, Edward Backwell was keen to engage in any business which might offer a reasonable return. He bought and sold at a profit former Crown property at Hampton Court and as early as the 1650s was dealing in bullion. In 1656 he was authorised to export £47,000 of bullion payable by agreement from Portugal to England, and in 1657, in partnership with Thomas Vyner, he handled £43,000 of plate and silver captured from Spanish ships. Some of this was used in the first coinage minted using Pierre Blondeau’s revolutionary edge-marking process for milled coins. In 1658 Backwell began an involvement with the town of Dunkirk, which Oliver Cromwell had acquired from Spain, acting as treasurer for the English garrison there and later personally handling the payment made by Louis XIV to Charles II when the town was sold to France in 1662. Backwell worked with Vyner in supplying money to the royal household and was later to be involved in a number of royal commissions, including a secret mission to Antwerp in 1665. He also acted as agent for the collection of the dowry of Charles II’s Portuguese Queen, Catherine of Braganza.

Even after the collapse of his banking business he continued to act as a financial agent of the Crown. He was comptroller of customs in the port of London and travelled to the Netherlands in 1674 to try to collect the debts owed to Charles II by the United Provinces. He returned to the Netherlands in 1680 on royal business, though the precise reason for that visit is unknown.

Edward Backwell also owned shares in a number of ships and cargoes engaged in overseas trade; was actively involved in cattle farming; and traded directly in a number of commodities, including tin, silk stockings and calicoes. He had agents throughout Europe, from Hamburg to Cadiz, supporting the use of bills of exchange for international trade, and allowing him to conduct foreign exchange and bullion business.

Backwell was elected an alderman of the City in 1660 and member of parliament for Wendover in Buckinghamshire in 1673, though unseated in the same year. He held the same seat again from 1679 to 1681.

In 1660 he served as prime warden of the Goldsmiths Company.

In 1682, a decade after the Stop of the Exchequer, Backwell was declared bankrupt. A private Act of Parliament was passed in 1698 in order to settle his outstanding debts to his creditors.

By 1653 Edward Backwell had married Sarah Brett, daughter of a London merchant, and they had at least one child, John, who worked with Edward Backwell in a number of ventures.

By 1662 Sarah had died and Backwell had married Mary Leigh, daughter of Richard Leigh. They had three sons and two daughters together. Mary died in 1669.

One of Edward and Mary's sons, Leigh, was apprenticed to his father in 1682. Two of his great grandsons, Barnaby and William Backwell, were partners in the London bank Child & Co between 1736 and 1756. It was among the archives of Child & Co that Backwell’s surviving records were preserved.

Edward Backwell died whilst in the Netherlands in 1683. Although his body, having been embalmed and transported from the Netherlands, was initially buried in June 1683 at the church of St Mary Woolnoth in Lombard Street in the City, it was exhumed in 1685 and re-buried at Tyringham in Buckinghamshire.

Conditions Governing Access

Historical researchers are welcome to use the archives at our Edinburgh store. Access is by appointment and researchers are required to complete an access form before they visit. Some records are subject to closure periods. For further information please email archives@rbs.co.uk or telephone 0131 334 1428.

Other Finding Aids

The customer account ledgers of Edward Backwell have been indexed. Please contact us for further information.

Alternative Form Available

The customer account ledgers and 'Dunkirk' ledger of Edward Backwell have been microfilmed. These copies are available to view at The Royal Bank of Scotland Archives.

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