Perhaps the only true archive of an early country bank to exist is located at Maidstone with the Kent County Archivists. The bank was Cobbs and three generations of Cobb - Francis (the founder) 1727-1802; Francis (his youngest son) 1759-1831 and Francis William 1787-1871, were to all intents and purposes Margate - for they each in turn exerted a substantial influence on the town's affairs. To the social historian their personalities and that of their business empire is a source of importance for, not only were the Cobbs bankers, incorporating a Savings Bank (1818-1827 and again 1839-1863), but brewers, shipping agents, chandlers, coal merchants, insurance agents, ship owners, salvage experts, and owners of a considerable amount of property including licensed premises, as outlets for the beer they brewed. The beer, from their brewery at Deal, incidentally, was supplied to the troops at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Additionally, they were philanthropists, magistrates, coroner, pier warden, pavement commissioner, deputy mayor and constable; representatives of the Cinque Ports for the Isle of Thanet, Evangelical churchmen, Tories deeply concerned with local politics, summoners of town meetings and along with others, founders of the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital. When threatened, during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, Francis Cobb was Commander of the Local Volunteers and Sea Fencibles and co-ordinated the defence of the north east part of Kent. Cobbs also responded to the needs of nations, who acknowledged their experience in dealing with maritime matters, by accepting the Vice-Consulships of many countries, and when the pier was destroyed on 14 January 1808, it was Cobbs who organised, and no doubt arranged the finance for a new pier to be constructed some 900 feet long by 60 feet wide.
The archive at Maidstone is, by any standards, enormous and, initially, after being retrieved from the brewery in 1968, was contained in no less than 100 sacks - each some four feet high - and forty boxes - equivalent to some 300 cubic feet. The banking correspondence and associated material, after tedious cleaning, referencing and cataloguing which itself took some two years to complete, is now housed in twenty-one boxes together with 2,300 bundles of letters. To the archivists and other stalwarts, who during a period of seven years cleaned and with great care, preserved this fine collection, must go the sincere thanks of all though who find an absorbing interest in social, marine, banking and postal history.
Turning then particularly to the banking material, it appears to commence in about 1781 and includes correspondence from a variety of customers and business houses, mainly in London. Subjects are as diverse as a request to purchase a horse from Mr J P Gardiner of Ostend, who had an account with Cobbs -
Further letters on banknotes include details of the trial of Mrs S Solomon who was found not guilty of possessing forged banknotes (mere possession of a forged banknote could be the cause of the holder being hanged at this time in 1801).
Also contained in this letter is confirmation by Mr M Messenger (the writer of the letter) that a quantity of bank notes are to be sent down (to Margate) by way of the requisite precautions against a temporary run on notes. A subsequent letter a few days later, from the same correspondent reads,
No doubt great concern also arose in connection with the following letters:
Included in this correspondence is a list of sixty-five ten pound notes and eighty-five five pound notes numbers, presumably those that had been torn - written in the hand of Francis Cobb.
Expert advice on financial matters particularly at the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793, from their London stockbrokers Messrs W and J Giles (later Giles and Overbury), is contained in a series of some seventy-eight letters in my possession, the contents of which would, no doubt, be of particular interest to financial historians conversant with historical accountancy. Contained in a letter to Cobbs, dated 23rd November is the following:
But a few days later,
Sir James Esdaile & Co were also offering advice, as will be seen from the contents of a letter dated 8th March 1793:
Included in the collection housed at Maidstone are records of cheques and bank notes paid daily; loan books (book debts); receipt books; postage books; ledger balances; make-up cash books; waste books (giving details of daily transactions); Barnett's Order Books - possibly connected with Barnett, Hoare & Co, who subsequently formed part of Lloyds Bank; Registers of Bank Notes issued (mainly 1829-1869); a series of volumes giving balances after the addition of interest and records of paid cheques - mainly cleared by Sir James Esdaile & Co or Esdaile, Grenfell Thomas & Co, any many other items.
The nature of Cobbs business house, however, causes a collector of such material to be quite perplexed for, like the archivists at Maidstone, it is very difficult to ascertain with any degree of certainty as to just where some items should be recorded in the excellent catalogue of the archive.
Shipping and salvage matters are inexorably entwined with banking and trade with the Continent, particularly through Ostend, may well be confused with matters related to the Cinque Ports and the Admiralty Court. For someone interested in postal history, it would appear that Cobbs were operating, in connection with agents in the Low Countries, an express letter service which may have well been contrary to postal regulations. If this is so, however, it is contrary to the general tenor of their House, which was frequently the recipient of sincere thanks for the friendly, honest and expeditious manner customers' business was conducted and for the Bank's concern in correspondence with Sir James Esdaile & Co and others, that what they proposed to do was legitimate.
Margate, located at the estuary of the River Thames, just upstream from the North Foreland and the notorious Goodwin Sands, was not only a haven for vessels in distress, but a clearing house for information and one is reminded of the romance of the age of sail and its sorrows by constant reference to: "...have safely arrived at your place..." or, more frequently, "...we are saddened to larn from you of the loss of....". Such information was, of course, much sought after in the City and one gains the impression that many houses in London respected Cobbs for the quality of useful information sent initially to them either by coach to "The Swan with Two Necks" in Ladd Lane, or by Sackett's Hoy to Limehouse.
Ultimately, however, the helm which successive Cobbs had held, guiding Margate outstandingly through a long period of progress was taken over by others and Margate's fortunes wained at about the same time as steam was introduced into vessels which now, instead of thankfully seeking the safe anchorage Margate provided, headed upstream to the Port of London, being not so affected by storms. William Cobb, a cordwainer by trade when he married Martha Yeomans in the first years of the eighteenth century, could not have anticipated that their marriage would, ultimately, be responsible for so successful a business house; nor could Francis Cobb have anticipated that, merely by pigeon-holing every letter received, some centuries later, so much time, money and labour would be expended on them to bring them into order for the enjoyment of those that followed.
Albert Parker with thanks to the Kent County Council Archive Office
Click here for pictures of Cobbs Bank cheques.
Copyright 2010 BBHS