|Patrick O’Brien is Professor Emeritus,
London School of Economics
NEW EHES Working paper
The Bank Restriction Act of 1797 suspended the convertibility of the Bank of
England’s notes into gold. The current historical consensus is that the suspension was a result of the state’s need to finance the war, France’s remonetization, a loss of confidence in the English country banks, and a run on the Bank of England’s reserves following a landing of French troops in Wales.
In a recent EHES paper (O’Brien and Palma 2016) we argue that while these factors can help us understand the timing of the Restriction period, they cannot explain its success. We deploy new long-term data which leads us to a complementary explanation: the policy succeeded thanks to the reputation of the Bank of England, achieved through a century of prudential collaboration between the Bank and the Treasury. Furthermore, the Restriction Period led to a permanent shift in the role of banknotes in the economy, despite the inauguration of the classical gold standard in 1821.
|Nuno Palma is Assistant Professor,
University of Groningen
This episode has some parallel with the better-known 1914 suspension of the gold standard, but some important differences too. One such difference is the much more moderate effects that resulted. No major financial crisis followed, and inflation eventually increased but remained moderate. In the words of Schumpeter (1987/1954, p. 690-1): “In spite of the suspension … war finance did not produce any great effects upon prices and foreign exchange-rates until about 1800. To the modern student who is inured to stronger stuff, the most striking feature of the subsequent inflation is its mildness … at no time was the government driven to do anything more unorthodox than abnormally heavy borrowing from the Bank, and even this borrowing never surpassed the limits beyond which the term ‘borrowing’ becomes an euphemism for printing government fiat”.
The Bank of England – which was a private company, though it was already beginning to play a public role – had suffered a significant drain in its reserves from the mid-1790s. In 1797 it suspended convertibility of its notes into gold. It also started issuing small denomination notes. Banknotes became increasingly important as a means of payment. As we document in the paper, the economy-wide circulation of all means of exchange except coin (such as inland bills of exchange or banknotes) at the retail and wage-paying levels had remained limited until the 1790s. The data allows us to study the case of Bank of England notes in detail, by comparison with coin supply (Figure 1 below). As the figure suggests, the 1797 suspension marks a discontinuity for Bank of England notes, which increased a great deal in real terms after that date. At the same time, coin supply had been falling since shortly after the beginning of war. It is tempting to interpret this shift in terms of Gresham’s law, but we do not favor that interpretation because the selection of a “bad” means of payment implies asymmetry of information and no seller would have had any difficulty distinguishing Bank of England notes from coin. Instead, Bank of England notes eventually gained a discount (which reached a maximum of about 50%), but this only mattered after about 1808.
Not only did the value of Bank of England notes in circulation increase a great deal, but their denominational distribution changed. While up to the 1790s £10 notes were the lowest note denomination issued by the Bank of England (over £1,000 in 2015 prices), it was only in 1793, at the start of the war against Napoleonic France, that £5 notes were first issued. Denominations of £5 were in turn followed by £2 and £1 banknotes, issued in 1797, coinciding with the Restriction Period. Crucially, also allowing for a margin of contemporaneous inflation, £1 was then just enough to pay a laborer’s weekly wage. The fact that many new issues were of lower denominations implies that just looking at the value of the increase of Bank of England notes underestimates how much more frequent they became at this time. This had important long-term consequences, because it was at this point that for the first time ordinary people, and in particular the lower classes, became accustomed to banknotes as a means of payment.
|Figure 1. Coin supply and Bank of England notes, at constant prices of 1700.
Sources: Bank of England (1967), Palma (2016); for the deflator, Broadberry et al (2015).
As the suspension took place, a large number of merchants all over the country signed declarations in which they promised to accept and keep using banknotes. The most prominent of these meetings was that of London; while the Bank of England had a role in arranging this meeting, the fact is that it could not force the merchants to take that decision, which was also publicly announced through publication in The Times. Hence both merchants and regular people accepted the Bank’s notes. Figure 2 shows a contemporary print where John Bull, who represents the English people, accepts the paper pound despite the warnings of French alarmists who warn him that it will be worthless once the French land.
|Figure 2. John Bull accepts paper money despite the warnings of French alarmists,
by James Gillray. Published at Hannah Humphrey’s print shop
on St. James Street, London, March 1st, 1797
|Figure 3 The ratio of bank of England notes to coin supply, 1696-1844|