Worcester Old Bank dates back to 1772, but became a Worcester institution after its founder Joseph Berwick married his daughter Mary to Anthony Lechmere in 1787. Berwick brought his son-in-law into the business as a partner and eventually, the two families merged into the very respectable Worcester banking partnership of Berwick, Lechmere & Co.
Berwick’s success enabled him to build a new manor house at Hallow Park in the 1790s. But his business also had interests far from home: a mortgage holding on an estate in the Virgin Islands.
The Worcester Old Bank went from strength to strength – not suffering after Berwick’s death in 1798 – and the family moved in the best circles in Worcestershire. Lechmere was created a baronet in 1818 shortly after meeting with the Prince of Wales (later George IV) who was said to be much struck with Lechmere’s abilities. His son, Edmund Hungerford Lechmere, married the Hon Maria-Clara Murray, Maid of Honour to Queen Charlotte, the following year.
Berwick Lechmere Bankers first appeared in the London Gazette in 1844, demonstrating their solid reputation. After Lechmere’s death in 1849, the company continued to expand prudently to serve the financial needs of the people of Worcester. In 1862 a handsome new Worcester City and County Bank premises was unveiled on the Cross, Worcester. It became a limited company shortly after and this change facilitated more expansion. Over the next 30 years, 24 branches would open, serving the many farming and business families in Worcestershire and surrounding counties. Finally in 1889, the bank merged with Lloyds who still operate a branch from that 1862 building on the Cross. This cheque in Worcester’s museum collection dates from that final decade of the Worcester Old Bank before it became part of Lloyds.
Between his elevation to the baronetcy and the transfer of his bank to his son, Lechmere, in common with many hundreds of wealthy Britons, was in 1836 awarded compensation for the loss of an investment in the Caribbean. In Lechmere’s case this was £4,089 10s 3d – the price assessed as the loss of 286 people enslaved on an estate in the Virgin Islands: that mortgage interest that had belonged to his father-in-law.
While the 1807 Slave Trade Act had abolished the slave trade and halted the passage of slave ships from England across the Atlantic, it wasn’t until a quarter of a century later that ownership of slaves became illegal across the British Empire. Their exploitation continued to be core to maintaining profitable sugar plantations. It was not until the passing of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act that slaves across the Empire finally gained a slow (up to seven-year) process towards freedom.
The 1833 Act also set out a plan to compensate those who owned slaves. The British government borrowed £20 million (about 5% of GDP at the time) to finance this programme. About half of these compensation payments were to families living in Britain who, like Lechmere, were not themselves active in the slave trade or as plantation owners but who held investments in the Caribbean whose profitability relied on slavery; these ranged from high society figures to the provincial landed gentry and even to clergymen.
Lechmere’s story can be read through the Parliamentary papers of the time, and through his business archives now held by Lloyds Bank. By contrast, the lives of the 286 black slaves were not recorded and can’t be shared, all history passes on to us is that assessment of their worth as an asset.