Malachi Malagrowther

Peter Symes

All banknotes issued by the Bank of Scotland since 1970 carry a portrait of Sir Walter Scott and some notes of British Linen Bank, which was absorbed by the Bank of Scotland, also carried a portrait of the great Scot. While this may appear unexceptional, as Sir Walter was one of Scotland’s most famous sons, it is generally accepted that Scot appears on the banknotes due to the endeavours of Malachi Malagrowther.

            Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the economy of Britain was depressed. Rebuilding the economy was slow and tedious and, during this period, there were difficulties in lending, there were low interest rates, and there was an over-supply of interest-bearing deposits. This meant there was very little opportunity to make a profit through investment. However, commerce and industry did slowly build to the point where, in 1821, the Bank of England was allowed to resume specie payments, which had been suspended during the wars. This signalled the start of dramatic growth in many areas of the economy. Not only was there real growth in the ensuing years, but speculation also occurred in numerous enterprises, many of which were associated with trade to the newly independent Spanish South-American colonies. However, there were also prospectuses issued for many local manufacturing and commercial enterprises that were subscribed as soon as they were released.

            The speculative bubble grew until April 1825 when the price of stock began to decline and, by the end of the year, the economic disaster was apparent. Swept up in the numerous commercial failures were a number of English joint-stock banks. Faced with an economic disaster, the British Government launched an investigation to determine why the crisis had occurred. One of the reasons was determined to be the oversupply of paper money in the form of one-pound notes. These had been introduced during the Napoleonic Wars to cover the shortage of specie and it was now thought that the availability of these notes amongst the poorer classes had contributed to the crisis of 1825. Consequently, in 1826 various changes were made to the English banking acts. One of the changes was the withdrawal of one-pound notes from circulation.

            Scotland has different laws to those in England. Having changed the laws concerning the issue of one-pound notes in England, Lord Liverpool’s government decided to do the same thing in Scotland. However, no sooner did the news of the intended move reach the border of Scotland than the nation rose as one to denounce the move. Across Scotland public meetings were held, petition on petition were delivered to Parliament, and correspondence in the newspapers echoed the concerns of the Scots nation. One of the most significant correspondents was Malachi Malagrowther, who wrote three letters to the editor of the Edinburgh Weekly Journal between February and March 1826. He introduced himself in the following terms:

‘My Dear Mr. Journalist — I am by pedigree a discontented person, so that you may throw this letter into the fire, if you have any apprehensions of incurring the displeasure of your superiors. I am, in fact, the lineal descendant of Sir Mungo Malagrowther, who makes a figure in the Fortunes of Nigel, and have retained a reasonable proportion of his ill luck, and, in consequence, his ill temper.’

            Malagrowther’s letters had three principal subjects. Firstly, he admonished the English for wanting to always apply to Scotland what they fed themselves, taking into no account the history and nature of the country north of the border. Secondly, he defended the Scottish banking system, which had been quite stable during the crisis of 1825. Thirdly, he attacked the theorists who proposed to change a system of banking, which had withstood the test of time, with regulations that had only ever been tested in theory. Typical of his letters is this extract:

‘Scotland and her laws have been too often subjected to the alterations of any person who chose to find himself a reputation, by bringing in a bill to cure some defect which had never been felt in practice, but which was represented as a frightful bugbear to English statesmen, who, wisely and judiciously tenacious of the legal practice and principles received at home, are proportionately startled at the idea of any thing abroad which cannot be brought to assimilate with them.’

            The letters were widely applauded in Scotland but denounced south of the border. Mr. Wilson Croker, secretary to the Admiralty, wrote a reply to Malagrowther’s letter, which was considered by some English authorities to have ended the matter – but it did not! While Malagrowther’s letters were prosaic and pulled at the strings of nationalism, there was very little practical in the letters. True, the Scottish banking system had remained very stable in the crisis of 1825 and there really was no reason to withdraw the one-pound note in Scotland, but there was little real argument in Malagrowther’s letters, which teemed with anecdotes, legends and allusion.

            By the time the third letter was published, the public of Scotland had recognized the style of Sir Walter Scott in the writings of Malachi Malagrowther and it was indeed the great man himself who had risen to defend the one-pound note. (A strong clue to Malachi’s identity had lain in the person of his antecedent, Sir Mungo Malagrowther, who was an embittered courtier in Scott’s The Fortunes of Nigel.) Ultimately, public opinion and, one hopes, a certain amount of reason changed the course of the deliberations of the government and the one-pound note was allowed to remain in Scotland. While not solely responsible for the decision to save the one-pound note, Scott’s popularity saw him become its champion.

            Sir Walter Scott first appeared on the five-pound notes of the British Linen Bank in 1962. Scott had not only been the champion of the one-pound note, he had also been a customer of the British Linen Bank at Selkirk. When the Bank of Scotland absorbed the British Linen Bank in the early 1970s the Bank of Scotland introduced new notes that incorporated symbols of the Bank of Scotland and the British Linen Bank. The symbol adopted from the notes of the British Linen Bank was the image of Sir Walter Scott and his portrait, in several variations, has remained on the notes of the Bank of Scotland ever since.

This article was completed in March 2003
© Peter Symes