Panic of 1866

The Panic of 1866 was an international financial downturn that accompanied the failure of Overend, Gurney and Company in London, and the corso forzoso abandonment of the silver standard in Italy.

In Britain, the economic impacts are held partially responsible for public agitation for political reform in the months leading up to the 1867 Reform Act. The crisis led to a sharp rise in unemployment to 8% and a subsequent fall in wages across the country. Similar to the "knife and fork" motives of Chartism in the late 1830s and 1840s, the financial pressure on the British working class led to rising support for greater representation of the people. Groups such as the Reform League saw rapid increases in membership and the organisation spearheaded multiple demonstrations against the political establishment such as the Hyde Park riot of 1866. Ultimately the popular pressure that arose from the banking crisis and the recession that followed can be held partly responsible for the enfranchisement of 1.1 million people as a result of Disraeli's reform bill.[1]

The Panic decimated shipbuilding in London, and the Millwall Iron Works holding company collapsed. Barely 16% of joint-stock companies weathered this tumult.[2] The Companies Act 1862 created a financial boom which laid the groundwork for the larger banks of British finance during the latter half of the 19th century.[3]

The primary importance of the expansion of credit was its role in foreign trade. Historians P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins note that "gentlemanly capitalism" (a class-conscious form of white-collar work in finance, insurance, shipping and the Empire) was the key to the growth of the Empire and its economic growth beginning in 1850.[4] Historian David Kynaston notes the shift in the discount bills in the 1860s, particularly to finance supplies for the American Civil War,[5] and Richard Roberts describes the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s as the "internationalisation of the discount market".[6]

Bank of EnglandEdit

The Panic of 1866 provides the key event recognising this shift. In the 12 May 1866 issue of The Economist, Walter Bagehot noted that the Bank of England's refusal to lend with Consol bonds as collateral was troubling. The following week he also wrote that this refusal had caused further panic, as well as that the bankers did not consider the Bank of England to be a government agency.

By issuing its letter suspending the Bank Charter Act 1844,[7] however, it revealed its backing by the Government and was "confirming the popular conviction that the Government is behind the Bank, and will help it when wanted".[8]

On 12 May 1866, Bagehot wrote that the panic now meant "a state in which there is confidence in the Bank of England and in nothing but the Bank of England",[9] highlighting the conflict between the Bank's role in maintaining the liquidity of the domestic market and in maintaining its reserves to guarantee convertibility for foreign currency exchange.[10] In a panic, not only did the need to maintain reserves mandated by the Bank Charter Act 1844 lead to hesitation by the Bank, but also the suspension of its requirements confused foreign investors, who believed the Bank had suspended payments, which led to concurrent massive foreign withdrawals.[11]

The Bank of England adopted Bagehot's solution, which was an explicit policy of free offers to lend at high discount rates. This policy rebuilt the Bank's reserves.[12]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Malcolm Pearce and Geoffrey Stewart, British Political History 1867–1990, published 1992
  2. ^ George Robb, White-Collar Crime in Modern England: Financial Fraud and Business Morality, 1845–1929 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992), p. 71.
  3. ^ Joshua Gooch, "On Black Friday, 11 May 1866", in BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Downloaded 23 Feb. 2016, p. 4.
  4. ^ P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion, 1688-1890 (New York: Longman, 1993), p. 170.
  5. ^ David Kynaston, The City of London, A World of Its Own, 1815–1890 (London: Chatto, 1994), p. 225.
  6. ^ Richard Roberts, "The Bank of England and the City", in The Bank of England: Money, Power and Influence, 1694–1994 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 159.
  7. ^ Suspension of the Bank Charter Act 1844 meant suspending the ratio of note issue in excess of 14 million pounds to gold, an action that typically had more effect on the perception of credit than on note availability.
  8. ^ W. T. C. King, History of the London Discount Market (london: Frank Cass, 1935), p. 29.
  9. ^ Walter Bagehot, "What a Panic Is and How It Might Be Mitigated". The Economist, vol. 24, No 1185 (12 May 1866), p.554.
  10. ^ Gooch, op. cit., p. 5.
  11. ^ Walter Bagehot, Lombard Street (London: Morgan, 1873), p. 25.
  12. ^ Gooch, op. cit., p. 5.
  • Charles P. Kindleberger. Historical Economics: Art or Science? University of California Press, 1990, p. 310. [1]
  • Kynaston, David (2017). Till Time's Last Sand: A History of the Bank of England, 1694–2013. New York: Bloomsbury. p. 202. ISBN 978-1408868560.
  • Robert Baxter. The panic of 1866 with its lessons on the currency act. London, Longmans, Green (1866); New York: B. Franklin (1969).