Convention has it that the institutions of the nineteenth-century City enjoyed unstinted financial and entrepreneurial success and that they prospered most dramatically over the period 1870–1914. This convention is not inaccurate but it is insensitive; it stands in need of much refinement.
Certainly the export of capital, insurance and shipping services from London in the half-century before the First World War constituted the greatest boom in invisible trade ever generated by an industrial economy. Its reputation is familiar and largely deserved. Moreover, that reputation has rubbed off on the bankers, underwriters and brokers who took the decisions about the loans, the policies and the cargoes. Whilst the manufacturing community of the late nineteenth century sits uneasily before a hung jury, few doubts have been aired concerning the calibre of their financial colleagues, and fewer aspersions cast. The present status of the indictment against the manufacturer, very broadly, is that some (many?) late-Victorian industrialists may have failed while others (most?) probably did not; the ‘some’, ‘many’ or ‘most’ depends mainly on the strength of the historian's doctrine, the length of his dossier and the flexibility of his algebra. Yet the bankers, underwriters et al. have almost entirely escaped such probing discussion.
They have escaped so well that one recent and persuasive analysis of Victorian society has proposed that it contained not one middle class but two distinct middle classes: the familiar provincial bourgeoisie based largely on industrial and mercantile activity and a much less publicized metropolitan bourgeoisie drawing its substance from the professions, from contracting, from finance and the other invisible trades.