The establishment of the Rothschilds as bankers*

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Some of the best-known names in the history of the City of London financial and commodity markets came from Jewish backgrounds, and of course Rothschilds, Hambros, Warburgs, Seligmans, Raphaels and others are still prominent there. But while the origins of the eighteenth-century Sephardic settlers who shifted the focus of their activities from Spain and Portugal to Bordeaux, Amsterdam and London have been written up with admirable clarity by Dr Yogev,((G. Yogev, Diamonds and Coral Anglo Dutch Jews and Eighteenth Century Trade (Leices? ter 1978).)) the Ashkenazi settlers who migrated in the Napoleonic War period still await their historian. As the surviving firms and their gentile competitors open up their records, it becomes possible to trace the course of this new (or renewed) diaspora in Europe. As we shall see, the rise of the Rothschilds should properly be set in the context of Jewish history in the turbulent years of the French Revolution, French Wars, and post-war conservative reaction against liberalization.

There is no singular or simple explanation for the attraction of London for foreign merchants in the first years of the last century. It is necessary to identify a sequence of developments, some economic, some political, others religious-if the latter is a fair label for the renewed violence of anti-Semitism in the post-war reaction. The initial development was simply economic: in the course of the eighteenth century London steadily overtook Amsterdam as the greatest international centre of finance and credit. The Dutch centre finally capitulated at the French occupation in 1804, and became a satellite of its old rival. As Braudel fairly writes, the long history of international trade and finance shows that at any one time there can be only one centre.((F. Braudel, Civilisation and Capitalism, iSth-i8th Century II, The Wheels of Commerce (1979).)) The most ambitious merchants, especially those of the younger generation, tended to desert an old centre for a new one. Frankfurt, too, suffered something of a demise during the French occupation.(([Anon.], Geschichte der Handelskammer zu Frankfurt 1707-1908 (Frankfurt 1908) 176 216.))

It might be supposed that the other attraction of London for Jews was its toleration of religious and ethnic minorities, but so far as finance is concerned, this aspect has to be carefully qualified. It is true that the Bevis Marks synagogue was an accepted institution of City life, but until about 1810 the congregation generally conversed in Portuguese, and the Sephardic Jews considered themselves an elite quite distinct from Ashkenazi Jews.((J. Picciotto, Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History (187s) 320.)) The City Corporation allowed only a dozen Jews to be admitted as sworn brokers,((Corporation of London Record Office, lists of sworn brokers.)) while the Bank of England, which at the end of the eighteenth century was the fulcrum of the system, discriminated against Jewish merchants.((Amsterdam Municipal Archives, Bank Mees & Hope MSS, Information Books PA 735/25 PP- 742-3,4 April 1815.)) The change came, not from any liberalization of the system, but from a relative decline in the importance of the Bank of England. The fullest and most

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