Bankers February 2011

Dear Rowley,

Some days are just so simply satisfying. As you know, I’m eight months into a five year restoration and cataloguing project on Henry Poole & Co – the founder of Savile Row – and their historic customer ledgers dating back to 1846. It is one of my favourite projects. These ledgers are about the size of a flagstone but thicker with an average of 1200 pages each detailing a customer and all his orders. This is fascinating work because each page tells a story: who recommended the chap or chapess, where they were staying, where they resided, how much they spent, whether they paid or defaulted and so forth.

I spend a day every week or two at Poole’s working in Chairman Angus’s office poring over every page with a magnifying glass (necessary considering the minute clerk’s handwriting and the faded page numbers) and write a hit list of possible people of interest. When you get to the 1850s, you see how Henry Poole had grown the business purely through his social skills so instead of a bias towards northern business magnates, you get Prince Louis Napoleon, the Duc d’Anjou, the British Royal household, the Maharaja of Cooch-Behar…

I was studying an 1849 ledger today and am 1899-1902 (the coronation of King Edward VII). My favourite discovery was at the very end of the latter ledger which teaches you the lesson never to skip the last dog-eared pages. This one was a 1902 coronation order for King Lewanika of Barotseland: an African state roughly the size of Germany. I have not started to research him yet so can’t tell you what the territory is called today. But next to the entry was a yellowing press clipping that tells us the King is ‘well-built, very tall and very black. King Lewanika is not a Christian but he is very kindly inclined to Christians’; the reason being he is polygamous and ‘is the husband of 12 dusky queens’. Reminds me of my friend Lee.

The ledgers are most fascinating when they echo the present day. I popped down to the basement to make a cuppa and Poole’s have industrial sized Tetley teabag boxes. About an hour after resuming the 1848 ledger, I find that the founder of Tetley tea was a Henry Poole’s man. A few pages later I saw an entry for a Mr N Winstanley. Would you believe the chap who is rebinding all the books at the Wyvern in Clerkenwell is Mr Mark Winstanley. Could this be an ancestor? I’ve found one Sherwood but not, sadly, a James yet. Still, there’s more than 70 ledgers to go so you never know.

My work on identifying people of consequence is as much luck and hunch as knowledge. My military history is not strong so I have to take a punt on the higher ranks. The aristocrats are much more straightforward even though there are usually more than 150 per ledger and many are foreign so the titles stretch to about five words per page. I go a lot on location, say, if a chap lives in Eton Square or Carlton House Terrace. I also go on names because when you’re searching Debrett or the Almanac de Gotha or online you’re fighting a long shot with Sir John Brown or some such. I found a corking name today: Lord Adolphus Vane. He was a Conservative MP and was titled Lord Adolphus Vane Tempest on his death aged 38. I cannot wait to learn more of his story.

It was a surprise how many reigning Queens Henry Poole & Co made riding habit for or liveries: Empress Marie of Russia, Queen Alexandra, Empress Frederick, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, Mrs Langtry, Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters the last of the great Victorian courtesans or grande horizontales as the French had it…frequently. The Inside Out BBC1 programme has had a beneficial effect on trade as has the Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke. One of the head cutters, Alan, came up to Angus’s office to tell me that he had a new customer in Paris whose wife had bought him the book for Christmas on the understanding that he would read it then place an order for a suit that she would pay for. He chose Poole’s.

My brother Richard came down to London a couple of weekends ago to order his first bespoke suit. He went to Huntsman for one of their new House Check tweeds. I am sure it will look magnificent and it was nice to hear that the boys at the front of shop looked after him incredibly well. According to Poole’s MD Simon Cundey, business is rather booming at present. The same story is true for all of the pure bespoke houses on the Row.

So all is glorious in the garden except for a dust-up with my bank HSBC. I have banked with HSBC practically since birth and they have seen me through the lean and the prosperous times. I am happy to say it’s been more of the latter in the past decade but in early January I had a cash flow problem. I had a cheque for rather a tidy sum that needed two days to clear. Would HSBC give me an advance on it? Would they buffalo. I was quite tired and emotional on the phone. Don’t you always find it best not to shout but to get quieter, lower your tone and be on the verge of tears? It usually does the trick. But though I gave Little Nell a run for her money in pathos, the bank was immovable. ‘It’s not our policy’ drone, drone, drone.