Squirrelled away

Tomb of James William Gilbart in West Norwood Cemetery (photo: Francis Sedgemore)A few weeks ago I went on a guided cycle ride following the path of the largely lost River Effra in south London. We followed the trail from the river source in Upper Norwood to what is now a sewer outfall into the Thames under the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) by Vauxhall Bridge. More of that later, perhaps; for now I want to highlight an interesting tomb in West Norwood Cemetery.

The pictured tomb is that of James William Gilbart (1794-1863), who was general manager of the London and Westminster Bank, one of the first joint-stock banks in England. I know virtually nothing of the life of this financier, author, Fellow of the Royal Society and lifelong bachelor, save that his ideas laid the basis for modern retail banking and the now almost totally defunct mutual society movement.

What struck me, as our group passed through West Norwood Cemetery in the company of a local guide, was Gilbart’s impressive memorial, and in particular the squirrel motif on its side. Our escort explained that squirrels were once emblematic of the banking trade. With today’s bankers hoarding money like there’s no tomorrow, and financial woes as much if not more down to a capital flow crisis as personal, corporate and government debt, the irony was certainly not lost on me!