‘And you try and tell the young people of today that… they won’t believe you’

PriceWaterhouseCoopers the accounting firm with corporate offices in every major city in the world, has mercifully begun calling itself PwC. It has had a bit of a track record with name changes as it swallowed more rivals over the years than the greenery in Little Shop of Horrors.  But if you wanted to deal with Coopers in London where it began in the late 19th century you dealt with Mr Arthur, Mr Francis, or Mr Ernest Cooper in person. (The founder brother, Mr William died in 1871).

The boys had been dragged into the money business by their father Emanuel, a staunch Quaker and abolitionist who founded the London & County Bank, a precursor to NatWest. His reputation for financial probity ended in 1848, though, after he was caught ‘borrowing’ £16,000 from his bank which he had no way of repaying. When he died in the year of the Great Exhibition, in 1851, 11 of his family of 13 children were surviving and all seven of his sons took some part in the business — though only the quartet of William, the brother who began the firm and ran it for 17 years, Arthur, Francis and Ernest became partners.

Arthur Cooper was the leading light at the firm until his death in 1892. A year later his brother Francis, who was a diabetic, succumbed and it was left to Ernest to carry the business into the new century, working until he retired in 1923.

To our way of thinking, Coopers was a tough place to work in those days, though but not tougher than any other financial establishment. The hours were from 9am to 6pm with just half an hour for ‘dinner’ during the weekdays. Every Saturday meant work from 9am to 2pm, with no meal allowance. Staff turnover was high according to the company’s own official biography, written in the 1950s. It says: “The view at that time was that staff was material to be used and if they did not mould themselves rapidly to the mood and outlook of the partners they could be easily replaced – and were.”

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