The essays in this collection have several common features. Those on Harry Marks and Ernest Cassel both derive from papers originally presented to the City and Empire seminar conducted at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, while two others, on Frederic Philipson Stow and Edgar Vincent, are contributed by the seminar's organisers, Dr Rob Turrell and Dr Jean-Jacques van Helten. The remaining contributions, on E.T. Hooley, Allan Smith and Hugo Hirst, deal with topics that have been explored in other papers delivered at the seminar.
All seven essays are biographical in treatment, examining trends or incidents in the careers of individual businessmen intended to illustrate the general themes of speculation and patriotism in the period 1880-1924. Some of the men studied-Marks, Hooley and Vincent-were speculators pure and simple. With Cassel, Hirst and Smith an authentic strand of patriotism is discernible in their dealings with the British government, even though Cassel and Hirst, as German Jews by birth and British Christians by conversion, fall into the category caricatured by one unkind contemporary as 'Britishers who sing “God Save the King” in broken English'. Stow perhaps is the most ambiguous mixture of diamond speculator and patriot.
There is no attempt to suggest in these essays that speculation and patriotism were ineluctably related: they were merely two important and coeval elements in British life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This collection simply offers seven biographical studies which in different ways illustrate the working of these elements in the business world.
With great social perception, George Gissing in The Whirlpool (1897) charts the 'monstrous cruelties and mendacities' of the 'great finance gambler' Bennet Frothingham, whose Britannia Loan, Assurance, Investment and Banking Company ran 'its pestilent course; exciting avarice, perturbing quiet industry with the passion of the gamester, inflating vulgar ambition, now at length scattering wreck and ruin'. Another character in the novel, Rolfe, believes that to 'beat the big British drum', is
our only hope. We're rotting at home-some of us sunk in barbarism, some coddling ourselves in over-refinement. What's the use of preaching peace and civilisation, when we know that England's just beginning her big fight-the fight that will put all history in the shade! We have got to lead the world; it's our destiny; and we must do it by breaking heads. That's the nature of the human animal, and will be for ages to come.
But Rolfe, while admiring British imperialism in India, has little fervour