For Our Lang Biding Here (A South Sea Song)

DESCRIPTION: "First when we came to London town, We dream'd of gowd in gowpings here," but as the South Sea Bubble burst, the singers grow increasingly desperate. Now "The lave will fare the war in truth, For our lang biding here."
AUTHOR: Allan Ramsay
EARLIEST DATE: 1724 (Tea Table Miscellany)
KEYWORDS: money hardtimes Scotland
REFERENCES (2 citations):
ADDITIONAL: Allan Ramsey, _The Tea-Table Miscellany_, 11th edition, A. Millar (?), 1724 (available on Google Books), p. 31, "A South Sea Song" (1 text)
Allan Ramsay, George Chalmers, Lord Alexander Fraser Tytler Woodhouselee, _The poems of Allan Ramsay, Volume 2_, Alexander Gardner, 1877 (available on Google Books), pp. 192-193, "A South Sea Song" (1 text)

NOTES [4885 words]: The South Sea Bubble probably qualifies as the first great financial (as opposed to economic) meltdown.
The bubble was the direct fault of the government, and arose out of the extreme demands of the War of the Spanish Succession (which occupied almost the entire reign of Queen Anne, who ruled 1702-1714). According to Hatton, p. 248, in 1714 the British government had debts totaling 54 million pounds, as compared to 1 million pounds in 1688 when William III had taken the throne. What's more, the interest on most of the debt was 7% or higher. This meant that simply servicing the debt required some 3 million pounds per year -- at a time when the government's ordinary revenue totalled only 10 million pounds per year!
It was in 1711 that Robert Harley, first earl of Oxford, took charge of the Exchequer. He at once raised several million in loans to meet immediate needs (Biddle, p. 188). But his greater need was to find a long-term way of managing the debt. Biddle, p. 189, describes his expedient:
"In May of 1711 he proposed that a newly incorporated joint-stock company, invested with a monopoly of the South American trage, take over the unsecured L9,000,000. The government's creditors would become shareholders in the South Sea Company; in return the government would pay the Company annual interest and management fees until 1716, thus allowing a small dividend to be returned to the stockholders. Beyond this the Company's profits would come from its trading monopoly."
Similarly Marshall, pp. 122-123:
"When George I became king [in 1714] there were three great financial corporations in the City -- the Bank of England, the East India Company, and the South Sea Company.... Of these companies the youngest was the South Sea Company which had only received its charter in 1711.... In 1711, Harley needed allies if he was to carry through his peace negotiations with France, and the foundation of the South Sea Company was his answer to the support the Bank of England had given to his political opponents. By it, the holders of L9,000,000 of unfunded government debts were forced to exchange their securities for stock at par in the new company. Its commercial basis was to be monopoly rights of trade in the South Seas, to be wrung from Spain on the conclusion of peace. Though the offer was made more attractive by this provision its promoters were never genuinely interested in its commercial activities. The transaction of 1711 was essentially a conversion loan and the South Sea Company a financial corporation."
The government had arrangements to pay for some of its debt, but that nine million pounds of unsecured debt was just that: unsecured -- the term used was "floating" -- with no real payment mechanism (Balen, p. 30). This was the debt that was originally handed off to the South Sea Company. This was particularly sharp dealing, because the only way there could be South Sea trade was if the Spanish lifted their monopoly -- and, in 1711, the War of the Spanish Succession was still going on and there was no guarantee that it would be lifted. Indeed, when the peace treaty finally came, the monopoly was eased but not eliminated entirely (Balen, p. 34).
We can thus cite historical parallels to the creation of the South Sea Company; it was essentially a way for the government to write down its debts without admitting bankruptcy. The problem was not the idea, it was the enthusiastic way the shares were received. The general public did not realize that this "trading company" was essentially intended as a bank -- Harley, a Tory, couldn't get money from the Whig-dominated Bank of England or East India Company, so he created a Tory financial institution.
But the population saw it as a genuine corporation: "The newly created South Sea Company -- Harley's Tory rival to the Whig Bank of England -- was given what amounted to a license to print money, for the barbarous [South American] slave trade was believed to be immensely profitable" (Kishlansky, p. 334; Balen, p. 35, notes that the trade in fact was unprofitable due to high fees charged by the Spanish). Even so, to set up the scheme, Harley had to arrange for the creation of a half-dozen new peers to get it through the House of Lords (Balen, p. 33).
Joint stock companies were not new. The East India Company was itself an example of one. What was relatively new was stock trading. At this early stage, there wasn't even a stock exchange as such. Stock traders -- or "stock jobbers," as they were known at the time -- met in the coffeehouses of Exchange Alley in London, near the meeting of Cornhill and Lombard Streets (Balen, p. 4). And, for some reason, everyone wanted to get into the stock-trading game.
So strong was this urge that everyone felt the Company could raise additional capital on the open market -- and, with it, hand the government an additional three million pounds, as well as offering the government a low interest on the nine million debt (Marshall, p. 123). The stock sale proceeded accordingly.
The South Sea Company came into existence on September 10, 1711. Balen, p. 32, notes the ominous fact that nine of the thirty directors were political appointees -- and none of them had any experience in South Seas trading. Nor would they do much better in European trading (Balen, p. 35); it seems as if none of the directors had the slightest business sense. In fact, Balen, p. 40, notes that a number of them had experience in a corporation called the Sword Blade company, which despite its name engaged mostly in financial manipulation.
Adam Smith, in section V.i.e of The Wealth of Nations (Smith, pp. 744-745), has a fair amount to say about the South Sea Company: it "never had any forts or garrison to maintain, and therefore was entirely exempted from one great expence, to which other joint stock companies for foreign trade are subject. But they had an immense capital divided among an immense number of proprietors. It was naturally to be expected, therefore, that folly, negligence, and profusion should prevail in the whole management of their affairs. The knavery and extravagance of their stock-jobbing projects are sufficiently known.... Their mercantile projects were not much better conducted."
Harley had his investment gimmick, but it did very little to sustain his ministry. He was fired shortly before the death of Anne -- Balen, pp. 35-36, blames drink; Biddle, p. 273 (with much discussion on the preceding pages) thinks that he had wanted to go for some years but had not been granted release until his enemy Bolingbroke allowed it.
In 1715, the company did the government another favor, declining the interest due to it in return for the right to sell more shares on the open market. It did this again in 1719, converting government debt into stock shares (Balen, p. 40). This meant that it had many more shareholders than the Bank of England or the East India Company, but it had fewer assets, and many of those non-negotiable. It was already something of a hollow shell even before it began its real trade ventures!
When the War of the Spanish Succession ended, the Spanish did indeed give the British trade concessions starting in 1715 (and with promises at least through 1743), although not quite so generous as what had been hoped; "The gains of the slave trade, even when taking into account the semi-legal smuggling trade in British manufactured goods which sheltered under the umbrella of the 'annual ship' [that the British were allowed to send to Spanish lands], hadn ot come up to highly pitched expectations. Yet hope sprang eternal where the South Seas were concerned" (Hatton, p. 249).
The key portions of the agreement are printed on pp. 288-298 of Symcox, who notes (p. 288) that Britain "could not supply enough slaves to meet its quota, and the privilege of limited trade with the Spanish colonies proved of small value." And there was a large duty on the slaves -- 32 and a third pieces of eight on each able-bodied man, according to Symcox, which Marshall, p. 177, calculates as 34,000 pounds on the first 4,000 slaves.
The company had bigger problems than its obligations to its shareholders. A great deal of stock had been used, in effect, for bribes and to enrich the nobility, in no small part to get them to approve the deal (Balen, p. 76). Members of the cabinet received in excess of a hundred thousand pounds worth of stock, and the mistresses of George I got a cut measured in the tens of thousands (Hatton, p. 251). George I eventually became a director of the company, not because he was suited to the role but because it gave him another excuse to snub the son he so despised (Balen, p. 43). But this, of course, meant that the crown had its reputation on the line when disaster struck.
Still, the idea of a combination bank and trading company seemed to be a great success; France's Mississippi Company appeared to be playing a major role in pulling that country, economically ruined by the wars of Louis XIV, out of its depression (Balen, pp. 53-54). The price of scarce commodities fell dramatically (Balen, p. 60). Stock-jobbing was all the rage (Balen, p. 61); the Mississippi Company was letting investors make fortunes overnight.
It also produced a mess that the British could have learned from, because France definitely found itself in the grip of a bubble -- people wanted Mississippi Company stock not because the company produced anything but because it was a speculative investment. John Law, the British exile who had dreamed all this up, was forced into more and more extreme expedients to keep things going. Having already created paper money, he was now herding prisoners off to Louisiana after pushing them into on-the-spot marriages.
The Earl of Stair, one of George I's most important ministers, commented nastily of Law, who had converted to the Roman faith in order to pull off his scheme, "There can be no doubt of Law's catholicity since he has established the Inquisition after having first proved transubstantiation by changing paper into money" (Balen, p. 66).
This even as Britain was drowning in debt. George I in 1719 was desperately asking parliament for help, even though taxes were so high that it was clearly damaging the economy (Balen, p. 69).
Balen, p. 41, notes that by 1719 the South Sea company had a capital in excess of twelve million pounds, which he calls "financially absurd." Yet it was able to move into a fine building on Threadneedle Street, which came to be called "South Sea House." It was just down the street from the Bank of England.
Then things started to go bad. Lyon, p. 282, declares, "The South Sea company was founded by Harley in 1711, ostensibly to exploit the trading rights which his government expected to gain from the Spanish Empire, but in reality to profit from the National Debt and to counter-balance the Whig-dominated Bank of England and East India Company. Initially, it was highly successful, and in the period 1717-1720, it negotiated with the government to take over L31 million of the National Debt, then in the hand of private investors who were being repaid by the government via high interest annuities."
Balen, pp. 72-73, notes that the 31 million pound figure is only an estimate; the government's finances were such a tangle that the debt could not even be calculated. But the agreement was to reckon it at 31 million pounds, and sell it off on that basis. Which meant that the South Seas Company had a theoretical capital larger than the Bank of England! (Balen, p. 74).
The result was strong opposition from the Bank -- and hence from its supporters in parliament. According to Balen, p. 79, "so sharp was the division between them that the central question -- whether it was actually a good idea to sell off the national debt in this way -- went unanswered."
The result was an absurd bidding war to see whether the Bank or the South Sea Company could take on more debt (Balen, pp. 80-81). This started a stock roller coaster all by itself (Balen, p. 82). But the South Sea Company had fewer restrictions on the stock it could sell, so it "won."
As Balen says on p. 74, "Logically, it was absurd to sell shares in a concern whose sole business consisted of servicing the national debt, but by making the debt the responsibility of the South Seas Company [Director John] Blunt was wiping the Treasury slate clean -- which was irresistible to the ruling classes -- while investors, lured by the rising share prices that he came to engineer, were drawn, moth-like, to the flames."
Marshall, p. 124, declares, "From this point the story of the Bubble becomes fantastic. The directors could only hope to make a profit and cover the large bribes which, in the form of fictitious holdings, had been given to prominent politicians and courtiers... by driving up the price of the shares. To do this Sir John Blunt, the most influential of the directors, contrived a series of pump priming operations." In other words, he created a Ponzi scheme -- according to Balen, p. 105, his whole plan was to ensure that the share price went up forever. A stock sale drove the price of the old shares to 325 pounds.
The directors didn't stop there. Stocks were sold in what amounted to installments. A commission was appointed to look into fraudulent stock sales. Balen, p. 106, thinks the leader was bribed -- he had a history of corrupt dealings. No matter; this fellow John Hungerford was given the appointment to investigate -- and announced that there were problems with stock-jobbing, but that the South Sea Company was clean. Legislation was passed limiting the ability to create new companies, but Blunt was allowed to continue his dealings.
Meanwhile, rumors were everywhere claiming significant prospects for the Company. There was no actual evidence for any of this -- but the stock kept rising anyway (Balen, p. 88). And Blunt produced leveraging trick after leveraging trick to put more shares on the market and earn money despite having no actual income (Balen, p. 89). This also let the company pay the kickbacks it had promised.
By mid-summer 1720, the bubble was exploding. In one week in June, the price went from 508 to 830! (Balen, pp. 106-107). Blunt had, in effect, created an alternate currency, and kept pumping out more by allowing people to buy on credit; naturally the price went through the roof. It became so over-inflated that the stock, originally valued at 100 pounds a share, was selling for 1050 pounds a share by mid-summer (Marshall, p. 125; Lyon, p. 282).
So well did this all seem to be working that Blunt was knighted (Balen, p. 107).
To be sure, the South Sea Company wasn't the only source of speculation. With stock jobbing seeming to offer endless profit, new companies were formed at the drop of a hat -- less to meet the demands of society than to put shares on the market; many of the companies were insurance firms (Balen, pp. 89-90), and many of these were surely under-capitalized badly. There were also quite a few companies founded to promote various inventions -- some of them good ideas, most of them silly (Balen, p. 97).
This was great news for Blunt -- the more the market rose, the fewer shares he would have to give to allocate to the debt and the more he could use to line his pockets (Balen, p. 99). As fiscal policy, it was ludicrous; as a Ponzi scheme, it was working very well indeed. When the South Sea company finally bought the national debt, it used a share price of 375 pounds per share (Balen, p. 102; this compares to an initial value of $100). This of course meant that they had to use only a fraction of the number of shares investors might originally have anticipated -- something parliament could have prevented but didn't (Balen, p. 103).
By this time, some investors were starting to cash out -- including the members of the government. One of those doing so was the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Balen, p. 108). Some people -- Isaac Newton was one -- had made money. But Newton had gotten out early, having commented that he could predict the motions of the heavens but not the madness of people (Balen, pp. 86-87).
The King, unfortunately, was not one who cashed out (Hatton, pp. 251-252); in April 1720 he had made a show of depositing a hundred thousand pounds (although it appears that not all the money was actually deposited; Balen, p. 83), and when advised to take his money and run, he insisted on reinvesting most of his profits (Balen, pp. 109,112).
The South Sea Company by this time was a hollow shell, existing solely on the income from its stocks. Once again it offered up stock on easy terms, and induced many to subscribe (Balen, p. 111), including about half the members of parliament (Balen, p. 113). But the income from that was all being taken from Peter to pay Paul -- or, in many cases, to pay Peter. When the stock price reached 1100 pounds a share, the theoretical value of the company was 300 million pounds -- or roughly ten times its one "asset," the national debt (Balen, p. 114). The shareholders owed the company some 60 million pounds to pay off their loans -- which may have been more than the entire amount of actual specie in the country (Balen, p. 116).
The problem actually started with other firms, in the aftermath of the government crackdown on joint stock companies. Share prices in insurance companies fell by more than three-quarters (Balen, p. 116). Suddenly, paper assets were just that: Paper. And the French boom had already collapsed, showing what could happen (Balen, pp. 119-131). Soon, it would be the South Sea Company's turn. Indeed, Blunt was pulling out his own money even as he prepared for a fourth round of stock offerings (Balen, p. 134).
In an attempt to postpone the inevitable, Blunt declared a particularly large dividend -- a clear attempt to bring in more investors to prop up his scheme (Balen, p. 135). He seems to have gone too far. Investors, realizing that such a high payout could not be sustainable, began to sell out.
By September 1, the stock was down to 770 (Balen, p. 135). At that point, the bubble burst. Dramatically. Lyon, p. 282, calls it a "freefall." By the third week of September, the stock was down to 300 (Hatton, p. 252). Indeed, Balen, p. 136, cites the Weekly Journal for the week of September 10 as quoting the price on Saturday as 370 -- and the price on the following Thursday as 180!
On September 19, the Company had to admit defeat and open talks with its rival the Bank of England (Balen, p. 138), which it had so outrageously flouted in the previous year. The Bank briefly agreed to take up shares at 400 pounds each (Balen, p. 140) -- four times the initial price, but a third of the peak value. It was too late. The Sword Bank, which had been responsible for the initial venture, failed, and the market continued to fall. In any case, the Bank would back out after making only partial payments (Balen, pp. 161-162).
On September 29, the South Sea Company agreed to adjust the terms with shareholders, so that those who had purchased, on credit, at a thousand pounds a share would now owe only 400 pounds per share -- but, since this was still far more than the shares were worth, that helped very little (Balen, p. 154).
There was, predictably, a rush for gold and precious metals -- Britain and France had both, in effect, tried paper money and abandoned it -- and the result was an evaporation of credit and a severe economic downturn (Balen, p. 156). The Bank of England itself was for a time threatened (Balen, p. 161), partly because the South Seas shares it was supposed to redeem continued to fall and partly because of a run on its own assets.
The losses were immense. Justus Beck -- who, ironically, was a director of the Bank of England -- was said to have lost 374,000 pounds. The Duke of Chandos lost 300,000. The Duke of Portland also lost hundreds of thousands, and the Duke of Montrose was among the Scottish peers badly hurt (Balen, pp. 142-143). A number of banks failed, which of course worsened the downturn as people were laid off and building projects had to be halted (Balen, p. 143). Many treasures went up for sale as formerly-rich men tried to clear their debts; the bottom fell out of the market for luxuries such as jewelry and coaches (Balen, p. 144).
The situation was so bad that there weren't even enough executives to manage all the paper that was flying around as people tried to reckon things up; a number of the newly-poor seem to have tried to escape their troubles simply by hiding their various certificates (Balen, p. 145). A number of victims committed suicide -- including even Blunt's own nephew (Balen, p. 146).
In the aftermath, the government fell and Robert Walpole, who had warned against the business from the start, took control of the situation -- a control he would not relinquish for a generation.
There is dispute over whether Walpole made money out of the bubble. Marshall, p. 126, says he lost heavily (he had put money in when the Company offered especially good terms; Balen, p. 112). Balen, p. 134, says that he had wanted to buy more stock, but his banker wisely delayed the purchase. In any case, he managed to stay afloat, and his warnings gave him a good reputation (even though he had earlier made money off another royal influence-selling trick, of granting charters in return for cash; Balen, p. 70).
Walpole was not overly scrupulous; according to Balen, p. 163, he waited longer than he had to to start working on a rescue scheme in order to assure that he would gain and keep the power he wanted. Also, he wanted revenge for an earlier imprisonment (Balen, p. 165).
The Bank of England had by then backed off its earlier deal (Balen, p. 164). Walpole "persuaded the Bank of England and the East India Company each to take over L9 million of South Sea stock, bringing the freefall to an end, and worked out a scheme for compensating investors" (Lyon, p. 282). The South Seas investors did not receive cash, but they did get shares in stronger companies to go with their South Seas shares (Balen, pp. 164-165).
Parliament had not been summoned during the early part of the crisis; George I was out of the country -- and the government was teetering anyway (Balen, p. 165). When they finally came back, even though Walpole tried to keep things quiet (Balen, p. 168). Parliament got busy investigating -- a significant step toward Parliament becoming independent of the monarchy (Balen, p. 170).
Parliament refused even to pass the ordinary agenda items, such as the mutiny bill, until the matter was resolved. The arguments were so bitter that at one point there came a demand for a duel (Balen, p. 174). The Commons inquiry was so diligent that they worked fourteen hours a day, six days a week! (Balen, p. 176). The Lords also staged an inquiry, although this accomplished little except to muddy the waters of the Commons investigation.
According to Balen, p. 171, Robert Knight, the company cashier, was already rewriting the books to cover up how much corruption had been involved. But when Parliament came calling, he answered a few questions (Balen, p. 178) -- then fled the country rather than face more (Marshall, p. 128). He clearly had planned this, since he had moved money overseas and transferred other assets to family members, making it impossible to seize them (Balen, p. 179). And, while the British government officially wanted him back, George I made it unofficially clear that he was not to be extradited (Hatton, p. 255). This was also Walpole's desire (Balen, p. 189), and Knight in effect cooperated by avoiding countries with extradition treaties with Britain.
In the aftermath of Knight's flight, a number of company officials were placed under guard, not always fairly, and government officials began to be pushed out. Not too surprisingly, John Aislabie, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was the first to go (Balen, p. 181). Sir Charles Joye, the Deputy Governor of the company, decided to talk freely (Balen, p. 182). And Sir John Blunt, whose ideas were largely responsible for the Bubble, decided to put his cards on the table, first showing reluctance then offering to cut a deal. He ended up talking freely (Balen, p. 183).
The parliamentary audit showed more than a half a million pounds' worth of stock was missing and unaccounted for (Balen, p. 203). Presumably this had been used mostly for bribes. There were even places in the company books where stock assignments had simply been left blank -- and directors had signed off on them anyway (Balen, p. 206).
Balen, p. 171, claims that Walpole authorized a major cover-up to hide the corruption. It didn't work; Blunt named too many names, and pointed out that there had been about a million pounds of bribes paid (Balen, p. 183). This had the ironic effect of helping to protect Blunt, because he had given his testimony mostly secretly, allowing him to protest against what amounted to double jeopardy rather than offer open testimony before the Lords (Balen, p. 184).
Knight was eventually captured, by a low-level diplomat who didn't understand what the government wanted (Balen, p. 190). But Austria, which had him in custody, moved slowly (Balen, pp. 192-193). Supposedly they even moved the prisoner and kept up a subterfuge that he was still in his old cell! (Balen, p. 196). The government had to covertly but explicitly beg Austria to set him free (Balen, p. 197), and he was eventually dropped in Luxembourg, with the soldiers who had "allowed" him to "escape" being quietly reassigned and promoted (Balen, p. 198).
Knight was forced to stay in exile for decades, until Walpole fell, then finally was allowed to purchase a pardon (for 10,000 pounds!) from George II (Balen, p. 224). Blunt spent the last dozen years of his life trying to regain favor, but when he died in 1733, he was still regarded with contempt (Balen, p. 225).
The chaos was so great that there was fear of a new Jacobite invasion (Balen, p. 201). And, of course, the national debt, which the Company was supposed to have taken over, was back (Balen, p. 202), now estimated at 14 million pounds.
Several high officials were put on trial by parliament in proceedings so poisonous that they amounted to attempts to attaint rather than convict them. But, somehow, Walpole managed to work things out so that Treasury Secretary Stanhope was acquitted 180-177 (Balen, pp. 207-209). Because *someone* had to be sacrificed, John Aislabie, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was unanimously found guilty of corruption and expelled from the House of Commons (Balen, p. 209, who however notes that the evidence against Aislabie was relatively weak).
Several officials of the bank also were punished (Balen, p. 210). More interesting was the case of the Earl of Sunderland, who was Walpole's rival for power. Balen suggests that Walpole needed his support for the government but wanted him knocked down a notch so that he could not be a rival. Sunderland had to give up his ministry but stayed in parliament (Balen, p. 212).
When attention turned to postmaster general Craggs, he committed suicide rather than face the heat (Balen, p. 212; Marshall, p. 128). Walpole, as the only man still standing, naturally ended up in charge of the government -- which he promptly filled with his friends and cronies.
The senior officials of the company were put under the microscope; their properties were examined in detail and most were forced into heavy losses to pay back defrauded investors (Balen, p. 217). The extent to which they were punished varied; most were left with something. But the losses could be great; Blunt was left with only 5,000 pounds out of the 185,000 pounds he had before (Balen, pp. 219-220).
Walpole took relatively mild revenge on those who had invested in the bubble, trying to assure that everyone had at least some property left (Balen, p. 220); his goal seems to have been to maintain the strength and stability of the government (Marshall, p. 129). The government gave up its claim to 7.5 million pounds from the South Seas Company (Balen, p. 221), and the company was made to write off about 11 million pounds owed to it by subscribers. He also let a number of investors cap their payments in return for giving up their shares. Balen estimates that, as a result of these moves, the average investor lost half of his investment.
Walpole also suppressed the public report of the parliamentary committees (Balen, p. 223), which would doubtless have reopened the wounds and led to more conflict.
Walpole eventually managed to stabilize South Sea stock, which in August 1721 rose back to 400 pounds per share (Hatton, p. 256). It is ironic to note that the company went into whaling in the Arctic (Balen, p. 225). This let it survive for more than a century, although it never again would shine so brightly.
Balen, p. 142, reports that the Bubble helped inspire Swift's Gulliver's Travels; note that one of the destinations in that book is the South Seas.
According to Balen, p. 232, the Scots were minimally involved in the South Sea Bubble. It is perhaps rather a surprise to see a Scottish song about it. Perhaps it is being conflated with the Darien Scheme, which had happened a few years earlier and had been an even worse disaster. - RBW
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