The name of Albert Grant will not be known to many, although he was one of the most famous entrepreneurs of mid-Victorian England. A pioneer of ‘mammoth company promoting’, his career had much in common with that of George Hudson, the ‘railway king’. Despite making several fortunes Grant’s reputation suffered greatly by the promotion of ‘bubble’ companies which were financially unsound and involved shareholders in enormous losses.
Perhaps more familiar will be the name of the corrupt financier Augustus Melmotte, the central character of Anthony Trollope’s novel, The Way We Live Now. Grant is widely believed to have served as the model for Melmotte, and the novel was first published serially at the height of Grant’s fame in 1874-5.
Grant was born Abraham Gottheimer in Dublin in 1830, but changed his name to Albert Grant in 1863. He was the son of Berton Gottheimer, a Jewish commission agent who was born in Prussia around 1798. Having dissolved a partnership as a Liverpool merchant in 1829, Berton subsequently set up in London, as an importer of fancy goods. Grant’s mother, Julia, was born in Portsmouth.
By 1851 Grant was employed as a merchant’s clerk in the city of London. He then became ‘a traveller in wines’, a business he dissolved in 1857. By then he had been baptised into the Anglican faith. He was admitted as a freeman of the city of London, and by 1858 had established himself as a banker and discount agent in Lombard Street. In 1859 he set up the Mercantile Discount Company, which provided financial services for the trading community. Concerns were voiced about the large salaries and beneficial financial guarantees enjoyed by Grant and his partners. The company failed in 1861 with liabilities of £1,500,000. Grant, however, escaped any personal loss in the affair, and was soon financing railway schemes in Yorkshire, Essex and Wales.
In 1863 he expanded his activities in the city, establishing Crédit Foncier and Mobilier of England, one of a number of ‘rip-off finance houses’ which flourished in the sustained bull market of the period. This institution served as the principal vehicle for Grant’s company promotions, most of which were subject to allegations of fraud.
Having systematically enriched himself by rigging the market and routinely inflating the price of the shares he sold, Grant stood for parliament as a Liberal-Conservative for the corrupt borough of Kidderminster at the 1865 general election. Promising to support ‘a well-digested’ scheme of parliamentary reform, and a policy of ‘non-intervention’ in foreign affairs, he was narrowly returned despite being confronted on the hustings by a disgruntled investor, who called him ‘a confounded German swindler’. He survived a petition against his return.
One of Grant’s greatest successes was funding the construction of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, a huge arcade in the centre of the city, and now one of the world’s oldest shopping malls. The king of Italy rewarded him with a barony in May 1868. However, the ‘grand but inevitable smash’ of Crédit Foncier came in July 1868, when Grant left the company amidst allegations that large commissions on the company’s profits had been improperly pocketed by the directors. Although he attempted to defend his conduct, he decided to retire from Parliament at the 1868 general election.
Grant soon rebuilt his financial empire. During a period of extraordinary activity between 1871 and 1874, he floated numerous domestic and foreign companies, including the Cadiz Waterworks, Central Uruguay Railway, and Russian Copper Company, the nominal capital of which amounted to more than £25,000,000, but whose shares eventually lost four-fifths of their market value. He was said to have obtained lists of financially naïve investors to capitalise his schemes. His ventures were also assisted by his ‘masterly’ use of the press, which included making large payments to the city editor of The Times, and the acquisition of The Echo, a London evening paper which he bought for £20,000.
By now immensely wealthy, in 1872 Grant bought Horstead Hall, near Norwich, and the following year acquired a site near Kensington Palace, where he built Kensington House, a magnificent Italianate palace, at a cost of nearly £350,000.
Grant was re-elected for Kidderminster at the 1874 general election. That May he enhanced his public reputation by paying 800 guineas for a portrait of Sir Walter Scott by Landseer, which he presented to the National Portrait Gallery, earning him a vote of thanks from the Commons. That July his public career reached its apogee when he presented Leicester Square to the people of London. The square, then known as Leicester Fields, had long been in a dilapidated state, but because the site was owned by numerous freeholders the municipal authorities had found it practically impossible to improve the area. Yet Grant managed to purchase the rights of all the respective owners and, after planting an ornamental garden and erecting a statue of Shakespeare, along with busts of Newton and Hogarth among others, transferred ownership of the site to the Metropolitan Board of Works at a personal cost of £28,000.
Shortly after this public triumph, Grant’s election at Kidderminster was declared void on grounds of bribery and corruption, and his business affairs began to suffer a dramatic reverse. Not all of Grant’s companies were worthless, but one which was proved to be his undoing. Although he pocketed £200,000 for the flotation of the Emma Silver Mining Company of Utah in 1871, it was subsequently found that there was actually little or no silver, and a law suit initiated against Grant revealed ‘the murkiest details of stock market manipulation’.
His career as a company promoter appeared to be over, but Grant was adept at defending himself against subsequent lawsuits. In May 1875 he displayed great skill as ‘a legal orator’ during a three-day speech, believed to have been the longest ever made in a court of law by a layman, on the interpretation of the Limited Liability Act. He became chairman of the General Banking Company in 1878, but a year later filed a petition for liquidation with liabilities of £800,000 and assets of just £18,000. Undeterred, he sought parliamentary honours once more, but was defeated at Kidderminster in 1880.
Grant found Kensington House impossible to maintain as a private residence and sold it at auction in 1878. It was dispersed in lots in 1882 and demolished the following year. The marble staircase, estimated to have cost £70,000, was acquired by Madame Tussaud’s, and the front gates were reconstructed as the East Sheen entrance to Richmond Park. Having attempted to clear his debts, he set up yet another new company, the National Finance Corporation, in 1885.
While Augustus Melmotte’s story ended in a dramatic fashion with his suicide, Grant’s concluded with his bankruptcy in 1897. In dwindling health for some time, he died at Bognor in August 1899.
- D. Kynaston, The City of London. A World of Its Own 1815-1890 (1994)
- T. Seccombe, rev. M. Reed, ‘Grant, Albert [formerly Abraham Gottheimer], Baron Grant in the Italian nobility’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.