To a certain slice of the British chattering classes, a barrier to entry is not a hurdle—it’s a pedestal. An entire lifetime might be fruitfully spent in pursuit of an ever better and more exclusive club: a reassuring drift from Eton, to Oxford, to 5 Hertford Street, to White’s, to the Hurlingham, to the Marylebone Cricket Club, to the House of Lords—and on and on, upward and upward, to the loveliest tomb in the smartest graveyard.
Along the way, you may decide that your money needs a little gatekeeping, too. And not by some garden-variety bank, but by a place where the Queen saw fit to keep her cash, perhaps. This is the enduring appeal of the private bank—a nostalgic atmosphere not dissimilar to that of the clubhouse.
The definition of a private bank in the U.K. is knowingly blurry. But it seems mostly to mean a place that gives you personalized, personable, in-person service—ideally by someone you’ve known for years—some bespoke wealth-management services, and, perhaps most importantly, that doesn’t let just anyone in.
The latter part is usually achieved by a financial drawbridge of some kind—a threshold of assets and deposits which has to be met—plus the sort of entry interview you might expect from the red-trousered president of an extremely expensive golf club.
It can seem, from the outside, like a baffling world to want to belong to—not least in the light of a colorful farrago this summer surrounding Coutts & Co., best known as “the Queen’s banker.” That was, at least, until a few weeks ago—when the place became much better known as Brexit impresario Nigel Farage’s banker. Or former banker, to be precise.
It emerged that Coutts had closed Farage’s account because they had deemed him politically unpalatable—a topsy-turvy scenario where a bank deigned to become a moral arbiter. Farage, an internal report said, was a “disingenuous grifter” who held “xenophobic, chauvinistic and racist views.” Coutts was also accused of leaking Farage’s banking information to the BBC.
The story soon became a sort of silly-season Rorschach test that confirmed whatever you wanted it to confirm—from the over-wokeification of the Establishment to the misplaced arrogance of the banking classes. But most of all it testified to the sheer uniqueness of a place such as Coutts.
To be fair, the bank has form in the scandal department. One of its earliest bosses, James Coutts, who got the job after marrying the founder’s granddaughter, was described as “unpolished in manners, passionate, and resentful”—before being jettisoned to the Continent by his brother, Thomas, for being “an improper person to be connected with such a business,” and eventually dying in a Gibraltar jail cell.
More recently, in 2015, Coutts—referred to chummily as “the Shop” by those in the know—was pilloried for accepting $3.3 million in banknotes, donated by a Qatari politician to a charity run by the then Prince of Wales. The notes were allegedly handed over in Fortnum & Mason carrier bags, as if Tony Soprano were from Surrey.
In 2012, Coutts paid a $14 million fine to the Financial Services Authority (since renamed the Financial Conduct Authority) for breaking money-laundering rules on multiple occasions, before having to fork out a further $7.3 million to the Swiss government for similar breaches there too.
In that light, it seems wonderfully prescient that in the novel Dracula, Bram Stoker lists Coutts as the bank of choice for the Count—a grand, dubiously wealthy, bloodsucking expat, penetrating London high society with the help of fawning enablers. In real life, the bank’s less appetizing accounts have belonged to the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the Mafia boss Emilio Di Giovine, as well as, allegedly, many Russian oligarchs.
“Particular people have always banked at Coutts,” an ad from the 1970s purred. “Aren’t you particular too?” Those particular people include every member of the royal family since George IV, as well as the Beatles, Charles Dickens, the Duke of Wellington, Frédéric Chopin, and Admiral Nelson. Emma Watson and Stormzy, meanwhile, are notable clients from a younger generation.
Much is made of the fact that the bank has a branch next to Eton College, such is the concentration of Coutts account holders among the boys there. Until fairly recently, the staff still wore tailcoats, mirroring their young charges. There is even a Coutts A.T.M. in the basement of Buckingham Palace. “Coutts would have folded long ago but for Mummy’s overdraft,” Queen Elizabeth II was reported to have said about the spendthrift Queen Mother.
The flagship branch on the Strand, meanwhile—with its 1980s power atrium and indoor fountains—has its own Michelin-starred chef, who keeps a vegetable garden up on the roof, where Coutts-owned bees make honey for the bank’s sweet-toothed clients.
It seems wonderfully prescient that in the novel Dracula, Bram Stoker lists Coutts as the bank of choice for the Count.
Perhaps it’s for these reasons that Coutts is sometimes viewed as the flashiest of London’s private banks—a place for the sort of people who ostentatiously plunk their branded bank card down on the Annabel’s ottoman when the sashimi check comes around.
“There’s a reason dogs always look like their owners,” says Edwin Smith, editor of Spear’s magazine, which reports intimately on the worlds of private banks and wealth management. “It’s because people choose things that represent their own values and their sense of themselves. And I think that’s the same with private banks.”
Those looking for something a little more discreet might opt instead for C. Hoare & Co., which is—to use a long-lunch analogy its London clients might appreciate—very much the Wiltons to Coutts’s Sexy Fish.
Hoare & Co. is old money incarnate. Having been founded in 1672, and now in its 12th generation of Hoares, it is the oldest private bank in the U.K. and one of the oldest family-owned banks in the world. (The Bank of England, by contrast, wasn’t set up until 1694.)
To get into this antique club, you must be recommended by at least two people that the bank already works with, before sitting down for an interview with a partner to make sure you’re the right sort. Then you’ll need to have well over a million dollars in assets to get started, though some insiders say as much as $6 million is necessary in practice.
The counter at the bank’s Fleet Street HQ is made from 19th-century oak, and the meeting-room walls are adorned with clubby cartoons, while muskets bought during the Napoleonic Wars to defend the building in case of invasion sit proudly in the main hall.
Not all private banks are quite so ancient. Although Hampden & Co. is named after a 17th-century rebel who railed against Charles I, it was founded in 2015 and is modern enough to have its own podcast—The Return of the Woodland—which is about rich landowners planting trees.
Weatherbys is owned by the family of the same name who run the U.K.’s Jockey Club. They acquired a banking license in 1994 and soon became the de facto financier to the cash-rich world of horse racing. It has special savings plans for jockeys and a dedicated branch for racehorse owners and bloodstock professionals. Client perks include days out at Nyetimber, the English sparkling-wine-maker, and shooting afternoons with Holland & Holland, the gun-maker.
Back at Coutts, the “added value” is more reminiscent of a private concierge service, with promises of V.I.P. tickets to sold-out concerts, support organizing a bespoke bachelor party, or the offer to source an elephant for your wedding. The bank even helped one client arrange for their daughter to play the organ at Notre-Dame Cathedral.
It’s all a way for customers to reach “the typically unreachable,” according to Peter Flavel, who recently resigned as chief executive of Coutts over the whole Farage snafu. Flavel may now be wondering, however, if there aren’t simpler, more old-fashioned ways to keep your high-net-worth customers happy—like not closing their bank accounts with very little notice, say, or leaking their financial details to the BBC.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large at AIR MAIL and the editor of Gentleman’s Journal in London