Leeks, Stock and Potatoes: ‘Othering’ South Sea Investors

I have published a guest blog on the wonderful Four Nations History Network website today looking at how a Four Nations or Three Kingdoms approach might help us to understand better the lived experience of the financial revolution and the South Sea Bubble of 1720.  In this companion post I want to show, using one fantastic primary source, how we might explore how contemporary observers visualised investors from other parts of the British Isles and indeed from further afield. The images that accompany this post are all drawn from one set of playing cards produced in London in the immediate aftermath of the great stock market crash of 1720, which have since been digitised by the Baker Library at Harvard as part of their superb online South Sea Bubble collection. Various sets of playing cards were produced after the bubble to explain to the public different aspects of the bubble. One set showcases the famous or infamous bubble companies set up to benefit from the speculative wave sweeping through London’s Exchange Alley. These cards depict the ‘projects’ or ‘bubble companies’ presented to an often unsuspecting public. These included the following:

  • mirrour-full

    The Bubblers Mirrour or England’s Folly (Baker Library, Harvard) Depicted around the border are the titles of the different bubble companies

    Company for trading in Hair

  • Company for importing broomsticks from Germany
  • Company for a Hydrostatical Air Pump: to draw all manner of wind and vapours out of Human Brains
  • Flying engines, Automatons
  • Company for making Perpetual Motion Machine
  • And best of all: “The Company for a project which will be hereafter revealed”. The Projector of this one allegedly gathered £500 in subscriptions and promptly disappeared.
The 1 of Clubs featuring newly rich 'ancient maids' being chased by 'Six Irish Captains' illustrating the potential upheaval to the marriage market

The 1 of Clubs featuring newly rich ‘ancient maids’ being chased by ‘Six Irish Captains’ illustrating the potential upheaval to the marriage market

I am, however, more interested in a second set of cards. These ones, also first published in 1720 can be seen as a sort of morality tale in 52 episodes, illustrating as it does the various categories of individuals who got caught up in the investment mania. Often racist as well as misogynistic in tone, these cards and their captions illustrate through the use of stereotypes and exaggerated images the anxieties about ‘new money’ and disruptive external forces that the aftermath of the bubble revealed bubbling (if one excuses the pun) below the surface of early Georgian ‘polite society. Such fears were of course a feature of William Hogarth’s canonical print on the subject. A number of the cards, including the 1 of Clubs reveal the contemporary sense of concern about women playing an active role in the stock market (women comprised between 5 and 10% of investors), and the impact that this would have on society. Women were, in some quarters, also blamed for the bursting of the bubble, and the use of pejorative gendered language whether in terms of ‘hysteria’ or ‘frenzy’ amongst others, is a notable feature of the post-bubble literature.


Other cards elaborated on existing racial stereotypes. The 10 of Clubs featuring two Irishmen employed the generic Irish name of Teague as well as giving one of the characters an Irish brogue in which to express himself, ‘By God and St Patrick’. In a similar vein the 1 of Diamond’s describes one character as a taffy, while the Welsh leek like the Irish potato on the previously mentioned card, serves to confirm the provincial rural stereotype. In this instance Welsh entrepreneurship, through copper mining, also gets a mention, but the emphasis is on othering these suspicious outsiders who caused the nation’s ruin.

This theme is taken to its logical if distasteful conclusion in a series of xenophobic cards attacking first the Dutch and then more offensively again the London Jews, many of whom were especially prominent in the London stock trading environment. The examples below illustrate this transnational element, with the 6 of Hearts insulting the calvinist Dutch and the 7 of Hearts portraying the Jewish stockbroker as a rapacious greedy individual preparing to prey on an English maiden.

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These playing cards provide but a glimpse into the ‘mentalities’ current in London in the aftermath of the great financial crisis of 1720. They portray a society struggling to deal with the unexpected collapse of its rising financial world. They also show how in times of crisis that the first targets for the disgruntled and suspicious are often those who don’t fit into the imagined norms of a community.




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Releasing the Bubble into the World: On Launching the Book

South Sea Bubble jpeg

The cover of my new book. A forthcoming post will delve deeper into the meaning g of the cartoon featured on the cover


On Friday last I finally launched my new book, The South Sea Bubble and Ireland: Money Banking and Investment, 1690-1721. Although published in July of this year, this felt like its formal introduction to the world. The book launch is an important ritual, especially it seems in Irish academia, and is a great opportunity not to just to publicise a new book, but also to explain its contents to a wider audience of peers, colleagues and friends. Even more importantly it is an opportunity to thank all those of who helped along the way, whether as readers, providers of coffee, or sceptical critics! Important;y, of course, it is an opportunity to sell copies of the book at a healthy discount (always important with pricy academic books)!  It can also be an interesting opportunity to hear what somebody else thinks of one’s work. This was especially true for me, as I was lucky enough to be able to persuade Professor Louis Cullen, Ireland’s pre-eminent economic historian to officially launch my book. Professor Cullen has proved an inspiration to me, in terms both of his own work, and in his broad approach to Irish economic history. His speech on Friday did not disappoint. It was not only erudite and perceptive, but also containing a prescription for further research (my research agent just got more crowded). My own contribution on the night focused on the contemporary contexts within the book was written, and the resonances that continue to echo between the early years of financial capitalism in the 1710s and 20s and the present and near past. What follows is an edited extract: Continue reading

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What, and who, I like about the eighteenth-century! Interview on new Eighteenth-Century Ireland Society Blog


The endlessly fascinating Theobald Wolfe Tone, a suitable drinking companion? Or would he just record everything in his diary for posterity?

The Eighteenth-Century Ireland Society have recently updated their website and launched a wonderful new blog under the direction of Drs Lisa Marie Griffith and  Suzanne Forbes. As part of their attempts to introduce the society and its personnel to a new audience, in order to attract new members, they have been interviewing the society’s officers about their love of all things eighteenth century!

In my capacity as reviews editor of the Society’s journal I was amongst the interviewees subjected to their friendly interrogation. Read the interview here, and more importantly check out/follow the blog!

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Welcome to my new research blog and website. Here you will find information about my ongoing research, my published and forthcoming books, as well as details of my current projects.


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