Amy Bell (1859-1920)

Born: Amy Elizabeth Bell

Sector: Financial Services

Given women were not accepted on to the floor of the London Stock Exchange until 1973, it seems incredible that any women in Britain were earning their living from stockbroking in the 1880s but one was and her name was Amy Bell. The word ‘pioneer’ is bandied around a lot but this is one instance where it really is deserved: for several years Amy Bell really was out on her own, the only woman stockbroker in the country.

Perhaps her life circumstances played a part in her extraordinary independence. Amy was born in Thailand on 13th February 1859. Although British merchants had been present in Thailand for many years, it was only in 1855 that Siam, as it was then, signed its first official trade agreement with Great Britain, leading to a consular presence being established. Her parents, Charles and Charlotte, were married in Singapore on 30th November 1857 and Charlotte joined Charles in Bangkok where he was First Assistant in the Consulate. The expatriate community was very small at around this time, with 143 men living there, only 15 of whom had families with them.

Amy Bell (1859-1920) from the Women's Penny Paper in 1888.
Amy Bell, c.1888 from her interview in the Women’s Penny Paper

Seven months after Amy was born, in September, 1859, her parents died of malaria within a week of one another. Amy was brought back to the UK by a nurse and although made a ward of her mother’s brother, John, the 27th Earl of Mar, she was raised by her great-uncle, Henry Ives Hurry Goodeve (1807-1884) and his wife, Isabella. Henry was a doctor and had been a key member of staff at the Calcutta Medical College and had worked in a hospital in Turkey during the Crimean War but was now retired. So Amy was an only child, growing up with elderly foster parents, both of whom died by the time she was 25.

Amy’s family was, however, well-educated and well-connected. Henry’s cousin was Frederick Denison Maurice, founder of Christian socialism and committed to opening up education to all, co-founding a girls’ school in 1848, Queen’s College and the Working Men’s College in 1854, both in London. He christened Amy on 15th March 1860, who was now living at Cook’s Folly in Stoke’s Bishop, then a village on the outskirts of Bristol, now a suburb of the city. Amy had a governess and was one of the first women to be accepted as a student at Bristol University, winning a scholarship when she was 17, but did not complete her course there due to ill-health. Four years later, she was offered a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, but within a fortnight of starting, her great-uncle fell ill and she returned to Bristol to nurse him.

When her great-uncle died in 1884, Amy had to consider her options and decided to pursue the avenue she was most interested in, stockbroking. Her early life had been ‘spent in an atmosphere of stocks and shares’ and then she had many years of careful training under ‘a very capable guardian’, a family connection who was employed by a large and well-regarded firm. She started work as a stockbroker in 1886 at No. 1 Russell Chambers in central London.

Amy faced a number of barriers. There were practical issues: she was unable ‘to have a little booth within those charmed portals’, so while she could consult with clients on trading decisions, she was reliant on another firm of city brokers to place the orders. She was contravening the social norms: ‘Stockbroking would seem to be one of the most unfeminine and unsuitable occupations in which any one of the vast army of working women could possibly engage’, said one journalist. Even the women who were her clients were hazed: she had ‘some men clients’ but was chiefly working with ‘lonely women who..are too timed to make their way to an ordinary city office or whose capital is so small that they shrink from..some large influential firm.’

Amy’s view of her clients was, understandably, different, seeing them as ‘interesting, able and cultured women’ With her curly blonde hair and cheerful, friendly manner, she seems to have neutralised most negativity from her male counterparts: she was also generally positive about her experience in the City, speaking of the kindness and courtesy with which she had been treated by the men in her profession, ‘the least likely of all to be imposed on by any false airs of superiority’…. Her philosophy was clear: 1) Show sympathy to understand your clients’ financial position, investment needs and risk tolerance; 2) Be aware of what’s happened in the past and stay close to what’s going on in the world now.

By 1891, she was working in the City and living at 40 Porchester Terrace in Bayswater with two servants. It was a sizeable house, with six bed and dressing rooms, a double drawing-room with a conservatory, dining-room, ‘third-room and capital domestic offices’ as well as a garden and stabling with two stalls, loose box and carriage house with loft and living rooms over the top. Two servants’ bedrooms in the house were accessed by a separate staircase. Unsurprisingly, Amy was an early supporter of the suffrage movement. She was among the first women to be interviewed by Henrietta Müller when she launched the Women’s Penny Paper in 1888, along with well-known activists including Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Louise Jopling and Annie Besant. She used her spacious house to host a large meeting of Bayswater ladies to discuss the upcoming Women’s Suffrage Bill in March 1892. She was also on the Council of the Women’s Branch of Swanley Horticultural College and must have known Emma Cons.

With no family, Amy also found a community among other London business women, joining the monthly Monday networking meetings at the Gentlewomen’s Employment Bureau at 70 Lower Belgrave Street organised by Miss Younghusband. Like Cecil Gradwell and Beatrice Headlam, she was passionate about equipping women with good financial knowledge: ‘I want to make women understand their money matters and take a pleasure in dealing with them’, she told Margaret Bateson in August 1893, when she was interviewed as part of the series of ‘Professional Women Upon Their Professions.’ ‘After all, is money such a sordid consideration? May not it make all the difference to a hard-working woman when she reaches middle life whether she has or has not those few hundreds?’ She wrote on the topic in journals, for example contributing an essay on ‘How Women May Keep Their Money’ to Helen Blackburn’s Englishwoman’s Review in April 1892. She spoke about the ‘Duty of Saving’, laying out all the ways women could protect themselves against a poverty-stricken old age. Much of her spare time was spent speaking about saving to women and giving advice to those who sought her out.

Amy was still working in 1901, now based at 5 Grays Inn and describing herself as an employer. She seems to have enjoyed life: she was a strong linguist, loved travelling and was a great reader of poetry. She was also ‘happy in leaving an open path to her successors’, taking on an apprentice, Edith Maskell, who continued in the profession. She died in 1920, praised as one of the pioneers of the women’s cause, ‘obtaining recognition by sheer force of knowledge and ability, with no ostentation or eccentricity’. That same year, a woman entered stockbroking ‘by the front door’, when Doris Mortimer, from a family-run firm in Exeter, was admitted as a member of the Association of Provincial Stock and Sharebrokers and in 1921, Beatrice Gordon Holmes set up her stockbroking company. Nearly 35 years after Amy started work, the picture was slowly starting to change.

If you are thinking about a career in stockbroking, this might be helpful. And if you are already working in banking, check out Women in Banking and Finance.

Sources include:

The Bristol Mercury 6/2/1886; The Morning Post 28/4/1888; The Ayr Observer and Galloway Chronicle 1/5/1888; The Women’s Penny Paper 22/12/1889 (no.9); Northern Whig 27/5/1891; The Northern Whig 20/4/1892; The Queen 26/8/1893; Common Cause 19/3/1920; 1/4/1920; 15/6/1923; The Vote 25/4/1924

‘At Home in Siam: Being a Consular Wife’ by Andrew Hillier and Simon Landy (2020) Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch Vol 60 P.160-185

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