In 1830 Belgium was the most industrialised country on the continent. In the period 1830-1848 a very small number of banks financed the Belgian industrial revolution. Each of them had the right to issue paper money.
The “Old Lady” and her rival
On attaining independence, Belgium had only one major financial institution: the Société Générale. Its full name, “Société Générale pour favoriser l’industrie nationale” refers to its primary task of promoting national industry. This “Old Lady” was established in Brussels in 1822 on the initiative of Willem I. It was not until 1837 that the Belgian government granted the Société Générale permission to replace its guilder notes with new notes denominated in Belgian francs.
Meanwhile, the bank had gained a formidable competitor: the Banque de Belgique set up in 1835 by Charles de Brouckère (1796-1860), who later became the mayor of Brussels.
The Banque de Belgique also invested on a massive scale in the industrial expansion of the infant Belgian state, and also made full use of its right of issue. The oldest Belgian paper money has a particularly high face value: notes were issued in denominations of 1,000, 500, 100, 50 and 40 francs. For comparison: in those days, the average daily wage of an adult male worker varied between 50 centimes and 2 ½ francs. The first Belgian banknotes were therefore used only by the banks themselves and their wealthy clientele as certificates of deposit and as credit and payment instruments. But the well-to-do citizens’ confidence in the new currency was also fragile. Neither of the banks was willing to accept the banknotes issued by the other, and that in itself hampered the rise of fiduciary money.
Moreover, on two occasions, in 1838 and in 1848, a political and economic crisis led to a run on both major banks. Savers withdrew their money en masse or demanded coins in exchange for their banknotes. The government was forced to intervene and the principle of compulsory tender was proclaimed. This explains why both banks also issued lower value banknotes in 1848, worth 20 francs (Société Générale) and 5 francs (both banks).
Meanwhile, in the provinces
Smaller banks also invested in the industrial companies in their own region, and effected their transactions using banknotes which they issued themselves. In Wallonia this was true of the Banque Liégeoise, founded in 1835. Since the Banque Liégeoise banknotes hardly ever circulated outside the province of Liège, they retained their character as a regional or even local means of payment. The Flemish counterpart was the Banque de Flandre, which was also known as the Banque Gantoise on account of its Ghent headquarters. This bank aimed to perform for Flanders the same role as the Banque Liégeoise fulfilled for the Liège district. Shortly after it was set up in 1841, this institution also began to issue paper money. But not for long, because the 1848 crisis naturally also spread beyond Brussels.
It was clear that the country needed a central bank which would end the proliferation of banknotes and could maintain stability in a financial crisis. Following negotiations between the government and the Société Générale, the Banque de Belgique and the Banque de Flandre, all three banks waived their right of issue and in 1850 the National Bank was established. The Banque Liégeoise was the only one to continue issuing banknotes, but ceased doing so in 1875. After that, only National Bank notes remained in circulation.
A close look at two 5 franc notes
In room 4 of the museum you can see two 5 franc notes issued by the Banque de Belgique and the Banque Liégeoise respectively. At the bottom right-hand side of the Banque de Belgique note you can see the name of the banknote designer, I. Jouvenel (1773- after 1851), an engraver of coins, medals and prints. He took charge of both the design and the engraving of the typographic printing plate. Apart from the name of the bank, the value of the banknote, the statement “payable at sight”, and the jobs of the signatories, the note also bears the following laconic words: “The cash desk is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.”, further emphasising that the banknote can be exchanged. On presentation, it could in principle be exchanged for a 5 franc silver coin. The number of the banknote is inscribed twice by hand, and the note is signed by no fewer than 4 persons. The most important signatures are those of François Anspach (1784-1858), the director holding the post of treasurer, and Louis Deswert (1795-1864), director. In 1850, Deswert was to become the first vice-governor of the National Bank.
The banknote is undated, but definitely originates from the period 1848-1850. On the back it is stamped with a fiscal seal and it came from a book of counterfoils; close examination reveals half of the bank’s name in calligraphy on the counterfoil.
The paper is green in colour. We know that the Banque de Flandre purchased its paper in France from Papeterie du Marais, but it is uncertain whether the Banque de Belgique used the same supplier.
The 5 franc note issued by the Banque Liégeoise is also undated. Noticeably more attention was paid to the design in this case. The artistic design work is shared: the drawing was entrusted to the French painter A.H. Cabasson (1814-1884), and after that the engraver L. Massey took over. The Banque de France also commissioned these two men to design the 1862 ‘indices bleus’ 100 franc note.
The 5 franc note issued by the Banque Liégeoise looks more artistic than the same denomination issued by the Banque de Belgique. The composition uses two personages: they are cherubs or infant figures whose attributes identify them as justice and industry, two fundamental pillars of the young Belgian state. Again, four signatures are displayed including that of J-H Demonceau (1791-1856), one of the bank’s founders. The paper is sepia and brown in colour. This banknote also came from a book of counterfoils and bears a fiscal seal on the back. The panel of text at the bottom warns of lifelong penal servitude for counterfeiters. The bank’s full name is: Banque Liégeoise et Caisse d’Epargnes. The other private banks of issue also operated savings accounts and collected deposits which they then invested in industry, but without any explicit reference to this in their name.