The National Bank has had 21 governors  Share

The person in charge of the National Bank of Belgium is called the governor. Room 1 in the museum comprises the former governor’s office, which was in use until 1953. Since the Bank was set up in 1850, 21 men have held the post of governor, and have made their mark on this institution (some more so than others). This month, the Spotlight focuses on this high office at the Bank and the men who have held it.

Former office of the governor, used until  1953

Former office of the governor, used until 1953

The governor directs the National Bank, chairs the Board of Directors and the Council of Regency, represents the Bank in legal proceedings and orders decisions to be carried out. Since the creation of the euro, the governor of the National Bank has also had a seat on the Governing Council of the European Central Bank and takes part in its decisions on European monetary policy. The governor of the National Bank holds office for a five-year term, which is renewable. He is appointed by the King and must be a Belgian national. A royal decree dated 14 October 1937 introduced an age limit of 67 years for governors. Before that date, governors could stay in office until they died; some of them reached the venerable age of 85 years.

On average, the governor of the National Bank of Belgium holds office for just under 8 years. The longest serving governor was the first one, François-Philippe de Haussy, whose portrait hangs behind the desk in room 1. This man was head of the National Bank for almost twenty years, from 1850 to 1869. The briefest term of office was that of Albert Goffin, governor for four months from 16 July to 27 November 1941. Yet his appointment was fiercely contested. When Georges Janssen died, the Belgian government was in exile in London, and it was Oscar Plisnier, Secretary General of the Ministry of Finance, who appointed Albert Goffin as governor; however, the Belgian government did not recognise that appointment and instead appointed Georges Theunis, on 27 November 1941. Nevertheless, the latter held office under exceptional circumstances since, during the four years of war, he acted as ambassador responsible for special missions to the United States. He therefore defended the Bank’s interests from abroad, while Albert Goffin remained in post in Brussels and continued to sign the banknotes issued by the Bank during the war.

Up to 1957, all the governors (except Georges Theunis) lived with their families in the Governor’s Mansion, adjacent to the office. However, they did not all enjoy it; for example, André-Eugène Pirson compared the Mansion to a “vast tomb” (Courrier de Bruxelles, 31 December 1881). The last governor to live there was Maurice Frère. Since then, the Mansion has remained the official residence and is used for official functions.

21 MEN

Portrait of François-Philippe de Haussy, first governor

Portrait of François-Philippe de Haussy, first governor

The first governor of the National Bank, François-Philippe de Haussy, was proposed to the King by Hubert Frère-Orban, the Minister of Finance in 1850 who was the person behind the establishment of the Bank. François-Philippe de Haussy, a Hainaut businessman and lawyer, was a colleague of Frère-Orban since he was the Minister of Justice. He had to overcome many problems in finding the right place for the new institution in Belgium, and achieving the necessary independence from the government. His fairness, firmness and competence made him a model governor. When he died, it took six months to choose a successor. In the end, it was the vice-governor, Eugène Prévinaire who took over the duties of François-Philippe de Haussy.

Altogether, the National Bank has had 21 governors: François-Philippe de Haussy (1850-1869), Eugène Prévinaire (1870-1877), André-Eugène Pirson (1877-1881), Alexandre Jamar (1882-1888), Eugène Anspach (1888-1890), Victor Van Hoegaerden (1891-1905), Théophile de Lantsheere (1905-1918), Leon Van der Rest (1918-1923), Fernand Hautain (1923-1926), Louis Franck (1926-1937), Georges Janssen (1938-1941), Albert Goffin (16 July-27 November 1941), Georges Theunis (1941-1944), Maurice Frère (1944-1957), Hubert Ansiaux (1957-1971), Robert Vandeputte (1971-1975), Cecil de Strycker (1975-1982), Jean Godeaux (1982-1989), Alfons Verplaetse (1989-1999), Guy Quaden (1999-2011) and Luc Coene (2011-).

These various figures include some memorable names, such as that of Maurice Frère, appointed governor at the end of the Second World War, on 7 November 1944. He supported the Gutt Plan for national currency reform in order to ensure that Belgium avoided the disastrous inflation suffered by certain countries after the First World War, and was closely involved in the country’s economic recovery. During his governorship, in the ten years following the Second World War, the National Bank also played a major role, in stark contrast to the Bank’s weakness at the end of the Great War. If we consider that it was Maurice Frère who, by his determined efforts, succeeded in the central bank’s key task of stabilising the currency, Fernand Hautain is even more closely associated with a similar, but unsuccessful attempt to stabilise the Belgian franc in 1925 with the Minister of Finance Albert-Edouard Janssen.

Maurice Frère, 14th  governor, in his office

Maurice Frère, 14th governor, in his office”

While most of the governors had been to university, Fernand Hautain started as an ordinary clerk at the Nivelles branch of the National Bank when he was only twenty years old, and was appointed to the highest office thirty-six years later. Until the end of the 19th century, the governors all had liberal leanings, as did Frère-Orban. In 1905, Governor Lantsheere, whose portrait also hangs in room 1, opposite that of de Haussy, was the first Flemish governor and also the first with Catholic sympathies. At the end of 1914 the German occupying power forced him to resign because of the resistance put up by the Bank. Lantsheere strongly resisted the Germans, who wanted to seize the Bank’s stock of gold and currency; he was thereupon dismissed and the right of issue was taken away from the National Bank and given to the Société Générale. It was not until after the war that the Bank’s rights were restored, and Leon Van der Rest (who you can see sitting on the left in the painting of the Bank’s Board of Directors in 1918) became the new governor, after ten years as a director.

It is a tradition at the Bank that every governor should have his portrait painted by the artist of his choice and hung in a gallery in the building. Thus, Alfons Verplaetse chose the painter Roger Raveel to paint his portrait and Guy Quaden chose the Liége artist, Jacques Charlier. Another portrait will soon be added to the gallery: that of Luc Coene, governor in office since 1 April 2011.

Laurie DE MARÉ
Museum guide

Bibliography

  • JANSSENS V., De beheerders van ons geld. Negentien gouverneurs van de Nationale Bank van België, 1997.
  • KAUCH P., Les gouverneurs de la Banque nationale de Belgique: 1850-1941, 1951-1963.
  • PLUYM W. (coord.), The Hotel of the Governor of the National Bank of Belgium, 1995.