Julia Irvine 7 Dec 2016 04:26pm

Life after work: Chasing ghosts

Since stepping back from professional life, former ICAEW president Chris Swinson has been digging into the financial sector’s turbulent past, as Julia Irvine found out

Pinners Hall in the City of London wasn’t always home to the British Bankers’ Association as it is now. Back in the 1920s, it housed the offices of Clarence Hatry, one of the City’s more colourful characters, whose doomed attempts to rationalise the British steel industry led to the collapse of his group of companies on 20 September 1929, sending shock waves through the London and New York stock exchanges and contributing to the crash of both.

What, you might ask, has this got to do with retired chartered accountants? Nothing perhaps, except that back in 1974 Hatry captured the imagination of a young Chris Swinson, then about to qualify with Price Waterhouse and set on a path for greater things (BDO senior partner, ICAEW president, deputy chair of the Financial Reporting Council, and auditor and comptroller general of the States of Jersey, to name but a few).

He had come across Hatry while working at Pinners Hall some 45 years after the liquidation of Triumph Investment Trust, a victim of the secondary banking crisis in 1973.

“I started reading about him and discovered there wasn’t much information. When his companies were liquidated, the liquidators destroyed most of the papers. It’s like fossils: you find him in shadow form in other people’s biographies and records. Yet he was an interesting sort of bloke. When he died in 1965, he was still trying to float companies.”

So interesting, in fact, that Swinson decided when he had a bit more time to himself that he would investigate further. That led to a PhD at Durham University, which he received this June, while his doctoral thesis, which Hatry inspired, will be published by Routledge next year.

“The original idea was to look at Hatry in the context of the stock exchange but it became clear that there was an interesting story about the development of the regulation of share trading that is also contemporary,” Swinson explains.

“Since the 2008 crash, the success and failure of regulatory schemes has become extremely interesting. But I realised there was nothing on the development of regulation around the crash of 1929. It’s interesting because it brings lots of different parts of life together: the story exists in the interface of traders like Hatry; the sober-sided people running the stock exchange; accountants and auditors; the professions; the government; and the political arguments that were going on at the time.”

Swinson is now doing equivalent research on the regulatory story around the Wall Street crash, which led to the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and is off to spend time in the archives of the New York Stock Exchange. He’s also looking to write Hatry’s biography.

“I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I decided to do it all,” he adds. “It’s been enormously pleasurable and satisfying and it’s a lot of fun. To sit reading an archive and come across something that makes you say, ‘I know why you did that, you old sod…’ It gives you such a great sense of recognition and achievement.”