Background, education and early career
William McKewan was born in south east London on 9 March 1820, the son of David McKewan, manager of a merchant’s house at Custom House Quay, London, and his wife Matilda. He had several siblings, one of whom was the noted watercolour painter David McKewan.
William McKewan attended day school before being sent to boarding school at Deal in 1830, when he was 10. He enjoyed his school career, gaining fluency in French and learning arithmetic.
In 1833, at the age of 13, he left school and went to work as a clerk in the office of John Cryder, an American merchant who dealt with the United States, China and the west coast of South America. He remained there for six years, during which time the firm became known as Morrison, Cryder & Co. McKewan himself worked his way up to the position of accountant, but by 1839 Morrison, one of the firm's partners, was beginning to withdraw from the business, and the future for the firm – and for McKewan’s own career – looked doubtful. Morrison, Cryder & Co’s former manager Thomas Dighton, who had recently become general manager of London & County Bank, offered McKewan a job as the bank’s accountant, and McKewan accepted.
William McKewan joined London & County Bank on 27 December 1839, at the age of 19. Immediately, the task of preparing the bank’s next balance sheet – due to be presented at the annual meeting in early February – fell to him. As he worked, he found several flaws in the bank’s accounting practices, but he compiled the balance sheet as best he could. Immediately after its completion he started developing better practices for future use. The system he put in place continued largely unchanged for at least the next 60 years.
In the ensuing years the bank grew extensively, and the scope of McKewan’s role grew with it. In 1851 – at around the time the bank acquired Berkshire Banking Co – McKewan’s title became chief accountant.
14 months later, he moved from the accountant’s department to become assistant general manager of the bank. In March 1856 he became general manager, just a few weeks after John Sadlier MP, one of the bank’s directors, had committed suicide, leaving behind disastrous personal financial affairs. Sadlier’s death and the subsequent revelations had a short-term downward effect on confidence in the bank, and also involved McKewan in complex litigation on the bank’s behalf, as efforts were made to unravel Sadlier’s affairs.
In 1858 McKewan organised the banks’ opposition to certain provisions of a parliamentary bill adjusting various matters relating to cheques. He printed and circulated a paper explaining the banks’ position; organised a petition; wrote numerous letters on the subject which were published in the Times; and met with influential politicians, including Benjamin Disraeli, then chancellor of the exchequer.
In 1871, when Sir John Lubbock led the introduction of what became the Bank Holidays Act, McKewan was involved in advising Lubbock on technicalities. After the passage of the Act, McKewan chaired a committee organising subscriptions from bank officers as an expression of their gratitude to Lubbock. Over 13,000 bank workers contributed, raising £664. McKewan made the presentation, which Lubbock donated to Maidstone Grammar School and the City of London College.
Aside from ‘a visitation of boils’ which he suffered soon after becoming general manager, and which he diagnosed as ‘the result of worry and anxiety’, McKewan enjoyed good health until about 1879. He then suffered two or three years of poor health, and was never entirely fit again. He reached normal retirement age in 1885 but, at the invitation of the bank’s directors, remained in post. By 1888 he began to feel ready to retire, but he also wished to complete 50 years’ service with the bank. He reached this milestone at the end of December 1889, and submitted his letter of resignation immediately afterwards, in January 1890. He had served as general manager for 34 years.
Upon his retirement McKewan was appointed an honorary director of the bank. He continued to attend business at the bank fairly regularly, and remained an honorary director until his death in 1909.
McKewan served as vice president of the Institute of Bankers. He was frequently called upon as an expert witness on banking matters in judicial or parliamentary investigations.
Other interests and offices
In religion, William McKewan was an avid and devoted nonconformist, although he also enjoyed longstanding friendships with several Church of England clergymen. He took active part in the various Congregational Churches he attended throughout his life, serving at different times as Sunday school teacher, Sunday school superintendent and church deacon.
Although never actively involved in politics, he described himself as ‘an unswerving Liberal all my life.’
From 1894 William McKewan sat on the Bromley magistrates’ bench. He was treasurer of Bromley Cottage Hospital, and of Bromley Local Board (later Bromley Urban District Council).
He was vice president of the City of London College; a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society; a member of the Society of Arts; and a fellow of the Imperial Institute.
McKewan was a keen traveller, regularly taking holidays all over Europe. He also enjoyed gardening, and kept a collection of ferns.
Family life and death
William McKewan married his wife Ann on 15 August 1844. They had 6 children, the youngest of whom died in infancy in 1858. Ann McKewan died on 13 June 1893.
William McKewan died at home in Bickley on 15 November 1909.