How investment money survived the 1st Planet War

There were 90 investment trusts at the outbreak of war; some managed to increase dividends – and you can still invest today Crowds gather in Throgmorton Street near the Stock Exchange following its closure on July 31, 1914

  Photo: Rex Features

The wider world may have changed out of all recognition since 1914 but investors from those days would find one familiar landmark today: Britain’s investment trusts.

Ninety investment trusts were in existence at the outbreak of the First World War 100 years ago – and 26 of those venerable funds are still around today.

Many of the investment trusts of 1914 had been founded in the previous century, including Alliance Trust, now a £2.5bn giant, which was established in 1888, and the highly regarded City of London, founded in 1891. By contrast, unit trusts would not come into existence until 1931.

Here is a table showing all 26 trusts from the First World War era that are still in business now.

Investment trust

Launch date

Foreign & Colonial

Jan 1868

Investment Company (Miton)

Jan 1868

Dunedin Income Growth

Feb 1873

Scottish American

Mar 1873

JP Morgan American

Jan 1881


Dec 1884

JP Morgan Overseas

Jan 1887

Scottish Investment Trust

Jul 1887

Henderson Smaller Companies

Dec 1887

Alliance Trust

Apr 1888


Apr 1888

British Empire Securities & General

Jan 1889

F&C Global Smaller Companies

Feb 1889


Feb 1889

Edinburgh Investment

Mar 1889

Law Debenture Corporation

Dec 1889

City of London

Jan 1891

British Assets

Jan 1898

TR Property

May 1905

BlackRock Smaller Companies

Feb 1906

Witan Pacific

Dec 1907

Murray International

Dec 1907

Scottish Mortgage

Jan 1909


Feb 1909

London & St Lawrence

Mar 1910

Hansa Trust (Ord)

Jan 1912

The 26 “survivor” trusts are currently worth a total of about £25bn – almost a quarter of the total value of the investment trust sector. By contrast, the sector as a whole was worth just £90m in 2014.

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But although the sector was relatively small, the soundness of the investment trust concept was becoming increasingly well recognised. The standing of the older trusts was demonstrated by the fact that their “debentures” – a type of bond – had a credit rating second only to “consols”, which are undated government gilts.

Then as now, investment trusts were known for maintaining their dividends – partly because they can hold money in reserve for the purpose.

In fact more than a third of the trusts managed to maintain or increase their dividends during the Great War. According to George Glasgow, a contemporary financial author, eight English and 14 Scottish investment trusts maintained the dividends on their ordinary shares throughout the First World War while a further 11, of which seven were Scottish, actually increased their dividends.

This is not to say that the war did not cause problems for the trusts. In its annual report for the year to January 1915 the Mercantile Investment Trust said: “In consequence of the prevailing conditions caused by the European war, it is not possible at the present time to make a reliable valuation of the investments of the company.”

Investment trusts also helped the war effort by buying special government bonds called war loans and by selling or lending American shares or bonds to the Government, so that it could sell them to raise much-needed dollars (see letter below).

Investment activity was not entirely frozen during the war period. For example, the Murray International trust made investments in Brazilian Traction Light & Power Company preference shares and in Barcelona Traction Light & Power “prior lien bonds”. John Newlands of Brewin Dolphin, the stockbroker, who has written a history of investment trusts, said electricity shares were “clearly the new technology stocks of the day”.

In the summer of 1916 the Scottish Mortgage trust spent £2,000 on Russian government bonds – money that had to be written off in April 1918 when the Communist government repudiated the debt of the Tsarist government. More successful were its short-term punts of £1,000 Russian state railway bonds (bought at £75 and sold at £82) and a similar quantity of Grand Duchy of Finland 4.5pc railway bonds, bought at £73.50 and sold a month later at £82.50. These transactions coincided with a successful Russian offensive against the Austrians in Galicia.

Many investment trust employees and indeed directors went off to serve in the war. All three sons of Robert Benson, who founded the Merchants Trust and whose family firm would merge to become Kleinwort Benson almost 50 years later, volunteered; miraculously, all three survived.

Mr Newlands added: “Having studied a number of the long-lived trusts in historical detail, I have been struck by the way that they have proved robust enough to survive every crash and global conflict in history and then move forward again.

“A minority of others fell by the wayside, of course. But I am convinced that by investing in a spread of quality companies, each one of which has been closely scrutinised prior to purchase, the enduring trusts have created portfolios that are as tough as ox hide. This is a message that is forgotten in the good times but is worth reminding investors when sentiment is at low ebb.”

Ian Sayers, the director-general of the Association of Investment Companies, the investment trust trade body, said: “It is a testament to the sector that 26 investment companies have been around for over 100 years, and some for a great deal longer.

“We all know investing is for the long-term: it doesn’t get much longer-term than this.”

Additional reporting by Jenner Sheldrake