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A good name

The year 1768 was a mixed bag for Europe as a whole. The Age of Enlightenment was picking up momentum, while large parts of the world remained unexplored. James Cook sailed into the unknown on the Endeavour while 12-year-old Mozart composed his fiftieth piece, a singspiel called “Bastien and Bastienne.” Catherine, Duchess of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf, emerged from the obscurity of the small Northern German states onto the stage of history. As Catherine the Great she was Czarina of Russia, and waged victorious war on the Turks.

For the Berenbergs 1768 was a pivotal year. After 175 years, the fifth generation of the Berenberg lacked a male heir. Senator Paul Berenberg (IV) died childless while Johann, with whom he had run the company, lost his only son the same year. The last remaining heir was Elisabeth, Johann’s only daughter.

So the last of the Berenbergs looked around for a suitable match. His eye fell on Johann Hinrich Gossler, scion of a respected family that had been in Hamburg since the 14th century. Gossler was an experienced businessman with broad horizons who spoke three languages, and was back in Hamburg after extended stays in Spain and France. The merger took place the traditional way – through marriage. The wedding was held in December of that year. Johann Heinrich Gossler became a shareholder in the company.Until the death of his father-in-law the company was called “Johann Berenberg & Gossler;” twenty years later, when Ludwig Edwin Seyler, husband of Gossler’s oldest daughter Anna Henriette, joined the company the name changed “Joh. Berenberg, Gossler & Co.” and has remained unchanged to this day.

The company flourished and expanded, acting as a merchant bank far beyond the borders of Hamburg, and procuring funds for governments, a new factor on the unstable political stage of Europe. Thanks to a little luck the company survived the continental blockade and critical period of occupation of Hamburg by Napolean’s troops. It recovered quickly and began to build close links to the new countries in South and especially North America. The influence of the dynasty grew. Johann Heinrich Gossler (II) became a senator of the City Republic of Hamburg. His oldest son Johann Heinrich Gossler (III) worked in New York and Boston, and made a transatlantic alliance by marrying Mary Elisabeth Bray, daughter of a respected family.

In 1830 the couple moved to Hamburg. Johann Heinrich and his brother Wilhelm ran the company, which increasingly centred on banking. They did a good job. The burgeoning industrialization in Europe blew a fresh wind into the company’s books, and stock companies were sprouting up everywhere. Joh. Berenberg, Gossler & Co. was among the founders of Hapag (1847), North German Lloyd (1857), the Ilseder smelting works (1858), Norddeutsche Versicherungs-AG (1857) and the Vereinsbank in Hamburg (1856). The company was also involved in founding banks in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Hong Kong. But Johann Heinrich Gossler (III) didn’t lose sight of tradition. He found a rather original way to bring new life into the Berenberg name, by making it his son’s middle name. Soon John Berenberg Gossler, John B. for short, became a shareholder in the bank. In 1880 the Senate of the City of Hamburg approved the change of the family name to Berenberg-Gossler.

But three years before that a family drama had shaken the clan. John Henry Gossler, John B.’s younger brother, had speculated and lost big in the American sugar business, while keeping his ever riskier investments secret from his stern father. The losses went into the hundreds of thousands, endangering other holdings of the bank. Demands for payment started to pile up. A crisis loomed for the bank and for the family.

John Henry was ordered to come to Hamburg, where his angry father laid down the law. John Henry was debited 839,144.08 Reichsmark “for the future.” And that wasn’t all. The will was changed to exclude him from the company succession. Now the company in its entirety would fall to his older brother John B.

Shortly thereafter, in 1879, his father died at age 74. He left behind a broadly diversified fortune worth 18 million marks. Office staff and the coachman who had served the family for many years received bequests totalling 75,000 marks. Bequests also went to charitable institutions like the Netherlands Fund for the Poor, the Niendorf and Jacobi churches in Hamburg, the Israeli Girls’ School of 1789, the Talmud Tora School and the German Israeli Girls’ School, as well as sixteen infant care schools. The rest went to his six children and their children.