Elia opens by addressing the reader, asking if on her way from the bank to the "Flower Pot," she ever noticed a magnificent but decrepit old building with a brick and stone edifice. This, says Ellia, is a former house of trade, and he describes its decorations elaborately, with stately porticos and a map of Panama. This building was the South-Sea House, home of a historic and infamous bubble. Elia explains that he worked there 40 years ago. He talks of dust and decay that has settled on the building since that time, not just literally, but also figuratively, as the South-Sea Bank now enjoys a legacy of perpetrating a fantastic hoax.
He reflects on the early days of the prosperity that England now enjoys, which grew from this bank as well as his other job at the India House. The building is not just a monument to an infamous scam, but to the origins of finance that England now operates by. He reminisces on the library the building used to have as well as its pen-knives, and then moves on to a wistful recollection of the various employees who worked at the South-Sea Bank.
Most of them were bachelors, since the job didn't pay so well, and all of them had a great sense of humor. Elia considers them a bunch of "odd fishes," alluding to Noah's Ark as if the bank contained two of every kind of peculiar man. He describes a sickly man, Evans, who worked as a cashier. He was melancholic during his job, always fearing that accounts would default, but a mirthful storyteller when the workday was done.
Working under Evans was Thomas Tame, who had the air of a nobleman but a totally dull mind. There was also John Tipp, who considered accounting the most important work in the world, and himself the greatest accountant. Tipp was a loner who so rejected the company or help of others that Elia took it for a form of timidity. Finally, there were the men who perpetrated the hoax. Henry Man was the author of the South-Sea Bank, and he always made sure to give people a hard time for showing up late or leaving early. Man was aided by Plumer, an aristocratic fellow who did little to stop the hoax, and seemed pleased whenever it was furthered.
The essay concludes with Elia suggesting that every person he has just recollected may have been a fabrication, a hoax much like the South-Sea Bank's own work. He tells the reader to be satisfied that he could be a witness to the South-Sea Bank, that his own existence could make the importance of the institution a little more material.
This essay is historically significant for a few reasons. Most pertinent to Charles Lamb's literary history is the fact that this was the first essay he ever published under the Elia pseudonym, preceding the collection Essays of Elia by several years. Elia was a man he worked with at the South-Sea Bank, even though Elia is not mentioned by name in this essay. And while Lamb spent much of his adult life working white-collar yet relatively low-ranking jobs in financial institutions, "The South-Sea House" is among the few of his essays that actually speak of his professional life.
Why then did he choose to write about this job? The other historically significant aspect of this essay is that it concerns the site of one of the most infamous scams from the dawn of capitalism, and Lamb had a unique opportunity to write an essay on a matter that would have been quite interesting to the public at the time. As famously described in Charles MacKay's encyclopedic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, the South Sea Bubble occurred when Brits were given the opportunity to purchase stock on future trade in South America, despite the fact that there was little chance Britain would ever do any trade with South America. After a stock buying frenzy, the bubble collapsed and the South-Sea Bank's actions were recognized as fraudulent.
There's only one problem with Elia's account here, though. The South Sea Bubble occurred in 1720, and Lamb wasn't born until 1775. So indeed, as the end of the essay suggests, he had been fabricating a story just as the South Sea Company fabricated a business opportunity. Once again, we see Lamb using the essay as an opportunity to fictionalize some aspect of his past, but here he does it in a rather clever way whereby he constructs a story that we as readers buy into just as, perhaps, those unfortunate stock holders bought into the South Sea Company's story about great colonial wealth.