The customers’ view

The counter in National Provincial Bank of England's Hendon branch, December 1914 © RBS

The counter in National Provincial Bank of England's Hendon branch, December 1914 © RBS

Many aspects of banking changed during the war years. Banks tried to make sure the alterations didn’t affect customers adversely, but in reality they had to rely on customers accepting the changes as part of the war effort.

One example was the employment of lady clerks. When banks first realised they would have to employ women to keep business running, many feared that customers would refuse to be served at the counter by a woman, in case she gossiped outside work about their financial affairs. This was the concern underlying a 1915 circular to managers of London County & Westminster Bank: ‘care must be exercised not to employ persons whose presence in the bank would be taken exception to by customers, but in these times it is felt that most people will waive objections which are valid enough under normal conditions.’

The bank’s calculation seems to have been correct. Although male staff occasionally complained about their new female colleagues, there is no sign in the bank’s archives of any customer objections.

'The directors, having released nearly 50% of the staff for military service, appeal to the customers of the bank for a little consideration should transactions occasionally not be carried through with the same expedition as in normal times.' Note enclosed with passbooks being returned to customers of London County & Westminster Bank after their annual totalling, January 1916

Other alterations tried customers’ patience further. The moratorium at the beginning of the war undeniably caused inconvenience for many customers, and it was natural that they vented their frustration at the banks, which were responsible for enacting the new legal provisions. As the war went on, banking hours were shortened, so that a reduced staff could focus on serving at the counter during opening hours, leaving back-office work until out of hours. Some branches had to close altogether. Through all these changes, however, customers were very understanding, and generally accepted the necessary alterations with good will.

In some cases, the kindness of customers deeply touched bank staff. At one large London branch of London County & Westminster Bank, a regular customer asked one day after the staff who were away on active service, and whether the branch was ever in touch with them. On hearing that the staff sent regular parcels to their absent colleagues, the customer immediately put down £10, ‘and asked us as a favour to put in each parcel something as coming from him.’

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