Working in a bank in wartime

Cartoon by an unidentified employee of London County & Westminster Bank, uncharitably depicting the mayhem as inexperienced temporary staff struggled to cope with the busy six-monthly balance, 30 June 1916 © RBS

Cartoon by an unidentified employee of London County & Westminster Bank, uncharitably depicting the mayhem as inexperienced temporary staff struggled to cope with the busy six-monthly balance, 30 June 1916 © RBS

For those who stayed behind to run the banks, the war brought ever-increasing responsibilities. They were the youngest, the oldest and the least experienced members of staff, and the burden they shouldered was significant.  

Balance days

Like many businesses, banking had annual peaks in workload. These fell at the end of December and June, the six-monthly balance days. Each branch had to balance all its books and pass the figures to head office, for use in compiling the bank’s balance sheet. Even in peacetime, balance days were a strain, and clerks often had to work late to get the job done. In wartime, completing a balance became a major undertaking.  

Bank administration depended on routine. Most clerks joined their bank when they were 15 or 16 years old, so by their mid-20s, they’d been through the balance process at least 20 times. With temporary clerks taking their place, however, many in the workforce were experiencing a balance for the first time. Furthermore, the banks thought it inappropriate to ask women to work very late. London County & Westminster Bank, for example, advised managers that female clerks should not be kept beyond 9pm.

‘June 26th [1916] – You will now be in the throes of the ‘balance,’ and I can only wish you a speedy finish. Out here we are just going to start our ‘balance,’ and I wish I was able to tell you more about it...’
Lance Corporal Wintour writing to bank colleagues, with a veiled reference to a forthcoming action: the Battle of the Somme, which started 5 days later

To help get the job done, managers brought in extra hands where possible. Quite often, branch staff who’d joined the army were still training relatively close to home, and many commanding officers were sympathetic to bank managers’ requests to borrow back their clerks at six-monthly balance times. In June 1917 Thomas Partington, formerly of Manchester & County Bank’s Bolton branch, spent his precious home leave helping his old colleagues with the balance. This was to be his last trip home. He was killed in France a month later.

As more men went away the problems deepened. From 1916 additional bank holidays were declared in January and July, to give bank workers an extra day to complete the balance while their branches were closed to the public.  

Business as usual

Even when the six-monthly balance wasn’t underway, it became hard to keep business running smoothly. Opening hours were shortened so that staff could concentrate on serving customers while the branch was open, and deal with the recordkeeping after closing. From 1 December 1915 London banks closed at 3pm on weekdays. In April 1916 town branches in Scotland took the same step. Similar arrangements were made in communities all over the country, usually on a local basis because the banks knew that local industries, market days and holidays affected particular customers’ needs, so a blanket solution was not suitable.

‘During the period of the war a number of relaxations have been allowed at branches in regard to many matters and the time has now arrived when strict attention to rules and regulations must be observed…in order that the bank may continue to enjoy the confidence of its customers and maintain its old traditions’
National Provincial & Union Bank of England staff circular, 10 April 1919

Record-keeping was also simplified. National Bank of Scotland, for example, dropped the requirement to keep weekly current account balance books, instead instructing branches to transfer details straight from daily ledgers to the monthly return. Trivial as such an alteration may sound, this was a seismic shift in the traditional world of branch banking.

Staff holiday entitlement was reduced. In London County & Westminster Bank, allowance was cut in 1916 to 12 days – that is, 2 weeks, because bank clerks worked Monday to Saturday. The following year it was initially cut to one week, but a second week was later authorised. 

Strangers at the counter

The war greatly increased the numbers of people moving around the country, and local branches found themselves serving strangers at the counter more often than ever before. This made it easier for dishonest people to get away with presenting fraudulent documents. A stranger in military uniform could pose a particular challenge, because nobody wanted to suspect a hero of being a criminal. Staff circulars from head office contained frequent alerts about recent fraud cases of this kind, and warnings to staff to be vigilant.

Shortages

The war created shortages of all kinds, as imports became scarce and domestic production was diverted towards war output. By 1916 envelopes, pens, twine, ink and light bulbs were all difficult to obtain. Branch managers were frequently reminded to use their reserves as economically as possible. Clerks were instructed to rule lines onto the backs of forms that had once been used single-sided. Double sheets of notepaper were cut in half, reserving the first portion, with the heading, for external letters and using the rest for internal memoranda. Old books and papers were sent for pulping to support the war effort.

There were restrictions on the use of electricity, gas and coal. Lights and heating had to be kept off whenever possible.

Daylight saving

Daylight itself became a precious resource. It was during the war that many European countries, including Britain, started changing the clocks in summer, to make best use of the long light evenings. The clocks went forward for the first time in May 1916. It must have been a confusing concept to grasp at first, and London County & Westminster Bank’s circular instructing branches to change their clocks finished with the reminder ‘Office hours will be, of course, the same as heretofore, by the clock.’

Comments

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Terry killeen
Thank you for all the pieces about the bank during war time, it brings home just what the country and its people had to contend with just to try and keep the wheels turning. When you are reminded that staff home on leave came in to help balance the books, some of whom would return to the war and not come back, the words to express my gratitude to those people and the families they left behind seem woefully inadequate.

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