Even customers in sectors not obviously connected with war work were significantly affected by war conditions. They often turned to their banks for advice and support.
Hall, Higham & Co of Manchester sold ladies’ hats and millinery supplies. Before the war, it had sourced almost all its fancy hat feathers from German suppliers. With this supply closed off, its stocks began to run low as early as September 1914. Mr Hall decided to go to Paris in person to buy more – the French feathers were, he said, just as good as the German ones, albeit more expensive. His bank, Williams Deacon’s, bought £500 worth of French francs for him in London, and also gave him a draft for another £500, to be drawn in Paris. Armed with this money, he set out in early October. He was able to negotiate substantial discounts for paying immediately in cash, and came home with £1,400 worth of feathers. By the end of the month, he’d sold over 85% of the stock, at a significant profit.
Some companies combined government contracts with other opportunities arising from the war. One medical supplies company, a customer of District Bank in Liverpool, supplied drugs and surgical equipment to the British and allied governments, but also expanded significantly by picking up business in foreign countries that had previously dealt with German pharmaceutical companies. Unlike the government contracts, which were clearly temporary, these new markets were expected to be retained after Britain won the war. On this basis, the bank was prepared to see the company’s growth as a permanent transformation rather than a short-term boost, making it more willing to maintain its sizeable overdraft.
Customers also turned to their bankers for general business advice. One businessman came to Williams Deacon’s Bank in 1915 with a management problem. He was in his mid-70s, and was in partnership with another man, even older, and his son, aged 37. The son was wondering whether to volunteer for the army. Aside from any question of his own wishes, there was a reputational issue at stake; men of military age who were not in uniform faced severe public criticism. But the firm was busy, with a monthly turnover £30,000 above pre-war levels, and responsibility for the wages of 1,400 workers. The two older partners were not sure they could manage without their younger colleague, and wanted the bank’s view on what to do. The bank’s manager advised that the son should ‘stick where he was’, although he recognised that this meant he would face criticism.