Many bank workers were too old or young to join up, or were judged medically unfit for military service. For them, staying behind while others went away to fight could be frustrating. Many found ways to support the nation at home, volunteering their expertise, their resources, or simply their willingness to help.
The economic questions that arose in wartime were complex and highly important. A number of our bankers became formal or informal government advisers on these matters, or sat on government committees that dealt with them. Among them was Sir Felix Schuster, who served as one of the leading spokesmen for the London banks in their cooperation with the government from July 1914 onwards. Another important adviser was Edward Davies, whose background in international banking was relatively uncommon among his contemporaries, and gave him valuable expertise as Britain came to grips with war conditions.
Lord Goschen, chairman of London County & Westminster Bank, initially served as a Colonel in his old regiment, The Buffs (East Kent Regiment), but was found medically unfit to go overseas with them. After retiring from the army he took up a government post, becoming head of the Food Production Department at the Board of Agriculture. By the last year of the war his national work was taking up so much of his time that he was forced to retire from the chairmanship of the bank.
Red Cross volunteer
David Milne was a clerk in London County & Westminster Bank. By 1914 he had been with the bank for more than 30 years, and in February that year he was transferred from the bank’s Camberwell branch to become second-in-command at Cliftonville, Margate.
When war broke out, the people of Margate became keen to help wounded soldiers arriving back in England from the Continent. Volunteers quickly formed a local Red Cross Society branch. Milne, who had been quartermaster of his local branch in Camberwell, was appointed honorary commandant in charge. The bank supported him by giving permission for him to be absent from work when necessary.
The hospital the volunteers established was first called into service in October 1914, when a group of wounded Belgians arrived. Soon afterwards, Margate was added to the list of hospitals where British wounded arriving at Southampton could be sent. From then on, the volunteers were kept busy. Writing in the bank’s staff magazine, Milne noted ‘Of course there are many sad experiences, many sickening sights, but there is no time to brood, no good in taking things to heart and wasting energy which is better spent in the work of relief.’
Running a hospital
In 1917 Vincent Wodehouse Yorke, a director of London County & Westminster Bank, converted his country house, Forthampton Court near Tewkesbury, into a War Office-approved 20-bed convalescent home for officers. Yorke’s wife was its matron, and apart from a medical officer and couple of orderlies, the hospital was run entirely by the Yorke family and their servants.
Yorke was particularly keen to invite men from the staff of his own bank to convalesce at Forthampton, should they have such a need. He wrote about it in the bank’s staff magazine: ‘I can answer for the officers being comfortable there, as our chief difficulty during the six months that the hospital has been open is to get them to leave.’ During its period of operation, Forthampton cared for 104 patients.
In my opinion, a man who, after a long day's work in a shop or an office, freely gives up four solid hours of his night's rest to patrol a stretch of road in front of a gas, water or electric station, often in a deluge of rain, is doing work second only to that of men actually at the Front. I often think, as I go home to my bed after visiting the posts, how true it is that 'they also serve who watch and wait'.
London County & Westminster Bank employee who volunteered as a sub-inspector supervising special constables
Other war work
Some bank workers became special constables, responsible for defending key locations such as power stations from enemy attack or infiltration. Later, as zeppelin raids became a threat, they also took on air raid warning responsibilities. One special constable who worked for London County & Westminster described how his own brother had complained that the specials relieving regular police of some of their war work meant that they had enough time left to catch him speeding on his motorbike - which they had recently done, giving him a 50-shilling fine.
At least one man from London County & Westminster Bank became a volunteer munitions worker, undertaking 12-hour shifts on Sundays – the only day he wasn’t needed at the bank – at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich.
Some of our female clerks, such as London County & Westminster Bank's Queenie Quekett, joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment, providing nursing support in military hospitals. Quekett undertook her work as a VAD alongside her bank duties, and remained involved with the organisation for many years after the war.