The war brought hardship for many people. The Belgian Relief Fund, set up in August 1914, raised money from public donations to help care for the many thousands of Belgian refugees who fled to Britain after the invasion of their homeland. The Prince of Wales’ Relief Fund, established in the same month, sought to help to those whose livelihoods would be harmed by the war, such as fishermen, people working in coastal tourism, and those whose jobs relied on German materials or markets.
Both funds issued public appeals, and received overwhelming support. People rushed to donate, as did many companies, including banks. In August 1914 each of our largest English constituents gave £1,000 to the Prince of Wales’ Fund, and £500-£1,000 to the Belgian Fund. Smaller banks also donated.
These donations were not uncontroversial. The manager of one Manchester bank worried about making large charitable donations and then having to explain to shareholders at the end of the year why there were no profits to be shared out. The Scottish banks took the view that they did not have authority to donate shareholders’ money, and so declined to donate.
In fact, there were occasional exceptions to the Scottish banks’ policy. Some donations were made on behalf of London branches, no doubt in recognition of the different cultural view on this matter in London. In 1919 The Royal Bank of Scotland contributed to celebrations for the post-armistice homecoming of Edinburgh’s soldiers, but only on condition that its donation remained secret.
In England, our banks made numerous donations to charities throughout the war. Although the causes were doubtless good, banks were also strongly motivated by the wish to be part of the community; to support causes that mattered to their customers and neighbours. Donations ranged from £1,000 to £1, but were almost always made on behalf of whichever local branch had a direct relationship with the group raising the money. Through these community efforts, banks supported all sorts of causes, from poverty relief and therapeutic outings for air raid survivors to hospital equipment and entertainment for wounded soldiers.
A more direct charitable enterprise was undertaken by Parr’s Bank in April 1916, when it donated an ambulance to the Red Cross for use at the Front, in honour of its own staff who were serving there. After the ambulance was commissioned, the bank received a letter from an employee’s son who had seen it in action in France: ‘last week its figures were 8 'lying' cases, 15 'sitting' cases and 154 miles.’
Banks also liked to support their own employees’ efforts to raise money for charity. In 1917, London County & Westminster Bank’s women clerks clubbed together to raise money for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. In an early instance of matched giving, the bank matched their £50 with another £50. Also in 1917, the same bank made the first donation towards staff plans for a fundraising day to raise money for YMCA huts. That initial contribution got the ball rolling, and covered the costs of the event, so that all further donations went straight to the good cause.