Zeppelin raids took place at night, when banks were closed and staff and customers were all elsewhere, so banks had the luxury of thinking only about protecting property, rather than people. All that changed in May 1917, when zeppelins were replaced with Gotha aircraft, which attacked in broad daylight. Now, air raids happened during banking hours, and the banks had major new responsibilities.
The second Gotha air raid to strike London came on Saturday 7 July 1917, and caused extensive damage in the East End and the City. 57 people were killed and nearly 200 injured.
One of the buildings damaged in the raid was the head office of London County & Westminster Bank at 41 Lothbury. The building next door bore the brunt of a falling bomb, but the great glass ceiling above the Bank’s public hall was also shattered. A warning had been received, and everyone in both buildings was able to take shelter. The only casualty at this site was a messenger who entered the bank just before the bomb fell, and suffered a (non-fatal) heart attack.
We were warned of the impending raid, and, anticipating that I should not be able to get out for some time, I proceeded to get a cup of tea. I came back a few minutes later, and found that a bomb had fallen…there was scarcely a square inch of the glass remaining in the roof.
A London County & Westminster Bank employee's account of the raid
After the raid, bank staff cleared up the broken glass, tarpaulins were hired to cover the hole in the roof, and day-to-day work went on as usual. For all the banks, however, London County & Westminster’s near-miss had been shocking, and brought home to them the need for better air raid procedures.
Before the switch to daytime raids in summer 1917, bank procedures – where they existed at all – had focussed on maintaining security during an air raid. Step 1 in Parr’s Bank’s procedures, for example, had been ‘Office doors to be immediately closed and the iron shutters, if any, closed’. Now, however, the banks realised that this could leave people stranded outside in the street, unable to find cover anywhere. On 11 July 1917 – a couple of days after the shocking raid of the 7th – they agreed to a new procedure. All bank doors would remain open, and as many people as could be safely accommodated would be allowed in to take shelter.
The banks also revised their earlier building surveys. Where previously they had dealt with structural risks to premises, their focus now shifted to the shelter and safe evacuation of staff and customers. Architects identified the securest areas of each building – often the basement or vaults – and arrangements were made for emergency exits. These were not necessarily very advanced; in a number of cases, they simply consisted of making sure a ladder was available.
In the course of July 1917, many banks also took out life insurance policies for London staff, so that their relatives would receive financial support if they were killed in an air raid. The amounts of cover varied. Working on the assumption that men had more family responsibilities than women, National Provincial Bank arranged £250 of cover for its men, and £100 for women. The Royal Bank of Scotland – with far fewer London employees than National Provincial – arranged much higher cover: £1,000 for married men and £500 for all others, including women. National Bank of Scotland opted for £1,000 for all London staff, including – as one competitor noted with interest – ‘messengers and women cleaners’.
Air raids continued throughout the rest of 1917, and into 1918. As technology advanced, there were fears that the planes might start dropping poison gas, and in September and October 1917 both National Provincial Bank and Parr’s Bank issued medicated respirators – primitive gas masks – to all staff in the London metropolitan area.
In the event, however, the respirators were never needed. A few branches sustained minor damage in later raids, but the main difficulty – in business terms – was disruption to postal services. In the banks, as in the wider community, people worked hard to keep life as normal as possible, and after August 1918 there were no more air raids on Britain.