Immediately upon the outbreak of war, the likelihood of enemy attack on British towns and cities became a real concern. In those early weeks, the threat was expected to come from land invasion or naval bombardment, so fears were greatest for settlements on the south and east coasts. English banks issued guidance to their south coast branches, detailing actions to be taken in the event of invasion.
Edinburgh’s proximity to the Firth of Forth was thought to put it at risk, too. Commercial Bank of Scotland moved some of its securities from Edinburgh to London. One Edinburgh insurance company approached its banker, The Royal Bank of Scotland, to ask whether there was any spare space in the bank’s London or Glasgow strongrooms that could be used for safekeeping of some of its assets. At that stage, both cities were apparently considered more secure than Edinburgh.
The first bombing raids on British soil were indeed naval attacks, affecting towns in north east England. Before long, however, the greater threat came not from the sea, but from the sky. The use of zeppelins on raids created many more potential targets, including London. As early as October 1914, The Royal Bank of Scotland took out air raid insurance for its London office.
The first zeppelin raid on a British town targeted Yarmouth in January 1915. It was followed by dozens more in 1915 and 1916. Well over 500 people were killed, and nearly 2,000 injured. One of the latter was Mr HFA Vale, from Parr’s Bank’s chief accountant’s department. He was hit in the back by a fragment of shrapnel during a raid on Southend in May 1915. He was not seriously hurt, but the incident was reported in the bank’s staff magazine.
During 1915 and 1916 many more banks took out air raid insurance for their buildings, not only in London but – as zeppelin raids became more widespread – in other towns and cities too. Nevertheless, it was clear that London was the most frequent target, and various banks began to consider installing defences.
Relatively little was known about the likely effect of falling bombs on buildings, but the most common suggestion was to erect steel netting above roofs, to catch and detonate bombs before they made contact with the building itself. This solution had serious downsides. Such heavy additions would put severe strain on buildings, and if they collapsed in a bomb attack the damage was likely to be even worse than anything the bomb itself would have caused. There were also the practical difficulties of obtaining building materials amid wartime shortages, and the complication of getting permission to alter leased premises.
Put off by all these problems, few banks went ahead with complicated anti-bomb installations. Most limited themselves to installing sandbags and fire extinguishers, fixing wire netting under domes and skylights to catch falling glass, and painting woodwork with fire retardant paint.
The one blessing for banks in the early years of the war was that air raids took place at night. Money and books had been safely locked away after the close of business the previous day, and staff and customers were far away in their own homes. All this was to change in 1917, when planes replaced zeppelins, and raids began to occur in broad daylight. Banks had to switch their focus from protecting the fabric of buildings to protecting the lives of the people inside them.