When workers left their jobs to join the army, banks had to find new staff to keep business operating in their absence.
In the immediate crisis of July-August 1914, some retired bankers returned to work. One was George Pownall, who had been London manager for Williams Deacon’s Bank before his retirement due to ill health in 1910. In the crisis at the outbreak of war, Pownall’s successor invited him back to lend a hand, and Pownall readily accepted. He also served as an expert on government wartime finance committees until his sudden death in December 1916.
In July 1915 London County & Westminster Bank suspended its rule requiring staff to retire at 65, so that those who felt able to continue could do so. Across the Irish Sea, Ulster Bank went even further, actually politely declining some applications to retire. One manager’s request in 1917 was met with the response, ‘it would be a great convenience to us if you could see your way to continue in your present position for, say, six months…’
The banks also hired boys who were still too young to join the army. In peacetime, boys had typically begun bank apprenticeships at 16 or 17 in English banks, or a little younger in Scottish banks. Some banks now lowered that limit. Parr’s Bank, for example, hired boys as young as 14.
By far the largest number of temporary staff were women. Before the war, banks had been particularly slow among clerical employers to open their doors to women, but with no prospect of finding enough male temporary staff, they rapidly reversed their stance. Parr’s Bank was one of the first to accept women. By January 1916 it had 457 temporary clerks, of whom 425 were women, covering the jobs of 593 men on military service.
Parr’s Bank was keen to develop the skills of its temporary clerks. It encouraged them to do some background reading, and authorised branches to buy copies of textbooks such as Elements of Banking and English Practical Banking for them. Managers were asked to look out for women and boys who were doing good work, and give them opportunities to expand their skills. In fact, wartime temporary clerks had opportunities to progress onto more interesting work much more quickly than a pre-war boy-apprentice could ever have anticipated.
Temporary clerks, both male and female, were paid weekly wages rather than monthly or quarterly salaries. They had no access to pension savings schemes or other permanent staff benefits, and little or no formal job security. The banks had promised to reinstate all permanent staff when they came home from military service, so were reluctant to make long-term commitments to anyone else. Nevertheless, many temporary clerks showed considerable dedication, working long hours and, in many cases, staying for years, until men returned to take back their jobs. By that time, the banks’ business had expanded, and a significant number of temporary clerks were transferred to permanent staff.