When the war began in August 1914, almost all British bankers were male. Some banks had hired women to undertake typing and voucher-sorting, but for the most part, banking was a job for men only. Even traditionally conservative professions such as the law and the civil service were more advanced in this respect. The 1911 census revealed that only 1% of bank clerks were female, compared to 26% of civil service clerks and 37% of general commercial clerks.
Within months, however, it became obvious that things would have to change. One of the first banks to hire women to solve its staffing problems was Parr’s. By January 1915 it already employed 23 women, most of them at its London head office. In May that year, it urged local branch managers to recruit women too, and by January 1916, 425 women were working in Parr’s offices.
I shall never forget my first day as a 'clerkette'...On arriving in the City I walked twice round the Bank of England (to calm my nerves), then shutting both eyes and crossing my fingers, I entered The Bank.
Lesley Triscott, London County & Westminster Bank, 1916
Other banks followed suit; some rapidly, others more reluctantly. By reputation, Scottish banks were more conservative than their English counterparts, but even they were employing large numbers of women by 1917. In July that year National Bank of Scotland authorised 19 of its female clerks to undertake the responsible duty of signing its banknotes on behalf of the accountant, making them probably the first women ever to undertake this task in Britain.
Banks liked to recruit on the basis of personal recommendations. Sisters, wives and daughters of existing staff were particularly welcome, partly because the banks saw this as a way of supporting employees’ families, but also because the family connection implied quality, trustworthiness and loyalty.
The banks wanted women who were over 18 and well-educated, with good writing and arithmetic skills. Many had previous experience of clerical work. For them, banking was a prestigious sector in which to work, and potentially even represented a step towards professional status in their working lives.
Most banks paid their early female clerks between 20 and 30 shillings a week, depending on experience and qualifications – significantly more than a 16 or 17-year-old boy-apprentice, but less than any experienced male clerk. As the war went on and wages in all sectors rose, the banks added various benefits and bonuses to the basic pay, to help staff meet the rising cost of living, and to discourage them from leaving for better-paid jobs elsewhere.
The banks’ greatest worry about employing women was that customers would be offended by their presence. For this reason, women were initially confined to back office jobs, where they didn’t deal face-to-face with customers. As the army swallowed up more and more men, however, it became clear that women would have to work on the counter too.
There was still reluctance to employ women in the most pressured roles: in 1915, Bankers’ Magazine remarked ‘it is probably impossible to employ them on heavy tills, or in offices subject to periodical rushes, where the physical and nerve strain would be beyond the endurance of the normal woman.’ Over time, however, the women proved their worth, and even their critics tended to ascribe failings to lack of experience, rather than to their sex.