By 1915 it was clear that the war was not going to be over quickly. Thousands of bank workers were already away on military service, and more were joining up each week. Many were young men who, until recently, had been looked upon by older colleagues as mere lads. Now they were risking their lives for their country, and the banks were tremendously proud of them. One or two published lists of those who were away in uniform, but such lists went out of date before they could be printed.
When news of colleagues' deaths began to arrive, banks were keen to honour them. At Parr's Bank, for example, the first staff death was reported in November 1914. The board adopted a formal resolution: 'The directors have learned with great regret that Lieutenant Robert Horridge, 4th Battalion Manchester Regiment, a member of the staff of the bank, has been killed in action, and they desire to record their appreciation of his devotion to his Country and their sincere sympathy with his relatives.'
At first, reports came one by one. Eleven men from our banks were killed in 1914, and a similar number in the first 3 months of 1915. Soon, however, the numbers were mounting rapidly. For a while, Parr's Bank continued to adopt a board resolution in honour of each man, but they began to take up ever-larger sections of the minutes. In 1916 the directors adopted a shorter form of words for the tribute.
Our roll of honour has grown sadly long, and the memorial behind me to those who have fallen is no longer large enough to hold the full list of names. No less than 112 have given their lives to their country
Walter Leaf, London County & Westminster Bank's AGM, January 1917
Board minutes were a way to record a tribute for posterity, but few staff and no customers ever saw them. Banks wanted a more public way to remember the men they had lost, and started producing rolls of honour.
Rolls of honour took a variety of forms. Some appeared in internal staff magazines. The Journal of the Institute of Bankers and the Bankers' Magazine also published lists, but the information they gathered was patchy at best. Notification of deaths usually came from family members. It was often delayed, and details of rank and regiment could be out of date, so the wartime rolls of honour contained many errors.
Some banks placed their rolls of honour in newspaper notices or printed annual reports. Lists were displayed, and sometimes read out, at bank annual general meetings.
As the numbers mounted, most of our constituent banks came to focus on the Fallen in their wartime rolls of honour, but Ulster Bank continued to place a strong emphasis on all its men who were serving. This difference may arise from the fact that conscription was never put into effect in Ireland, meaning that all the Ulster Bank men who served were truly volunteers, whereas in the rest of the British Isles many of the men who 'volunteered' would otherwise have been conscripted.
Whatever the reason, in 1917 Ulster Bank commissioned a roll of honour to be displayed in the general office of its building in Waring Street, Belfast, where it would be seen by both staff and customers. It took the form of an elaborately carved oak frame with three brass panels displaying the names of all staff on active service, in order of joining up. The names of those who had fallen were annotated with their death dates. From the outset, the roll was intended for permanent display, and indeed it is the only one of our banks' displayed wartime rolls of honour (as opposed to memorials, which came later) to have survived to this day. It is still on display in the foyer of Ulster Bank's Belfast head office.
Intriguingly, the Ulster Bank roll, created in 1917, was carved with the words 'Roll of Honour 1914-1919'. No records survive to explain why the designers chose this date span. We can only speculate that they foresaw the war potentially stretching on far into the future. Calculating that this first roll of honour would run out of space in 1919, perhaps they simply accepted that by 1920 they might have to commission a new one.
Whatever form the banks' wartime rolls of honour took, their compilers did their best with limited information. After the end of the war they reviewed, corrected and completed the details, and used them to create more lasting memorials. In so doing they took rolls of honour, which the wartime generation had created for itself, and turned them into war memorials, which they created for generations yet to come.