Although many women treated their bank jobs as a short-term commitment, others saw them as the beginning of a career, seizing every opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge.
One of the annual fixtures of the London banking calendar was the Gilbart Lectures and examination for bank clerks. Women were allowed to participate for the first time in 1916, and in that first year - and the second year too - top place in the exam was taken by a female candidate.
I mean to stick to my stool, however hard, and am determined never to surrender
Marian Woollard, Aylesbury branch of London County & Westminster Bank, 1916
From April 1918 women were allowed to sit the Institute of Bankers examinations – a tacit recognition by the profession that at least some women would stay long after the end of the war. According to one female commentator, this was ‘a great dawn in the future of women, and like the dawn it has come quietly with the strength of silence. There has been no battering at the door of the Institute, no protracted pleading, no wordy warfare, with its residue of soreness and bitterness.’ In the 1918 exams, 322 women entered. 38 passed all papers at the first attempt, and many more passed two or three of the required four subjects.
Other realms of the banking world were less quick to open their doors. In 1916 London County & Westminster Bank’s staff sports club refused to let female clerks join the club, on the grounds that its facilities were already being used by the patients of a local hospital. In 1919, a further request to use the sportsground for a women’s hockey club was rejected. Only the following year, when the women repeated their request, this time through the (male) chief clerk of the bank’s Foreign Branch, was permission finally granted.
We have got the right class of girls, and I should be very sorry to lose any of them. You are no doubt aware that with female staff, if you get the wrong sort, they will drive out the good girls...I hope that the whole of our present staff will be taken on permanently.
Letter to head office from the manager of Williams Deacon's Bank's London Birchin Lane office, June 1920
By that time, peace had returned, and those men who wished to do so had come back to the bank. Late in 1918, one staff magazine described an overheard conversation between two ladies bemoaning the difficulty of hiring a maid: ‘I understand things will be better soon – so many munition workers are to be released’; ‘Yes, and the banks, too, will be getting rid of their temporary staff…They would be rather a better class.’
In fact, the banks were busy, and there was plenty of work for women who wished to remain. Unlike during the war, they were now expected to leave upon marrying, and many did so during the 1920s, but others remained. They became the first cohort of women to spend whole careers in banking. They worked into the 1940s and 1950s, some rising to positions of responsibility. Most worked at head office, where it was easier for women to secure advancement; it was largely left to a later generation to rise to management in the branches.