Barrow-in-Furness in 1914 was a busy place. Within living memory, it had been a little town of barely 3,000 people, but Victorian industrial and transport developments had produced a swift transformation. By 1914 Barrow was an important steel and shipbuilding town, with a population of around 64,000.
Our branch in Barrow opened in the 1860s, originally as part of Lancaster Banking Company. Following a merger in 1907, it became an office of the larger Manchester & Liverpool District Bank, known informally as District Bank. In 1914 it had a staff of 13, who ran the main branch, a smaller sub-branch at Askam and a bigger one on The Strand. This made it a big operation; many country branches at the time had just three or four employees. As of June 1914, its books showed loans of £140,000; deposit balances of £480,000; and £22,000 cash on hand. Its customers were the town’s employers, shopkeepers, artisan workers and professionals. Most of the manual workers who made up the majority of Barrow’s population didn’t have bank accounts, but the cash for their wage packets was obtained by their employers via their banks.
Like all banks, Barrow branch was closed from Monday 3 August 1914 (which had been due to be a Bank Holiday anyway) until Thursday 6 August, to enable Britain’s financial systems to make the transition to war conditions. During that time, bank staff remained at their posts. For clerks who would normally have been busy at the counter, it was a time of waiting, with relatively little to do. The branch manager George Walker was busier, answering telephone calls from anxious customers. He was authorised to process individual payments on a case-by-case basis, if they genuinely couldn’t wait until Friday. He also liaised with other bank managers in town to prepare for reopening. On 6 August 1914 they agreed that, should one of them run short of cash for customer demands, the others would do their best to help him out.
Barrow was the mustering-point for the Territorial 4th Battalion of the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. When it was mobilised on 4 August, its officers and men hurried to Barrow. The Regiment was a customer of District Bank, and knowing that it would need plenty of cash to fund the mobilisation, the bank sent extra cash to Barrow: £5,000 from Lancaster on the 5th, and more than £10,000 from Manchester the next day. Besides the work involved, George Walker had a very personal reason for being interested in the mobilisation of the 4th King’s Own. His 19-year-old son, also called George, was an officer in the Battalion.
The banks reopened on Friday 7 August. Walker and his staff were at their posts by 8am, expecting a busy day. A few anxious savers came in, wanting to withdraw money, but new laws entitled – and obliged – staff to refuse to issue gold for hoarding purposes. Only money genuinely needed for wages or other payments was given out. Having started the day with £33,380 in cash, the balance was only £280 lower at close of business.
Early the next week, a woman came to see George Walker about her father, who had withdrawn nearly £1,500 when war was declared between Germany and Russia the previous week. She wanted Walker to persuade him to put the money back in the bank. Walker insisted that it was the man’s decision, but agreed to talk to him. That evening, he went to see the customer, and found that he had already grown anxious about having so much money in his house, and was glad of the opportunity to return it.
In the middle of August, as had been arranged during the long Bank Holiday, George Walker helped the manager of another bank in Barrow by providing some of his cash supplies to help it fulfil the wage requirements of the town’s biggest employer. A few days later, the pressure on cash supplies was greatly relieved by the arrival of the first new government-issue £1 and 10/ notes.
As the war progressed, Barrow branch continued to serve a wide range of customers, from a large company with over £80,000 in its deposit account to personal customers arranging overdrafts of £15 or £20. Some of their requirements were the same as ever; others were accentuated by war conditions; and some were wholly new. Business customers needed the bank’s support so they could take on government contracts or other expansion opportunities. Personal customers sought bank advice on investing their savings, and through the bank bought war loan stock and savings certificates. Regimental accounts became larger and more active, and individual customers in khaki used the bank for cashing pay cheques.
In his business diary, between notes about these transactions, George Walker tracked the progress of the war. On 24 August 1914, for example, he wrote ‘Reports of reverses to the French Army in Belgium and Lorraine. British soldiers ‘fighting brilliantly’. Russia and Serbia record splendid victories.’
On 9 September 1914 Walker wrote ‘Men in every station of life have enlisted by thousands’. Among them were many from District Bank but not, at that stage, from Barrow branch itself. The first man to join up from Walker’s staff was 23-year-old William Postlethwaite, who volunteered in November 1914. Two more joined up in the next year. Of the remaining staff, most were already in their forties, and were not required to serve. Six new boys joined the branch in the course of the war, and as each one reached military age he left to join the army, except for the youngest two, who were still under age when the armistice was signed. All seven of the Barrow branch men who served survived the war. Two were invalided home, no longer fit for military service, but were able to resume their bank duties.
In October 1914, amid fears of enemy spies learning secrets about Britain’s shipbuilding activities, Barrow was declared a ‘prohibited area’ for German nationals. Germans were given three days to leave. Among them was one of Barrow branch’s customers, a pork butcher who had lived and worked in Barrow for over 30 years, raising four sons who had all gone into the family business. He moved to Bowness, outside the prohibited area, and George Walker arranged to have an account opened for him at the bank’s branch there. His shop in Barrow remained open, but in May 1915 an anti-German mob smashed its window and destroyed some stock. Other German shops in town suffered a similar fate.
George Walker continued writing about war events in his business diary until mid-June 1915, when he mentioned the British attack at Festubert, and noted ‘my son is ‘wounded and missing’.’ It was later confirmed that Lieutenant George Henry Walker had been killed in action on 15 June 1915. He was 20 years old, and George Walker’s only son. Walker never mentioned the war in his business diary again.
By November 1915, staff shortages at Barrow branch were severe. As well as Postlethwaite, who’d joined up a year earlier, two men had been transferred to other branches, one had been on long-term sick leave since June, and the branch’s remaining two young men were keen to join up. On 8 November, Walker addressed the problem by hiring the branch’s first female clerk, 17-year-old Ruth Hunter. Another woman started work ten days later.
At the end of 1915 George Walker was promoted to the deputy managership of the bank’s bigger Liverpool branch. At Barrow, he was succeeded by John Spedding from Chorley branch. Spedding continued the manager’s diary, and on only his second day noted that a woman had called to ask whether the branch would be hiring any more female clerks. He responded that ‘the bank could not possibly employ any more.’ In fact, he was wrong. Several more women were hired in the course of 1916, including Spedding’s own daughter Ethel.
Employing women was not the only step taken to cope with staff shortages and increased workload. On 1 February 1916 Barrow branch’s first adding machine was installed. This new introduction was not without teething problems. Just one month later, Spedding noted that the adding machine ‘went wrong’, and he’d had to phone the manufacturers.
At around the same time, the Barrow bank managers agreed to shorten opening hours, only opening at 9.30 instead of 9 in the mornings. This enabled them to do more of the back-office paperwork while the branch was closed, so that the reduced staff could focus on serving customers during opening hours. Sub-branches – including District Bank’s Askam branch – were closed or had their opening hours reduced. On the other hand, at peak times in the banks’ efforts to sell war loans, such as January-February 1917, the Barrow banks agreed to open for extra hours, three evenings a week.
In February 1917 news came that Henry Clarke, who’d worked at Barrow branch from 1912 to 1913 before transferring to Sedbergh, had been killed in action in France. He was 21 years old.
Two men from Barrow branch came home in 1917, having been discharged as unfit. The rest were demobilised in 1918 and 1919. Perhaps having had their horizons broadened by wartime service, several of the youngest left soon afterwards to take up jobs with overseas banks. Others remained with District Bank, or even with Barrow branch itself, for the rest of their careers. They, and the town in which they worked, had survived a time of unprecedented challenge, but the hardships weren’t over. The economic slump of the early 1920s was to affect Barrow severely.