George Henry Pownall (1850-1916) started his working life in Union Bank of Manchester, and by the age of 27 was a branch manager. He was also an avid member of Manchester Statistical Society, and a student of all aspects of economics and banking theory. It was claimed that he read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations before the age of 9.
In 1877 Pownall took a job with Manchester & Salford Bank, later known as Williams Deacon’s Bank. He rose to become manager of its Manchester St Ann Street branch and then, in 1901, was appointed joint manager of London office.
In 1910, when Pownall was 60, he retired due to ill health.
When war broke out in 1914, Pownall’s successor at London office contacted Pownall to invite him back to lend a hand. Pownall was pleased to accept – in fact, according to the bank’s general manager at the time, he was probably delighted to be asked, because ‘I knew [he] would dearly love to be ‘in it’.’
Pownall was also in demand elsewhere. He had written numerous journal articles over the years, covering topics such as ‘The Insufficiency of our Cash Reserves’; ‘Savings Banks and their Relation to National Finance’; and ‘English Banking: its Development and some Practical Problems it has to Solve.’ Aware of his expertise, the government invited him to join its committee of foreign trade debts, and shortly afterwards, its American dollar securities committee. Both committees advised the government on policy decisions relating to war finance.
In 1916 Pownall became president of the Institute of Bankers, the professional body for bankers in England and Wales. One of his duties was to deliver the annual presidential address, which he did on 8 November 1916. In it, he considered the lessons of war, both for the nation and for the banking sector. British banks had recently faced criticism for their old-fashioned outlook in comparison with German banks, which invested more directly in trade and industry, often taking seats on corporate customers’ boards and thereby having more control over their strategic development. Pownall passionately defended the British approach, insisting that while there might be a place for what he called ‘development companies’, the banks’ role was to not to invest directly in business, but to support it with prudent lending and practical financial instruments.
Pownall was blunt about Britain’s pre-war failures: ‘It was not Germany we had to fear, it was our own prosperous inertia, our reliance, in some ways, on old methods, our aversion to acquire foreign languages, to study the markets with which we desired to trade – our insularity.’
His suggestions were practical. He wanted Britain to adopt a metric system; to reduce its reliance on imported food; to learn how to work with foreign cultures; and to educate its workforce better, particularly in languages, science and technology. ‘Surely’, he said, ‘the warning of this war is not for one but for all generations’.
Pownall’s health had been poor for several years, and his wartime efforts did not help. He died suddenly on 16 December 1916, barely more than a month after delivering his influential presidential address to the Institute of Bankers. His obituary in the Institute’s journal declared ‘there is little doubt that his resolute determination to ‘do his bit’ at whatever cost hastened his end.’