Mary Elizabeth Taylor Wood was born in Edinburgh in 1895, the daughter of Robert Wood, a businessman, and his wife Jane. She was educated at St Margaret’s School, Edinburgh.
When staff shortages during the First World War forced Commercial Bank of Scotland to recruit temporary clerks, it looked for women like Mary, who came from good families and had been well-educated. Although details of her earlier life are not known, it is likely that by the time she joined the bank at the age of 22 she already had some clerical experience.
Mary joined the staff of Commercial Bank of Scotland’s West End branch in April 1917. This was a large, busy branch, located on George Street, just a few minutes’ walk from head office. In peacetime the branch had been operated by a staff of eight; agent, accountant, teller, three clerks and two apprentices. The youngest five of them were already away on military service, and in their place women had been recruited. The first two had started work in November 1915, and there were six by the time Mary joined them as the seventh. In the bank as a whole, she was one of more than 300 Temporary Female Assistants at that time.
Like many female clerks, Mary had a brother away on military service; Robert, four years her senior, had been a mechanical engineer before the war, but was now an officer in the Royal Field Artillery. He was first posted to France in July 1915, and by the end of the war had risen to the rank of Acting Major.
The branch itself had ‘family’ on active service. In November 1917 the news came that one of the pre-war apprentices, James Elliot, had been killed in action while serving as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Scots. Like Mary herself, he was 22 years old.
After the end of the war hundreds of bank men came back to their jobs. For its part, Commercial Bank of Scotland was not keen to retain its female clerks, viewing them only as a temporary necessity. Some women were pleased to resign when they were no longer required for the war effort; others left to get married, or to take up other jobs. By 1920 Mary was one of only two women still at West End branch.
In that year the manager at West End, Mr Roberts, was promoted to head office. Perhaps through this connection, both women from the branch also received promotions to head office in the next two years; Mary herself moved in December 1921, after more than a year as the only woman at West End branch. Banks often preferred to keep female staff in head office departments, where they would not be in direct contact with customers, and this preference may have been behind the move.
Mary worked in the head office Accountant’s department for the next two years. Her manager wrote of her, ‘she is neat and accurate in her working and can keep her head in the urgent emergencies which are bound to arise in an often hard-pressed office. Her present position calls for concentration, speed and accuracy, and these she has. She is conscientious and trustworthy, willing and obliging, and may be relied on to carry through satisfactorily and promptly any work with which she is entrusted.’
Despite her unquestioned capability, by the end of 1923 the bank was keen to reduce the number of women it employed. Although it never reverted entirely to a male-only workplace, women were encouraged to leave, as part of what Mary’s manager called ‘the general principle’ of employing men only.
At the end of January 1924 Mary left the bank, never to return. She married two years later and went to live in London. For the rest of her life, she retained a handful of papers from her bank years, souvenirs of the friends and colleagues with whom she had worked. After her death her daughter kept the papers. She placed copies of them in the bank’s archives in 2015.