Walter Leaf (1852-1927) became a director of London & Westminster Bank in 1891. His working life up to that point had been spent in the family business, a merchant house specialising in luxury silks and ribbons. His true passion, however, was Ancient Greek literature. Throughout his adult life, he juggled his business career with Greek scholarship, publishing more than a dozen books and becoming one of the period’s most important Homer scholars.
In 1909 Leaf became the bank’s deputy chairman. Five years later, the First World War broke out. For Leaf, this meant an enormous increase in workload. The bank’s chairman, Viscount Goschen, was called away to military duties. He had a long-standing connection with the Buffs (East Kent Regiment), and although not medically fit to go abroad with his old battalion, he remained closely involved at home, leading recruitment efforts, particularly from among the staffs of the London banks, and serving on government war committees.
Meanwhile, most of Goschen’s bank duties fell to Walter Leaf. These included liaising with government and other banks over measures to manage the British economy; coping with the loss of staff to the armed forces; and meeting increasingly heavy demands for participation in war loans and the sale of war bonds.
At the same time, Leaf had to worry about his son Charlie, serving in the 5th Buffs – Viscount Goschen’s own former battalion. Goschen’s only son George (known as Joss) was also in the Battalion. In January 1916 news came that they had been involved in the Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad in Mesopotamia. Joss Goschen had been severely wounded, and it was Charlie Leaf, along with three other volunteers, who had gone out in front of lines to retrieve him and take him to a dressing station. Joss died in hospital 12 days later.
By August 1916, Charlie Leaf’s own health had broken down. He was invalided home suffering from dysentery, malaria and enteric fever. While convalescing he met and married Catherine Shuttleworth. In December 1917 he returned to the Front, this time at Passchendaele. Within weeks he was invalided home again, suffering from shell shock. He was still in hospital in June 1918, when his first son – Walter Leaf’s first grandchild – was born.
At the bank, meanwhile, Walter Leaf became a leading figure in the amalgamation movement which swept the banking sector in 1918. It was widely recognised that peace – when it finally came – would mark the beginning of a transformation in banking. Businesses were becoming bigger, and the banks that served them needed to be bigger too. Small, regional banks would not be able to compete, and so a flurry of mergers took place in the closing months of the war. Leaf’s bank – already one of the largest – took over Parr’s Bank in 1918, and approached numerous others with a view to acquisition. It was in very advanced negotiations to acquire Bank of Scotland in December 1918, when the government – concerned about banks growing too large – called a temporary halt to all bank mergers. The Bank of Scotland acquisition never went ahead.
In 1918 Walter Leaf succeeded Viscount Goschen as chairman of the bank. He held that post until his death in 1927, becoming a well-known figure whose opinions on banking and economic matters were widely reported in the press. He was active in the formation in 1919 of the British Bankers’ Association, which arose from the recognition that existing organisations had not been properly equipped to deal with the crisis conditions of wartime.
Leaf was keenly aware of the terrible damage done by the war. In the delicate post-war years he worked tirelessly to repair international relations, and to build a better, more peaceful future. He was a co-founder in 1919 of the International Chamber of Commerce, and became the movement’s President in 1925. He spoke several European languages fluently, and often addressed European audiences in their own language. It was on one such occasion in April 1926, while speaking in Germany, that he suffered a heart attack. He was brought home to England, where he died almost a year later.