For many bank clerks, colleagues were a second family. They had spent long hours working side-by-side before the war. They often socialised together too: many, particularly in London, were avid members of their banks’ staff sports clubs. Indeed, young bank clerks were sometimes advised by older colleagues to limit their circle of friends to fellow bank workers, who would respect their obligations regarding discretion and customer confidentiality. For many of those who went away to fight, staying in touch with colleagues became a vital link to their old lives, and to home.
Back in the banks, meanwhile, the remaining staff were also keen to hear from absent friends. In many cases, the men who’d joined up had arrived in the banks only a few years earlier as 15 or 16-year-old lads. Their sudden transformation into fighting men was more than enough to make older colleagues anxious, astonished and very proud.
Thanks for your letters and parcel, we were very glad to be able to change our underclothing, having worn same for about a month!
Letter from BL Humphreys to his bank colleagues, December 1914
Letters flew between bank clerks at home and those away in uniform, sharing news and sending best wishes. Every man had his own experiences and perspective. Some wrote of constant boredom; others of too much action. Some enjoyed army life, while others hated it. Some kept their tone light and jokey, while others offered occasional glimpses – subject to what could pass the censor – of suffering and hardship they’d encountered. In every case, their letters home were cherished. Some banks had staff magazines, and printed large chunks of the letters so that news could be shared more widely. It is through this source that many of the soldiers’ words have survived in our archives.
Some men found more unusual ways to let colleagues know how they were getting on. The staff at Yeovil branch of Parr’s Banking Company had not heard from their colleague JHW Yerbury for some time when, around the end of 1915, a cheque he’d written in France arrived at the branch for payment. Knowing that cheques were always sent to the customer’s home branch for processing, Yerbury had taken the opportunity to add a ‘special endorsement’ on the back, assuring his colleagues that he was well.
This is the gift we send you
Into the foreign lands
Hands clasped to a Christmas greeting,
And our hearts are with our hands.
This is the wish we send you
As we gaze at the low’ring skies,
That the God of Battles keep you –
And our souls are in our eyes.
This is the word we send you
Over the war-worn track –
Strike! for Saint George and England –
And then – come back!
‘GFC’, London County & Westminster staff magazine, Christmas 1916
For their part, the staff in the banks wanted to send more than just words to their colleagues in uniform, and many sent parcels of sweets, cigarettes, socks and other little comforts. The staff of Parr’s Bank’s London Bartholomew Lane office operated a particularly ambitious parcel scheme. They took up a monthly collection, and used it to buy and send luxuries to their many colleagues who were on active service. In the course of the war, they sent 726 parcels, amounting to 120,170 cigarettes, over 102 pounds of tobacco, 337 pounds of chocolate, 121 pounds of biscuits, 94 pounds of acid drops, 34 cakes, 34 boxes of dates, 101 pounds of bullseyes, 59 tins of fruit, 61 tins of fish, 360 handkerchiefs and various mufflers and pairs of mittens.
The Bartholomew Lane parcels were greatly appreciated by their recipients. One, Corporal WGT Mason, wrote: ‘Many thanks for the bank parcel. It is difficult for people to realise exactly how much parcels are appreciated out here.’ Henry McWilliams from the same bank’s Liverpool branch wrote to his colleagues: ‘I received your letter and parcel safely this morning. I was very pleased to get them, especially the sweets. They were just the sort I needed. Nobody, unless he has been in the trenches, can imagine what an absolute treasure such things are, out here.’ This was McWilliam’s last letter home. Soon afterwards, news arrived that he had been killed in action.
Christmas was a time of year when bank staff felt particularly aware of absent friends. Many banks sent Christmas cards and parcels to their staff on active service. Even this small gesture meant a great deal to the recipients. After Christmas 1914 EG Driscoll of London County & Westminster Bank’s Shoreditch branch wrote ‘I don't know at all the names of our pals at home who so kindly sent us a Christmas card, but their thoughtfulness was very much appreciated by the boys on service.’