Helping the war effort, 1914-18
Many banks and bank workers volunteered their time, expertise and facilities to support the war effort.
The war effort required facilities of many different kinds, from offices for administrators to land for training recruits. Although the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) authorised the government to requisition buildings or land compulsorily where necessary, property owners were encouraged to lend their premises voluntarily, as a contribution to the war effort.
Some of the bigger London banks owned sports grounds for staff use, including some with specialist facilities that took on new significance in wartime. London County & Westminster Bank, for example, had a rifle range at its ground in Norbury. As soon as war was declared, it made the range available every weekday evening, not only for staff but for members of the public to brush up their shooting skills, or experience handling a rifle for the first time.
The sports fields themselves were precious open spaces, well-maintained and easily accessible for large numbers of people, and some were put to use as military training grounds. From September 1914 London County & Westminster Bank’s ground in Norbury was used by a volunteer training company, formed to give basic military training to men who could not yet join the army, either because of age or poor health, or because their employers had not yet authorised them to volunteer. It was drawn mainly from the bank’s staff, but local men were also invited to join. Its first Saturday training session attracted 200 attendees, and that number soon grew to 300. They met at the sports ground every Saturday afternoon and Wednesday evening.
In March 1915 part of the ground was requisitioned for use as officers’ quarters for a military camp on the adjoining golf course. Meanwhile, the rest of the ground remained set up for sports, but was shared with soldiers stationed in Norbury, giving them facilities for athletics, football and rugby. The following year the pavilion was made available for recreational use by patients at a nearby military hospital, and the cricket pitch was used by Australian army teams.
Bank staff also continued to use the facilities at Norbury. In summer 1917, and again in 1918, the ground was the venue for charity open days, through which staff raised money to buy YMCA huts for soldiers.
Meanwhile, over in Dulwich, Parr’s Bank’s sports ground was also used for military training, including trench digging practise. By 1917, however, the government had in mind a new use for spare land. The German U-boat blockade was significantly reducing grain imports, and agricultural productivity was being shaken by the shortage of farm workers. Rationing was introduced as a voluntary measure in 1917, and became compulsory the following year. Everyone was exhorted to grow what food they could, and thousands of acres of land were turned over for use as allotments. The number of allotments in Britain peaked at 1.5m during the war, compared to 600,000 in 1913.
In winter 1917-18 a group of would-be allotmenteers working for London County Council approached Parr’s Bank, asking to use its Dulwich sports ground for allotments. The bank agreed, and in March 1918 handed over the keys to these so-called ‘plotters’, who were granted use for the next three years. They worked the land throughout the growing seasons of 1918, 1919 and 1920, after which the bank converted it back to sports use.
Giving time or expertise
Many bank workers were too old or young to join up, or were medically unfit for military service. For them, staying behind while others went away to fight could be frustrating. Many found ways to lend their support at home, volunteering their time or expertise.
The economic questions that arose in wartime were complex and highly important. A number of our bankers became formal or informal government advisers, or sat on government committees. Among them was Sir Felix Schuster, who served as one of the leading spokesmen for the London banks in their cooperation with the government from July 1914 onwards. Another important adviser was Edward Davies, whose pre-war background in international banking was relatively uncommon among his contemporaries, and gave him valuable expertise as Britain came to grips with war conditions.
Lord Goschen, chairman of London County & Westminster Bank, initially served as a Colonel in his old regiment, The Buffs (East Kent Regiment), but was found medically unfit to go overseas with them. After retiring from the army he took up a government post, becoming head of the Food Production Department at the Board of Agriculture. By the last year of the war his national work was taking up so much of his time that he was forced to retire from the chairmanship of the bank.
Red Cross volunteer
David Milne was a clerk in London County & Westminster Bank. By 1914 he had been with the bank for more than 30 years, and in February that year he was transferred from the bank’s Camberwell branch to become second-in-command at Cliftonville, Margate.
When war broke out, the people of Margate were keen to do something for wounded soldiers arriving back in England from the Continent. Volunteers quickly formed a local Red Cross Society branch. Milne, who had previously been quartermaster of his local branch in Camberwell, was appointed honorary commandant in charge. The bank gave permission for him to be absent from work when necessary.
The hospital the volunteers established was first called into service in October 1914, when a group of wounded Belgians arrived. Soon afterwards, Margate was added to the list of hospitals where British wounded arriving at Southampton could be sent. From then on, the volunteers were kept busy. Writing in the bank’s staff magazine, Milne noted ‘Of course there are many sad experiences, many sickening sights, but there is no time to brood, no good in taking things to heart and wasting energy which is better spent in the work of relief.’
Running a hospital
In 1917 Vincent Wodehouse Yorke, a director of London County & Westminster Bank, converted his country house, Forthampton Court near Tewkesbury, into a War Office-approved 20-bed convalescent home for officers. Yorke’s wife was its matron, and apart from a medical officer and a couple of orderlies, the hospital was run entirely by the Yorke family and their servants.
Yorke was particularly keen to invite men from the staff of his own bank to convalesce at Forthampton, should they have such a need. He wrote about it in the bank’s staff magazine: ‘I can answer for the officers being comfortable there, as our chief difficulty during the six months that the hospital has been open is to get them to leave.’ During its period of operation, Forthampton cared for 104 patients.
Other war work
Some bank workers became special constables, responsible for defending key locations such as power stations from enemy attack or infiltration. Later, as zeppelin raids became a threat, they also took on air raid warning responsibilities.
At least one man from London County & Westminster Bank became a volunteer munitions worker, undertaking 12-hour shifts on Sundays – the only day he was not at the bank – at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich.
Some of our female clerks, such as London County & Westminster Bank's Queenie Quekett, joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment, providing nursing support in military hospitals. Quekett undertook her work as a VAD alongside her bank duties, and remained involved with the organisation for many years after the war.
Many bank clerks who stayed at work were keen to do something for colleagues who had joined up. The staff of Parr’s Bank’s large London Bartholomew Lane office took a monthly collection, which was used to buy treats for absent friends. In the first year of operation, their scheme paid for 180 parcels, made up of 19,250 cigarettes; 39lb of tobacco; 186lbs of chocolate; 47lb of acid drops; 41lb of bullseyes; 324 handkerchiefs; 120 tins of fish or fruit; and various pairs of mittens and socks.
Other branches sent similar parcels. In March 1915, Henry McWilliams of Liverpool branch wrote to thank colleagues for gifts they had sent: ‘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. I thank you and all the friends who sent them, most heartily.’ This was the last letter the branch received from McWilliams. He was killed in action two weeks later.
Hoping to do good more generally, rather than just helping immediate colleagues, in summer 1917 the staff of London County & Westminster Bank held an event to raise money for YMCA huts. These huts provided refreshments and relaxation for soldiers at the front line, in army camps or in transit at railway stations. Numerous bank men had mentioned them in letters, testifying to what a heaven-sent blessing they were.
The fundraising day was held in June 1917 at the bank’s staff sports ground in Norbury. There was a tennis tournament followed by a concert. The bank itself donated 25 guineas; enough to cover expenses so that all further money went straight to the YMCA. Staff who lived too far away to attend also sent donations. Leighton Buzzard branch, for example, had a War Relief Fund, to which each member gave a small donation every month. They sent two guineas from the fund to support the appeal.
Although the primary purpose was to raise money, the event also helped bring staff together. This was the first bank social event for many newer colleagues, and the first time they had seen the sports ground which, before the war, had been at the heart of so many London clerks’ social lives.
The event raised enough to pay for two YMCA huts. By May 1918, however, news came that both had been lost. One had been blown up by a shell, and the other had fallen behind enemy lines. Undeterred, the staff decided to do it all over again. Another event was held in June 1918, and even more money raised. As the staff magazine noted when plans were in development, ‘Difficulties, of course, there will be…but if everybody cooperates, you will not convince us it cannot be done.’