Staying in touch

Bankers who joined up to fight in the First World War and those who stayed behind took comfort from staying in touch with each other.

A second family

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 were avid members of their banks' staff sports clubs. Indeed, young bank clerks were sometimes advised 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 keen to hear from absent friends. In many cases, the men who had joined up had arrived in the banks only a few years earlier as 15 or 16-year-old lads. Their transformation into fighting men made older colleagues anxious, astonished and very proud.

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. 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 less conventional 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 had 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.

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 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.  

It was particularly valuable to send such precious parcels to colleagues who had become prisoners of war. Many of them were forced to undertake hard labour, and often received very inadequate rations. Some had been injured at the time of their capture, and in these conditions it was hard for them to recover. At least 14 men from our banks died in enemy prison camps.

Back in Britain, friends and family tried to send parcels of food and other necessaries to their loved ones, but the government soon realised that such piecemeal efforts were insufficient. Parcels were often misdirected, or disappeared en route. From ignorance, some families sent the wrong items. Some prisoners received too much, while others received nothing at all. Furthermore, the government was worried about the security risk of sensitive information falling into enemy hands.

To regulate the parcels system, the government introduced a management committee and then, from November 1916, a centralised system for purchasing, packaging and sending out parcels. Friends and families could 'adopt' a prisoner – that is, subscribe money each month to pay for his parcels.

Several of our banks subscribed £1 a month for parcels for imprisoned staff. This was just over a third of the £2 17s 6d maximum the system allowed per prisoner, so families also often subscribed if they could afford to do so. A note was enclosed with each parcel, telling the recipient who had paid for it.

One of the recipients of London County & Westminster Bank's parcels was GA Wilton, a clerk from Burton-on-Trent branch. When he returned to England after the war, he wrote to thank the bank for his parcels: 'It is to these alone I owe my life. Without them it would have been impossible to have endured the treatment, and to have carried on the work forced upon us by the Germans.'

The system did not always run smoothly. When Maurice Hunt of the same bank's Derby Midland Road branch returned home after the war, the bank learned that he had never received any of its parcels. The information about his whereabouts had been mistaken, and all his parcels had been sent to the wrong camp.

Conditions varied from camp to camp, and while some prisoners' accounts described hard labour and deprivation, others wrote of sports matches and concerts. Eric Hayes, a clerk from Guildford branch, found himself in prison with 'the best flautist in Belgium', who gave performances for his fellow captives.

Another clerk, John Gruchy of Epsom branch, had suffered injuries which left him unable to participate in prisoner sports – 'games,' he wrote sadly, 'are finished for me.' Nevertheless, he arranged for his father to send him textbooks so that he could study towards his Institute of Bankers exams. He also learnt French: 'here in the camp I have plenty of opportunity to speak French, and I make a principle of speaking nothing else.'