Working in a bank in wartime, 1914-18

Every aspect of life, including working in a bank, felt the impact of the First World War.

Wartime challenges

For those who stayed behind to run the banks, the First World War brought huge changes to working conditions, expectations and responsibilities.

Temporary staff

When workers left their jobs to join the army, banks had to find new staff to keep business operating in their absence.

In the immediate crisis of July-August 1914, some retired bankers returned to work. One was George Pownall, who had been London manager for Williams Deacon’s Bank until his retirement in 1910. In the crisis at the outbreak of war, his successor invited him back to lend a hand, and Pownall readily accepted. He also served as an expert on government wartime finance committees until his sudden death in December 1916.

In July 1915 London County & Westminster Bank suspended its rule requiring staff to retire at 65, so those who felt able to continue could do so. Across the Irish Sea, Ulster Bank went even further, politely declining some applications to retire.

The banks also hired boys who were still too young to join the army. In peacetime, boys had typically begun bank apprenticeships at 16 or 17 in English banks, or a little younger in Scottish banks. Some banks now lowered that limit. Parr’s Bank, for example, hired boys as young as 14.

By far the largest number of temporary staff were women. Before the war, banks had been particularly slow among clerical employers to open their doors to women, but with no prospect of finding enough male temporary staff, they rapidly reversed their stance. Parr’s Bank was one of the first to accept women. By January 1916 it had 457 temporary clerks, of whom 425 were women, covering the jobs of 593 men on military service.

Temporary clerks, both male and female, were paid weekly wages rather than monthly or quarterly salaries. They had no access to pension schemes or other permanent staff benefits, and little or no job security. The banks had promised to reinstate all permanent staff when they came home from military service, so were reluctant to make long-term commitments to anyone else. Nevertheless, many temporary clerks showed considerable dedication, working long hours and, in many cases, staying for years, until men returned to take back their jobs. By that time, the banks’ business had expanded, and a significant number of temporary clerks were transferred to permanent staff.

Pay

Wartime labour shortages meant that disgruntled workers could easily find alternative employment elsewhere, so banks had to pay enough to match what their employees, both temporary and permanent, could earn elsewhere. Throughout the economy, wages increased dramatically during the war, although so did the cost of living.  

For permanent employees, the banks were reluctant to commit to formal salary increases that might seem excessive later. Instead, they supplemented workers’ incomes by paying bonuses and gratuities, without guaranteeing that these payments would be continued or repeated.

For temporary staff, they could afford to be more flexible, because in any case these workers had no employment security or rights, so irreversable agreements were not being made.

Learn more about bank workers’ pay during the First World War (PDF, 100KB)

Workload

Like many businesses, banking had peaks in workload. These fell at the end of December and June, the six-monthly balance days. Each branch had to balance all its books and pass the figures to head office, for use in compiling the bank’s balance sheet. Even in peacetime, balance days were a strain, and clerks often had to work late to get the job done. In wartime, completing a balance became a major undertaking.  

Bank administration depended on routine. Most clerks joined their bank when they were 15 or 16 years old, so by their mid-20s, they had been through the balance process at least 20 times. With temporary clerks taking their place, however, many in the workforce were experiencing a balance for the first time. Furthermore, the banks thought it inappropriate to ask women to work very late. London County & Westminster Bank, for example, advised managers that female clerks should not be kept beyond 9pm. 

To help get the job done, managers brought in extra hands where possible. Quite often, branch staff who had joined the army were still training relatively close to home, and many commanding officers were sympathetic to bank managers’ requests to borrow back their clerks at six-monthly balance times. In June 1917 Thomas Partington, formerly of Manchester & County Bank’s Bolton branch, spent his precious home leave helping his old colleagues with the balance. This was to be his last trip home. He was killed in France a month later.

As more men went away the problems deepened. From 1916 additional bank holidays were declared in January and July, to give bank workers an extra day to complete the balance while their branches were closed to the public.  

Even when the six-monthly balance was not underway, it became hard to keep business running smoothly. Opening hours were shortened so that staff could concentrate on serving customers while the branch was open and deal with the recordkeeping after closing. From 1 December 1915 London banks closed at 3pm on weekdays. In April 1916 town branches in Scotland took the same step. Similar arrangements were made in communities all over the country, usually on a local basis because the banks knew that local industries, market days and holidays affected particular customers' needs, so a blanket solution was not suitable. 

Record-keeping was also simplified. National Bank of Scotland, for example, dropped the requirement to keep weekly current account balance books, instead instructing branches to transfer details straight from daily ledgers to the monthly return. Trivial as such an alteration may sound, this was a major shift in the traditional world of branch banking.

Staff holiday entitlement was reduced. In London County & Westminster Bank, allowance was cut in 1916 to 12 days – that is, 2 weeks, because bank clerks worked Monday to Saturday. The following year it was initially cut to one week, but a second week was later authorised. 

Shortages

Bank work was further complicated by shortages of all kinds, as imports became scarce and domestic production was diverted towards war output. By 1916 envelopes, pens, twine, ink and light bulbs were all difficult to obtain. Branch managers were frequently reminded to use their reserves as economically as possible. Clerks were instructed to rule lines onto the backs of forms that had once been used single-sided. Double sheets of notepaper were cut in half, reserving the first portion, with the heading, for external letters and using the rest for internal memoranda. Old books and papers were sent for pulping to support the war effort.

There were restrictions on the use of electricity, gas and coal. Lights and heating had to be kept off whenever possible.

Even daylight became a precious resource. It was during the war that many European countries, including Britain, started changing the clocks in summer, to make best use of the long light evenings. The clocks went forward for the first time in May 1916. It must have been a confusing concept to grasp at first, and London County & Westminster Bank’s circular instructing branches to change their clocks finished with the reminder 'Office hours will be, of course, the same as heretofore, by the clock.'

More about our staff in wartime

Explore more pages about the experiences of our bank staff during the First World War.

Our first female staff

The hiring of women during the First World War permanently transformed the banking workforce.

Staying in touch

Bankers who joined up and those who stayed behind took comfort from staying in touch with each other.

First World War air raids

Being ready to protect people and property in air raids was a new responsibility for banks.