Researching the history of banks

While Continental Europe had some major banking houses in medieval times, banking as a primary occupation was scarcely known in Britain before the end of the 17th century. Before the existence of banks, people might deposit money for safe keeping with a goldsmith, who of necessity had better-than-average security. Goldsmiths were gradually drawn into arrangement for credit too. The story of Coutts Bank illustrates how a goldsmith-banking business could develop into a banking house. The first British bankers worked from their own houses: the manager lived above the business quarters. Even purpose-built private banks tended to look little different from houses.

Sir John Soane, The Bank of EnglandGreat Hall of the Bank of England in 1808However the Bank of England was a public institution and looked the part. The first purpose-built bank in Great Britain went up on its Threadneedle Street site in 1734 to designs by George Sampson. He was succeeded by Sir Robert Taylor, who added wings and a rotunda. From 1788 to 1834 Sir John Soane was the architect to the Bank of England and rebuilt it in stages, adding more halls and courtyards, noted for their drama of light and shade. The echoing grandeur of the halls aimed at sheer prestige. More practically counters separated aisles from a central 'nave'. The Bank of Ireland acquired equally prestigious premises by buying the former Houses of Parliament in Dublin in 1803. This bank was established by royal charter in 1783, becoming the first bank in Ireland.

Meanwhile the first purpose-built bank in Scotland was that built for the chartered Royal Bank of Scotland in 1750-4, to plans by William Adam. However most Edinburgh banks of the time used existing buildings, and the Royal Bank itself moved to a mansion in St Andrew Square in 1828. However its Glasgow branch, built in 1827, was a stunning building in the Greek Revival style. The Royal Bank was a joint-stock bank. After an Act of Parliament in 1826 permitted joint-stock banking in England and Wales, such monumental facades began to appear on banks south of the border. An impressive building provided convincing proof of prosperity.

Lloyd's Bank in Corn Street, BristolThe London and Westminster Bank in Lothbury, London (1838) was designed by C. R. Cockerell and William Tite with a domed hall that soon became standard for British banks. The Italianate style was popular for banks from the late 1830s; what is now the Corn Street, Bristol, branch of Lloyds (right) provides the most flamboyant example. It was modelled on Sansovino's Library of St Mark in Venice.

The Victorian penchant for historicism produced banks in a variety of styles: Neo-Classical, Gothic, Tudor. The 1920s and 30s saw the building of massive head offices for several banks, including that designed by Sir Edward Lutyens for the Midland Bank in Poultry, London. Lutyens also designed the tall Midland Bank in Manchester.

Studies and guides

Primary Sources

Each of the major banks has its own archives, which may incorporate archives of older banks taken over:

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