Nineteenth century savings banks, their ledgers and depositors

by Linda Perriton (University of Stirling)

 

If you look up as you walk along the streets of British towns and cities, you will see the proud and sometimes colourful traces of nineteenth century savings banks. But evidence of the importance of savings banks to working- and middle-class savers is harder to locate in economic history research.

English and Welsh savings banks operated on a ‘savings only’ model that funded interest payments to savers by purchasing government bonds and, in doing so, placed themselves outside the history of productive financialisation (Horne, 1947). This is a matter of regret, because whatever minor role trustee savings banks played in the productive economy, there is little doubt that they helped to financialise segments of society previously detached from such activities.

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Image: Author’s own. A mosaic over the door of the former Fountainbridge branch of the Edinburgh Savings Bank.

 

The research that Stuart Henderson (Ulster University) and I presented at the EHS 2019 annual conference looks in detail at the financial activity of depositors in one savings bank – the Limehouse Savings Bank, situated in the East End of London.

Savings bank ledgers are a rich source of social history data in addition to the financial, especially in socially diverse larger cities. The apostils of clerks reveal amusement at the names chosen for local clubs (for example, the Royal Order of the Jolly Cocks merits an exclamation mark) or a note as to love gone wrong (for example, a woman who returns the passbook of a lover from whom she has not heard for two years).

We also want to look beyond the aggregate deposit figures for Limehouse recorded in the government reports to discover how individuals used the bank over the period 1830-76.

As a start, we have recorded the account transactions for each of the 195 new accounts opened in 1830, from the first deposit to the last withdrawal – a total of 3,598 transactions. Using the account header information, we have also compiled the personal details of the account holder – such as gender, occupation and place of residence. We use the header profile to trace individual savers in the historical record in order to establish their age and any notable life events, such as marriage and the birth of children.

Apart from 12 accounts, which were registered to individuals who gave addresses other than East End parishes, all the 1830 savers were registered at addresses within a four miles by one mile strip of urban development, which also enabled us to record the residential clustering of savers.

Summary statistics enable us to establish the differences between the categories of savers across several different indicators of transaction activity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the men in our 1830 sample tended to make larger deposits and larger withdrawals than the women, with the difference in magnitude masked somewhat by large transactions undertaken by widows. Widows in our sample tended to have a relatively large opening balance and a higher number of withdrawals, suggesting that their accounts functioned more as a ‘draw down’ fund (Perriton and Maltby, 2015).Men also tended to make more transactions than women.

We also see a significant portion of accounts where activity was very limited. The median number of deposits across our 195 accounts was just two, suggesting that a large proportion of accounts acted as something of a (very) temporary financial warehouse. Minors and servants tended to have smaller transactions, but appear to have accumulated more – relatively speaking – than others.

But our interest in the savers goes beyond summary statistics. We know that very few accounts were managed in the way that the sponsors of savings bank legislation intended; the low median of deposits is testament to that.

The basic information in the ledger headers for each account provides a starting point for thinking about when in the life-cycle savings was more successful. Even with the compulsory registration of births, deaths and marriages after 1837 and census data after 1841, the ability to trace an individual saver is not guaranteed.

With so few data points, it is easy to lose individuals at the periphery of the professional and skilled working classes, even in a relatively well documented city like London. Yet the ability to build individual case studies of savers is important to our understanding of savings banks in terms of establishing who were the ‘successful’ savers, and also when – relative to the overall life-cycle of the saver – accounts were held.

Our research presents ten case study accounts from our larger sample to challenge the proposition in social history research on household finances that savings increased when teenage and young adult children were contributing wages to the household. We also look at the evidence for any savings in anticipation of significant life events such as marriage or childbirth. The evidence is weak on both counts.

The distribution of age at account opening among the ten case studies is varied: under 20 years old (3), 21-29 (2), 30-39 (2), 40-49 (0) and 50-59 (3). The three cases of accounts opened after the age of 50 relate to a widow and two married couples, who all had children aged 10-25. But the majority of the accounts we examined were opened by younger adults with young children and growing families.

There is no obvious case for suggesting that savings were possible because expenses could be offset against the wages of teenage or young adult children. Nor can we see any obvious anticipatory or responsive saving for life events in the case studies.

One of our sample account holders did open her account soon after being widowed, but another widow opened her account seven years after the death of her husband. Two men opened accounts when their children were very young, but not in anticipation of their arrival. The only evidence we have in the case studies for changed behaviour as a result of a life event is in the case of marriage – where all account activity ceased for one of our men in the first years of his union.

The mixed quantitative and biographical approach that we use in our study of the Limehouse Savings Bank point to a promising alternative direction for historical savings bank research – one that reconnects savings bank history with the wider history of retail banking and allows for a much richer interplay between social history and financial history.

By looking at the patterns of use by the Limehouse account holders, it is possible to see the ways in which working families and individuals interacted with a standard product and standard service offering, sometimes adding layers of complexity in order to create a different banking product, or using the accounts to budget within a short-term cycle rather than saving for a significant purchase or event.

 

Further reading:

Horne, HO (1947) A History of Savings Banks, Oxford University Press.

Perriton, L, and J Maltby (2015) ‘Working-class Households and Savings in England, 1850-1880’, Enterprise and Society 16(2): 413-45.

 

To contact the author: linda.perriton@stir.ac.uk