Rise and fall of burgh banking

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THE NEWS in April 2019 that the Helensburgh branch of the TSB in East Princes Street was reducing the days it opens came as a shock.

It followed the complete closure of the Santander branch in West Princes Street, and both are being attributed to changes in the way people do their banking in this online age.

The history of the East Princes Street bank goes back a very long way, and burgh man Stewart Aitken suggested that I might like to look back at it.

Stewart’s aunt, Margaret Paterson, at that time Miss Stewart, joined the Savings Bank of Glasgow Helensburgh Branch on January 20 1943 and worked in the branch for many years before transferring to Dumbarton, Clydebank and Ingram Street in Glasgow.

Mrs Paterson, who still lives in the town, gave Stewart the first edition of The Savings Bank of Glasgow Staff magazine dated October 1958, and it features a fascinating article on the Helensburgh branch . . .

Our Branch at Helensburgh

THE inventive skill and genius of two men, one an engineer and the other a shipbuilder, did much to give Glasgow and the Clyde a prominent place in the world of trade and commerce.

It is in that world, and as part of it, that Helensburgh has grown to its present position as a thriving and prosperous community.

The two men were Henry Bell, of Helensburgh, and Robert Napier, of Shandon.

Henry Bell became the first Provost of Helensburgh, which is named after Lady Helen Sutherland, wife of Sir James Colquhoun, 8th Baronet of Colquhoun and Luss, and the town was created a free Burgh of Barony by Royal Charter on July 28 1802.

Ten years later, in August 1812, from the pier of “Helen’s Burgh” Bell launched his now world famous pioneer steamship, the “Comet.”

This little ship of 30 tons, with a 3 horse-power engine, was built at a cost of £168 and was to make history as the forerunner of the great transatlantic liners of today.

It is with one of the most notable of the transatlantic shipping companies, the Cunard Line, that we associate the name of Robert Napier, with whom Henry Bell was on cordial terms.

Robert Napier started work as a blacksmith, and he served his apprenticeship with his father. He began his career, it is said, with his parents’ blessing and £5 in his pocket!

He rose to become one of the Clyde’s greatest shipbuilders and his house, West Shandon House — afterwards perhaps better known as Shandon Hydro — was outstanding among the many fine houses of Helensburgh and the Gareloch.

With its interests in shipbuilding, engineering, and commerce Helensburgh by 1920 had grown to a well-planned town of some 8,000 people.

It was with this background that a group of men interested in the formation of a Trustee Savings Bank in Helensburgh first met on November 4 1920 to consider making the necessary arrangements.

Among them were Mr W.P.Ure, for many years a Trustee of the Savings Bank of Glasgow and latterly its Chairman, and Mr Robert Stanton who was to be Actuary of the Helensburgh Savings Bank until its eventual amalgamation on November 21 1942 with the Savings Bank of Glasgow.

Mr Ure had, of course, a life-long association with Savings Bank work, and Mr Stanton still maintains his personal interest in the Branch as a member of the Advisory Committee.

The Helensburgh Savings Bank opened its doors for the first time on January 6 1921, and by November 20 of that year had accumulated a balance due depositors of £4,123 9s. Od.

By the time of amalgamation with Glasgow, 21 years later, the people of Helensburgh had in their Savings Bank a sum not far short of £250,000 — surely a successful coming-of-age!

Through amalgamation with Glasgow came the benefits of a Special Investment Department, more commodious premises — which have recently been attractively modernised — and an extension of services, with a consequent increase of business.

The town of Helensburgh is still growing, and it is reasonable to expect that the Branch should prosper accordingly.

During the post-war years, Mr Renfrew, by whose sudden passing the staff has lost a valued colleague and friend, did much to encourage the progress of the Branch.

In his nine years association with the Helensburgh office he became well-known and popular in the district, and many people have spoken of his helpfulness and pleasant personality.

In May of last year, Mr R.Robinson, formerly Manager at Milngavie Branch, was appointed to Helensburgh and he is ably assisted by Miss Margaret Stewart — whose home is in Helensburgh and who is the only true native — and Miss Agnes Whyte, from Garelochhead, who joined the staff three years ago.

And now to Helensburgh of the present day. Many of the great residences are being dismantled to make way for housing estates and new developments with an expanding building programme.

The railway from Glasgow to Helensburgh, opened just over one hundred years ago, is in the process of alteration to a fast electric train service.

The port of Faslane, constructed during World War Two at an estimated cost of £3,000,000, covers two and a half square miles, has almost 25 miles of railway marshalling yards, and is capable of taking ships of 20,000 tons in its floating dock.

Where once lived the shipbuilders, now we have a shipbreaking industry on a very large scale, and some notable ships have been broken up here, including the battleships Malaya and Renown, and the Clyde-built liner Aquitania.

Also at Faslane we have the headquarters of the 3rd Submarine Squadron, recently transferred from Rothesay to the Gareloch.

Finnart, on Loch Long, is making rapid progress as an ocean terminal designed to take some of the largest oil-tankers in the world.

Plans for the future development of this port include docking facilities for the great oil tankers which are scheduled to sail theworld’s shipping routes in the 1960s.

From Finnart the oil will be pumped across Scotland through 57 miles of pipe-line to Grangemouth.

Although it is cheaper, mile for mile, to convey oil by tanker rather than by pipeline, it has been found that on voyages from the Persian Gulf, a tanker saves 280 miles by coming to Finnart instead of going up the east coast to Grangemouth.

It is estimated that Finnart will be one of the first ocean terminals in the world, and certainly the first in Europe, to be able to take the increasingly large ships now required by the oil companies.

On a note of recollection, it is interesting to remember that Finnart was the original site of “Pluto”, the “pipe-line under the ocean”, used during the last war.

Helensburgh, home of Henry Bell and Robert Napier, and founded by Sir James Colquhoun almost two centuries ago, can surely look forward to a considerable future.

The early days

Banking in the burgh goes a lot further back — to the Helensburgh Penny Savings Bank.

The old maxim ‘take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves’ was one of its slogans, along with ‘persevere in the habit of saving, and you will soon acquire not only money, but comfort, respectability and independence’.

Penny banks were first instituted in 1850, and by 1892 there were 226 in operation, with 80,000 depositors.

Penny banks in Glasgow and the surrounding area existed as part of the network of philanthropic organisations, and they were mostly frequented by the poorer sections of the working class — those for whom saving represented a difficult and occasionally sacrificial effort.

They provided for a voluntary individual decision to engage in saving, in contrast to the mutual organisations, such as friendly and industrial welfare societies which also proliferated in this period.

The enormous success of penny banks throughout Britain offered powerful evidence that a great deal of saving was happening in those days, even amongst the poorest sections of society.

They operated both as short-term liquidity stores and as vehicles for longer-term and larger-amount savings.

It was said at the time that the penny banks proved of great service in fostering, especially among poorer children, habits of thrift, which, as they grew older, led them to become depositors in the savings bank itself.

The Helensburgh Penny Savings Bank served both young and old from the late 19th century until 1921, when it was taken over by the Helensburgh Savings Bank.

Back in 1895, the bank opened every Monday from 7-8 p.m. in the Mission Hall in King Street.

Its officebearers were R.T.Brown, Birkfell; John Lindsay, Parkview; Donald Murray, Ashfield; and James Spalding, Writer and Auditor.

Its trustees included flour merchant and former Lord Provost of Glasgow John Ure, of Cairndhu, town clerk George Maclachlan of Blairlomond, and Alexander Breingan of the Bank of Scotland.

Mr Breingan was a local dignitary, Provost from 1863-69, and the first captain of Helensburgh Golf Club.

The other trustees were Mr Breingan’s successor as Provost, Thomas Steven, Ardlui; John Anderson, Clarendon; James Allan, Woodend; and William Turner, Rachan House.

Their bank book noted that ‘the hand of the diligent maketh rich’, and it exhorted: “SAVE Money — Many prosperous men have acknowledged that their success in life began with their joining the Savings Bank.”