Savings banks were founded in the 19th century to encourage the working classes to be ‘thrifty’ and so protect themselves against the problems of ill-health, age and unemployment. But did the idea work as planned?
Dr Linda Perriton and Professor Josephine Maltby, from the York Management School at the University of York, will shed new light on how our great-great-grandparents really used their savings accounts at a national conference held at York this week.
Writer Samuel Smiles argued that ‘thrift produced civilisation’, while his 19th century contemporaries believed saving improved working-class behaviour because the poor were ‘like children’ without a strong prompt to save. Wives, it was also claimed, were naturally inclined to thrift.
But new research by gender historians Dr Perriton and Professor Maltby presented at the annual Economic History Conference in York on 6 April, will throw a different light on how the working class used the accounts.
Far from being local charities the banks gave millions of working people a chance to manage - and mismanage - their finances in very recognisable ways
Professor Josephine Maltby
The researchers looked at a sample of 19th century savings bank account records from East London, Bury, South Shields and Newcastle. Their aim was to identify who the savers were and how they managed their accounts; were savings made for old age and the long-term, as recommended by their founders?
They discovered that, in practice, the only regular savers in the sample were children whose families seemed to be encouraging them to save for the future.
Dr Perriton says, “Adult savers in all locations studied used their accounts much like we use current accounts today – banking money to cover short-term household expenditure, making frequent withdrawals as well as deposits. Account usage was determined more by everyday needs than by long-term planning.”
The exception was in Bury, a centre for the textile industry, where work was plentiful for single women and they banked their surplus wages, holding accounts for long periods of time, perhaps carrying them forward into their marriages.
The savings banks were founded with moral and social aims – to improve the behaviour of the working classes by stimulating long-term savings, thereby diverting customers from ‘feckless’ enjoyment and giving them a stake in society.
Professor Maltby says, “But the patterns of savings behaviour of the working classes we have found suggest that customers saw the opportunity to use the banks’ facilities - limited those these were - to meet their personal needs. Far from being local charities the banks gave millions of working people a chance to manage - and mismanage - their finances in very recognisable ways.”
The research is part of an on-going project which has been funded by the Business Archives Council.
Dr Perriton and Professor Maltby argue the ways in which women used financial institutions in this period are the key both to understanding the economic activity of women and the distribution of money/control in working class households.
Dr Perriton says, “Our research suggests a need to reappraise women’s role as savers. Their presence in the account records is far more extensive than standard banking histories suggest. Married women in particular were active account users and the records show some of them were very concerned with keeping control of their own money and out of reach of their spouses.
Our research suggests a need to reappraise women’s role as savers. Their presence in the account records is far more extensive than standard banking histories suggest
Dr Linda Perriton
“Our picture of married women in the 19th century as only having ‘pin money’ to manage, and of working class money management just being a case of coins put in jars on the mantelpiece, needs to be challenged and this data helps us do so.”
A separate study by Professor Maltby and Janette Rutterford, Professor of Financial Management with the Open University Business School, has produced evidence that the popular belief that women have a ‘nesting instinct’ which makes them want to protect assets, not gamble them, is also unfounded.
Professor Maltby says, “The work we have done on the history of women’s investment from the 19th century onwards suggests that women’s financial activity in practice shows a range of behaviour from caution to speculation. Women are not necessarily risk avoiders by nature – factors such as lower income and pointers from advisors who think we should avoid risk may well be important influences.”
Dr Perriton and Professor Maltby will present their paper ‘Savings banks and savings behaviour in 19th century England’ at the Economic History Society Conference, Derwent College, University of York, on Saturday, 6 April. The national conference, which runs from 5 to 7 April, is designed to support research and teaching in economic and social history.