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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Savings Bank

Looking Back

Friday October 16 2020

Looking Back: The World's Debt to Henry Duncan

A 1974 tribute to the Church of Scotland minister who established the world's first savings bank.



by Gordon Irving

On 8th October a gathering of leading figures in both the Kirk and the world’s Savings Bank movement will assembly outside a wee country cottage, once the Society Hall, in the village of Ruthwell, close to the Solway shore that Robert Burns knew so well, in Dumfriesshire.

The occasion: the 200th anniversary of the birth of Rev. Dr. Henry Duncan, the Scots churchman who founded the first savings bank to be started on business principles. To mark the event, the cottage is being established as a museum visiting-place, another in the long line of ‘wee cottages’ associated with men who have done distinguished things in this Scotland of ours.

Need I ask why we take time out in 1874 to remember Henry Duncan?

Banks bombard us with their propaganda every day in life. This is a money-conscious age. Inflation has made everybody more aware than ever of what we once termed the “bawbees”. This means that the old-fashioned word “thrift” is an “in” word again.

Simple scheme

Yet how many realise it was the “in” word with a kirk minister and his parishioners when Dr. Henry Duncan drew up his simple scheme and put it into active practice on a May day in 1810?

Aren’t we apt to forget that it was the Church that gave the first impetus to thrift, via the minister of Ruthwell, the South of Scotland kirk with the famous Runic Cross? Thrift that has become synonymous with the Scotsman, and not simply because of the quaint music-hall image linked with the word through the canny figure of Harry Lauder.

Now the old bank, patronised by those humble village folk, becomes a museum. A custodian has been appointed, first-day philatelic covers are being issued, and the name of Henry Duncan and Ruthwell will deservedly echo this month round the big booming world of money people.

A good thing

There were banks for savings before Duncan’s day, launched in England an on the Continent, but essentially charitable institutions. Dr. Duncan was shrewd enough to see that, if his institution was to be of a permanent character, it must pay its way; not only must the interest returned to depositors be fully earned, but a reserve fund must be set aside to protect his customers against loss.

Henry Duncan, born on 8th October, 1774, had trained for three years in a Liverpool bank. He knew his people were sober and industrious. All he had to do was to persuade them of the value of savings, and show them that a fair rate of interest could accrue from the resources of trade.

In the original rules, now on display at the new Ruthwell bank-museum, it was strictly laid down that “Every Depositor must lodge to the amount of four shillings, at least, within the year, under the penalty of one shilling.” And again: “Interest, at the rate of five per cent, is allowed to every depositor who continues as a member of the Bank for three years; but such as withdraw the whole of their deposits, before that period, only receive four per cent.”

The funds of Dr. Duncan’s bank rose from £151 in 1811 to £176 in 1812, £241 in 1813, and £922 in 1814. Five years later the great Savings Bank at Aberdeen was opened. Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Greenock, Paisley and other big towns followed rapidly.

Today billions of pounds rest with Savings Banks round the world. The kirk minister of Ruthwell knew a good thing when he saw it.

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