THE decor was pastel. Mantovanni was gently piped through loudspeakers, while glossy mags and free tea and coffee served in china cups by a waitress were laid on while customers waited to speak to staff. There were even painkillers available in the powder room in case madam had “one of her heads” while out shopping in Binns.
Such was the innovation of the first ladies-only bank in the UK, that its opening on Princes Street made headlines as far afield as Canada and attracted the cameras of British Pathe news.
“The theory is that women customers are sometimes a little doubtful about opening their financial hearts to a man – though it will take more than a ravishing smile to get an overdraft here,” the Pathe reporter in his clipped RP tone could barely disguise his horror at the thought of the mysterious male preserve of money being opened up to women.
It was 1964, six years before equal rights became law, and this was the opening of an enterprise where women could “prepare for interview by making up on the premises” which were “panelled in a willow shade with a sea green carpet”.
While the idea of banks just for women is now the preserve of countries like Dubai, India or Iran, 50 years ago in Edinburgh the well-heeled magnificently-millineried ladies of a certain social sphere were given the chance to conduct all their financial transactions at a branch where the staff, and “even the manager”, were all female and discussing money was not considered vulgar.
The segregated branch of the National Commercial Bank of Scotland – which was later subsumed into RBS’s West End branch – which is undergoing another revamp as the bank makes a major investment into its branches – opened for business on December 18, 1964. Manager Margaret Reid was at the helm and was confident it would be “a complete success”.
Certainly with coffee, magazines, music and a free paracetamol it was likely to be a hit. Though the biggest perk was to allow women to cash cheques to the value of £10 without having their identity checked by the manager.
The idea was the brainchild of David Alexander, the first general manager of the National Commercial who was determined to be innovative – something RBS is emulating with the branch’s new refurbishment by removing counters, introducing free wi-fi and iPads for online banking and installing cash and deposit machines where customers will be able to deposit cheques and which will count coins instead of queuing.
As a spokeswoman says: “Customers are using branches less for routine transactions – over 2.1 million use our mobile app every week – so we’re adapting to what customers want and making branches more modern. It’s something that has always happened in banking as customers’ needs have changed.”
The West End branch on Princes Street, which will be reopened on April 3, has certainly seen many changes in its 150-year history which has been researched by RBS archivists while the revamp is under way.
Originally it was a branch of the National Bank of Scotland at 144 Princes Street before it extended next door and erected an elegant frontage complete with classical columns and pediments.
It remained more or less unchanged until the 1930s when architect Leslie Thomson was given the internal remodelling job which transformed the bank with an airy hall with a glazed ceiling, bronze lanterns and furnished with a walnut counter and laurel wood writing tables.
Thirty years later it had become part of the National Commercial Bank and in 1964 became “the latest thing in banking” by splitting into two branches – one just for women.
The idea was imported from New Zealand where at least one ladies branch existed in Auckland, and according to reports, day one of business was “most encouraging” with many accounts being opened.
In fact so innovative was the idea that it was reported as far afield as Ottawa and Montreal where the Gazette reported with some exasperation that: “British women, not content with invading practically every other field of male activity are to have their own bank – complete with powder room.
“And should a man have the audacity to enter, he’d be told politely to conduct his business next door.”
As the RBS spokeswoman explains: “Its aim was to create a welcoming environment for women who might be put off by the atmosphere and style of more traditional banks. The intention was serious. The bank was trying to adapt to the needs of customers. But society was changing rapidly and while it was much loved by many, the idea soon became outdated.
“By the 1970s men could hold accounts there too, although it wasn’t until the late 90s that the ladies branch closed.”
Only five years after the ladies branch opened, the National Commercial was amalgamated with the RBS, and in the mid-1970s the firm of Sir Basil Spence was working on plans to demolish the whole place and build a brand new office on site. The plans changed to keep the facade but inside the building was an ultra-modern concrete and steel structure, which finally opened in 1980.
And now the place is being revamped all over again – for use by both male and female customers. David Alexander would undoubtedly approve of the latest innovations. The ladies of Edinburgh who were part of his big new idea probably would not.