Time machine: The first woman bank manager in the UK

21 October, 2019Ouida Taaffe

Alison Rose at RBS is the first CEO of a UK clearing bank, but she is not the first woman to make a significant mark in banking. That honour arguably goes to the first female manager of a UK clearing bank – Hilda Harding – who was appointed to run the Hanover Street, London W1, branch of Barclays in 1958.

Hilda HardingThe press scrambled to write about this incredible creature. A woman and a bank manager:  

  • “Call her Madam” – “Don’t call her career woman” said the Evening Standard, 16 May 1958
  • “Blonde to be Bank Manager” reported the Hull Daily Mail, 16 May 1958
  • “An Inevitable Appointment – everyone, absolutely everyone was talking about the shattering news from Barclays bank,” lamented the Lancashire Evening Post 16 May 1958.

Women in banking

In many ways, the press were right to be agog. Hilda Harding was a trailblazer.

Women entered banking in the First World War. Parr’s Bank employed women as early as 1914 and nearly all of the rest followed suit over the next two years.

Still, it was understood that the young women were only placeholders for the men. They were classified as temporary staff, paid weekly and had very short notice periods.

It was the 1920s before women became accepted members of the bank workforce – though they generally had to be aged between 17 and 30 and single. Those who married had to resign.

Banking education for women

The Institute’s examinations were opened to female candidates in 1917 – partly through necessity.

In 1914, the number of men taking the Institute’s exams was 4,366. In 1916, it was 1,282 and in 1917 only 906 – and it was not just the numbers that had suffered.

In 1917, the Institute’s Journal published some of the “howlers” from the bookkeeping exams. It noted that “owing probably to the extreme youth of the junior male staff of most of the banks, atrocities such as these are more numerous than usual this year”.

“After long consideration” the Institute decided in 1917 to allow women already working in banks to sit its exams. There were many objections, most of them couched in terms of concern about how the young women would deal with the strain involved.

As it turned out, 38 of the 322 female candidates (12%) passed all the papers at the first attempt. That was a strong showing. The year before, out of a total of 906 male candidates, just 33 (3.6%) passed all the papers at first attempt.

Women got full membership of the Institute in March 1919. However, membership of the Institute was one thing – a bank willing to promote women another.

The Institute’s 1918 journal notes:

“The writers of the letters of protest seemed to confuse two separate questions. The Institute has nothing to do with the larger question of whether women shall be admitted to the permanent staff of the banks. What the Council asked the members to decide was if and when women are admitted to the staffs of the banks, shall they be given equal opportunities with the men of acquiring a technical education.”

“Some women are ready and able”

The long gap between 1918 and 1958 – when Hilda Harding took over as manager at Hanover Street – begs the question why Barclays decided to take what was, at the time, such an unusual step.

It looked coolly radical on the outside, but it was a bit less sanguine on the inside.

Barclays certainly knew that not everyone would welcome its decision. On 15 May 1958 it sent a “private and confidential” head office circular to all its local directors and managers to say:

“The appointment of a woman branch manager…is so striking a departure from the normal that we think it will be useful to tell you how the matter is viewed by the board…[It] is a natural step in the increasingly important role women have come to play in the bank…The board recognise that some women are ready and able to assume greater responsibility…We ask for the usual assistance accorded to a newcomer.”

Whether or not all of Barclays’ staff were willing to co-operate with Hilda Harding, she made a resounding success of her appointment. Her branch opened with six staff – the three most senior all women. When Hilda Harding retired in 1970, the branch has 23 staff.

Read more from our Time Machine series

Photo courtesy of Barclays Bank