Annual EBHS Conference, 39th Annual Economic and Business History Society Conference

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“Save at home by putting your spare money in the Safe.” Thrift, Saving and the role of the Post Office Savings Bank in Britain in War and Peace, 1914-1945
Mark James Crowley

Last modified: 2014-05-19

Abstract


From the late nineteenth century up to the beginning of the First World War, defining and encouraging ‘thrift’ became increasingly problematic for the British government.  Making a persuasive case to the growing working-class to become more thrifty was complicated by the failure of wages to rise in line with spiralling living costs.  The absence of a formalised welfare state ensured that those with limited financial means, and particularly those who were unemployed, were often stigmatised by systems implemented during the Victorian era as a means of providing support for the poor, but largely labelled people according the perception of middle-class welfare officers.  It is unsurprising therefore, that access to the banking system remained out of reach for this large group of Britons.  For those who could save, this was often kept at home.  In response, the government decided to create a Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) from the 1860s.  This paper will examine how this was achieved, and assess its effectiveness in bringing banking to the people.   

The POSB has received limited attention in the historiography.  Martin Daunton’s study of the Post Office has argued that the earlier savings bank movements prior to the creation of the POSB were regarded as ‘paternalistic rather than democratic, without a sense of collective identity and purpose’  and that the creation of the POSB sought not only to fill this gap in the society, but also increase people’s trust in the savings movement.  More recently, Campbell-Smith’s analysis has contextualised its position within the wider Post Office machinery, rather than examining it as a major player in its own right.   This paper will seek to redress this chasm in the historiography.  Drawing on both government and Post Office archival material, it will explore the extent to which the POSB was used not only as a means of trying to integrate Britons into a culture of saving, but will also assess the extent to which it was used as a propaganda tool, both in wartime and peacetime, to achieve various aims, such as uniting the nation and funding the war effort in both the First and Second World War, to encouraging financial prudence in peacetime, especially during the post-war boom and bust periods.  It will explore how the creation of the savings movement was an incremental effort, evolving over several decades, and one which saw a slow transfer acquisition of powers for the POSB that gave it greater market power.  This research contextualises the work of Billings and Booth, who have examined one of the later consequences of the POSB and its evolution, namely the creation of the National Giro.