Head office floor tile, 1861
NatWest Group History 100 object 64: tile from the original floor of the Royal Bank of Scotland's head office banking hall, 1861.
When a bank built new premises in the 19th century, it was not just putting a roof over its head; it was making a statement. It was telling its customers: look around you. From top to bottom - from domed ceiling to tiled floor - this is who we are.
In the modern world, our impressions of large companies are made up of a range of images absorbed from newspapers, television, websites, sponsorship, advertising, word of mouth and personal experience. 150 years ago, this picture would have been quite different, and simpler. A Victorian's impression of his bank was formed from a narrower range of influences - newspapers, perhaps; word of mouth, probably; and personal experience, certainly. Much more than today, his understanding of his bank and what it represented was shaped by what he experienced when he stood inside his local bank and looked around him.
Architecture was a major concern for many Victorian bankers
In 1857 the Royal Bank of Scotland decided to extend its head office, a Georgian townhouse in a prime location in Edinburgh's New Town. As part of the redevelopment, most of what had been the house's ground floor became just an entrance lobby, through which visitors passed on their way to a new banking hall, built onto the back of the old house. Passing through a doorway at what was once the back of the house, they emerged into a vast, light, colour-filled banking hall with a high domed ceiling decorated with star-shaped windows. It was like a ballroom, a planetarium or a cathedral. So striking was the ceiling that many people probably never even noticed the floor beneath their feet.
The floor was made of thousands of encaustic tiles like this one, manufactured by the famous firm of Minton of Stoke-on-Trent. Minton had recently revived the medieval art of encaustic tile-making, and these richly coloured, hardwearing tiles had rapidly reached the height of fashion. They were particularly popular in churches and other public buildings where floors had to cope with heavy wear. They had been used extensively in the new Houses of Parliament in the 1840s, and 1861 - the year the Royal Bank's head office extension was finished - also saw the completion of a five-year project to install Minton's encaustic tile floors in the US Capitol in Washington.