Model bank vault, c.1900

NatWest Group History 100 object 4: model of a vault built for the Edinburgh head office of National Bank of Scotland, c.1900.

Throughout history, banks have traded from fine stone buildings, private houses, the backrooms of pubs and borrowed tin sheds. In all of them, there was one fixture that, more than any other, defined the building as a bank: a safe. This late Victorian model of a head office safe is a demonstration of that tradition. It was made for public display by National Bank of Scotland, as a statement about the care the bank would take of its customers’ money.

In fact, the safe could be described as the birthplace of British banking. In 17th century London, before there were any banks in the city, there were goldsmiths. They were to become Britain’s first generation of bankers, through a journey which began when they first offered space in their fortified vaults for the storage of customers’ valuables.

The goldsmiths operated in a thriving but highly competitive marketplace. Many of them began to look for ways to expand the services they offered. The social upheaval of the age brought new opportunities, as the goldsmiths’ customers – the well-to-do citizens of London – grew fearful for the security of their wealth amid political intrigue, public unrest and civil war.

From the 1640s, many goldsmiths began offering safe custody of customers’ valuables in their well-fortified vaults. From time to time these customers needed to borrow money, and a new breed of goldsmith began to make loans, accepting the items in their custody as security. Payments between individuals also began to be made in the form of notes transferring ownership of items in goldsmiths’ vaults. As these notes circulated more freely, and became a normal feature of commercial life, they evolved towards what we would recognise today as cheques and banknotes. The goldsmiths had become Britain’s first bankers.

As banking became more sophisticated over the centuries, the direct link between custody of assets and other banking services became less obvious, but the principle of security remained. Customers have always needed to know that their banks can protect whatever is placed in their care. It was to answer this need that a display item such as this model vault would have been made and exhibited.