Manager's spectacles, 1922

NatWest Group History 100 object 78: spectacles of Thomas Mitchell, Ulster Bank's branch manager at Tullamore, 1922.

These copper-rimmed spectacles offer a personal perspective on the challenges that faced NatWest Group constituent Ulster Bank during the troubled years of the 1920s. They belonged to Thomas Mitchell, Ulster Bank's man in Tullamore. He was an ordinary local bank manager, but he lived in extraordinary times; times that placed scarcely imaginable demands upon personal courage and loyalty. One day in July 1922, Mitchell lost his life in the service of his bank. This is the story of what happened.

An ordinary local bank manager who lived in extraordinary times

Ireland was no stranger to hard times, but the 1916 Easter Rising had marked the beginning of a period of unprecedented tension and challenge. As the political settlement was hammered out and the Irish Free State emerged, banks faced a whole range of difficulties.

Ulster Bank was very clear that political and religious divides had no place in the bank's business. Despite its origins in Ulster, it was active in all four of Ireland's provinces, and was determined to remain so, regardless of what government was in control. It was well-regarded even outside its original home in the north east, and had a widespread reputation for probity, sobriety and financial acumen. Nevertheless, its branches were affected by the boycott of Belfast banks that the Dáil cabinet ordered in 1920. Given the disturbed state of the country, violent crime increased during the early 1920s, and many bank branches also suffered armed robberies.

These were the day-to-day conditions for Ulster Bank's staff in the early 1920s, including Thomas Mitchell. He had been manager at Tullamore since the branch first opened in 1892. A farmer's son, his practical knowledge and support had earned him popularity in this largely agricultural community.

No doubt every day brought challenges for Mitchell, but one day in May 1921 was more dramatic than most. It was a cattle fair day, meaning there was more cash than usual in the bank. Probably knowing this, a gang of armed men raided the branch. When Mitchell refused to hand over any cash, they shot and wounded him.

Despite this violent encounter Mitchell refused to leave his post. Just 14 months later, he found himself again in harm's way. On 3 July 1922, the branch was raided once more. Mitchell refused to hand over the keys to the safe, and was shot dead. It is said that he was wearing these glasses at the time.

Mitchell's death was mourned by the entire community. Local newspapers described him as 'a man of kindly disposition, held in the highest esteem'. He did not live to see the political settlement of 1925 which ushered in a period of greater stability across Ireland. He had, however, made an unsurpassed contribution to ensuring that Ulster Bank continued to serve the whole island of Ireland throughout extraordinarily difficult times.