Background and early life
John Gifford was born in Edinburgh on 5 May 1821, the second son of James Gifford, a local leather manufacturer, and his wife Katherine Ann. He was initially educated at a private school for Latin and Greek in West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, before going on to the Edinburgh Institution in 1832.
In 1836, when John Gifford was 15 years old, he went to work as an apprentice in the Edinburgh head office of National Bank of Scotland. He was later appointed a teller, counting the money in the cashier’s department. By the age of 27 he had risen to second in the office, and was given the specific responsibility of supervising National Bank of Scotland’s compliance with the provisions of the 1845 Bank Notes (Scotland) Act.
On 30 December 1860, at the age of 39, John Gifford became head of the cashier’s department. Soon afterwards, he was involved in arrangements for the establishment of a London office of National Bank of Scotland, the first one to be established by any Scottish bank.
John Gifford had a strong interest in the better training of bank workers. He was actively involved in providing internal training courses within National Bank of Scotland, and was one of four founders of the Scottish Bankers’ Literary Association, established in 1863 for ‘the consideration of banking and literary subjects by means of essays and debates or otherwise.’ That organisation later gave rise to the formation of the Institute of Bankers in Scotland, the first professional body of its kind in the world, and Gifford was an active supporter. He was National Bank of Scotland’s official representative at the inaugural address of the Institute, given in 1876.
He retired in 1883.
Sabbath schools movement
John Gifford was a dedicated churchman. He joined the Free Church of Scotland at the time of the Disruption in 1843.
From before he was born, his father and uncle ran a sabbath school, at which children were given basic education alongside religious instruction. For many poor children, the lessons they learned at sabbath school were the only significant schooling they ever received. Gifford himself went on to become extensively involved in running various sabbath schools in Edinburgh.
He first began teaching in 1838, in the mission school of the New North Church. Later that year he founded his own class, specifically for young people who were above the usual age for sabbath school attendance. In 1848 that class’s members turned it into a society for mutual improvement, later known – in his honour – as the Gifford Literary Society.
In 1842 Gifford and a group of friends formed the Edinburgh Sabbath School Union, which aimed to improve the training of the city’s sabbath school teachers. He attended the annual sabbath school conventions from their inauguration in 1868, and wrote numerous articles and Bible lessons for the Sabbath School Union magazine.
In 1853 John started helping his uncle Alexander at the Quarry Close Sunday School. After Alexander became too frail to continue in 1868, John took sole charge, and continued to run the class until 1880, when his son and son-in-law took it over.
From 1861 until shortly before his death he also taught weeknight classes for adults at various missions and churches in Edinburgh, including Bible classes for women.
Other memberships and interests
John Gifford joined the Merchant Company of Edinburgh in around 1849, becoming assistant in 1878, treasurer in 1885 and finally master, 1886-9. He later served on the boards of the Company’s schools and widows' fund, and represented the Company in the management of Edinburgh Royal Infirmary until his death.
He also held office in the Destitute Sick Society, the Magdalene Asylum, the House of Refuge and the City Mission. It was said of him that ‘it was not his habit to be only a nominal member of any organisation in which he took office. He always gave his time and thought when he gave his name.’
John Gifford married Mary Usher on 22 August 1849. They had five children together, of whom one died of diphtheria in 1864, at the age of four. Mary and their other four children were still living at the time of John Gifford’s death in 1895.
John Gifford died on 22 December 1895, aged 74
- M Raleigh, John Gifford: Memories and Letters (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1896)
- CH Robertson, ‘John Gifford: a Nineteenth Century Cashier’, The Three Banks Review no.133 (London: privately published, 1982)