Until the 1950s, the position for women in love at the bank was quite simple. Banks did not employ wives, so for a female bank worker, an engagement was always followed by a letter of resignation. The dominant ideas of the time assumed that married women would rather be at home looking after husbands and children, and would not be properly committed to their work. It was better, according to this logic, for them to move on and be replaced by a fresh crop of school-leavers, who in turn would work for a few years before leaving to get married. Only a few women ever stayed long enough to build a career, and they were all single. The few exceptions to these rules came in wartime, when staff shortages became so extreme that banks couldn’t afford to be so rigid.
Even male bankers were subject to the control of their employers. Most banks only permitted men to marry once their salaries reached a certain threshold. The amounts varied from bank to bank, but were usually at a level that required 12 or more years’ service. Below that threshold, a man could apply for special permission, but was likely to be refused.
The banks said the rules were for employees’ own good, protecting them from taking on responsibilities they couldn’t afford. But other reasoning may have been at work. Many banks liked to move staff around between branches, often at short notice. This was easier to ask of a single man whose only devotion was to his employer. Husbands and fathers were less likely to be willing to move every time the bank demanded it.
Breaking the rules
One man who broke the rules for love was William Notman. He joined Commercial Bank of Scotland in 1925. He passed his exams, completed his apprenticeship, and was considered a good, reliable bank clerk. In 1931 he began courting a young woman called Lillias Chalmers. After a few years they wanted to get married, but Notman’s salary of £180 didn’t meet the bank’s £200 threshold. After his request for permission to marry was turned down - for the fourth time - in 1935, the couple went ahead and married anyway. Notman was dismissed.
In subsequent disputes the bank claimed Notman’s dismissal was for incompetence rather than for getting married, so Notman sued them for defamation. The three-day jury trial attracted huge public interest and the case was seen by many as a trial of the marriage ban itself. Notman eventually won the case, and was awarded £1,000 damages plus costs.
Notman soon found employment outside the banking sector – and as it happens, his new salary was well above the magic £200 threshold that had had such an impact on his life. He and Lillias went on to enjoy more than 30 years of married life together, until their deaths in the early 1970s.
Changing the rules
Despite the Notman case, marriage bans remained in place until the mid-1940s, when banks reluctantly began to replace them with ‘advice’ rather than rules. Banks still required employees to notify them of any change in marital status, but no longer felt entitled to exercise such direct control over their employees’ personal lives.
For women, meanwhile, a breakthrough came in 1950, when NatWest constituent National Provincial Bank became the first British bank to allow female staff to continue working after they married. Other banks followed suit over the next few years.