This Tuesday, 26 May 2009, I gave a paper at the CHSTM lunchtime seminar series at the University of Manchester. The title of my talk was ‘The computer and the clerk revisited: Ferranti and Martins Bank, 1959-1968. A long abstract follows. This was the first of three presentations I’m giving this year on this topic, the other two are as part of the British Society for the History of Science annual conference in Leicester and the Association of Business Historians’ annual conference in Liverpool. I provide a more detailed treatment of Martins Bank in my PhD work, Making Space for Computers in the Business of Banking. A second draft of a chapter on the relationship between Martins and Ferranti is forthcoming.
At the end of the 1950s Martins Bank was the largest of the British clearing banks not to have its head office in the country’s financial capital, London. Instead its affairs were directed from Liverpool, some 200 miles away in the North West of England. At a time when significant regional differences still existed between banks, Liverpool and the surrounding region were widely considered Martins’ strongholds. It was in London, however, where Martins could trace its origins back to 1563 and the sign of the grasshopper in Lombard Street, that Martins had been working closely with British computer manufacturer Ferranti to seek a computerised solution to a growing crisis in banking: a shortage of space and staff. In response to this crisis, in January 1960, Martins became the first British bank to perform its branch bookkeeping operations on a computer when it successfully ran a current account programme on a bureau machine at Ferranti’s London computer centre. Buoyed by its initial success Martins pressed on ahead and ordered a Ferranti Pegasus II that was installed in its own newly designed computer centre adjacent to its Liverpool head office.
This early foray into the nascent field of banking automation drew the attentions of two social scientists from Liverpool University, Enid Mumford and Olive Banks. Mumford and Banks approached the bank and sought its permission to use it as case study research into the effects of computer automation on white-collar workers; a hitherto unexplored area. Permission was granted, but Mumford and Banks’ relationship with the bank was an uneasy one as Martins encountered a series of political, organisational and technical problems that caused automation progress to stall several times. Computer centre accounting was eventually reliably operational for Martin’s first Liverpool branch at the end of 1961, but take on of subsequent branches was slow as Martins maintained a pace of just one branch per year over the following four years.In 1967 Mumford and Banks published the findings from their research in a monograph entitled The Computer and the Clerk, which protected Martins’ reputation under a pseudonym of ‘The Royal Exchange Bank’.
By revisiting this contemporary interpretation, and revaluating it alongside a number of other written sources and post-hoc oral testimonies, I offer a fresh analysis that compares the geography of British banking with a geography of computers in use in the 1960s. I conclude that Martins’ wholly typical requirement to situate its first computer centre within sight of its head office, coupled with its relatively small size and pioneering position at the forefront of banking automation, left it vulnerable to a number of hard and soft issues from which it needed considerable time to recover. By the time Martins had recovered, switched suppliers, and opened another computer centre in London in 1966, other banks already had their eyes on its geographic assets. Before the end of the decade, as a consequence of the 1968 ‘merger’ with Barclays, the Martins’ name had disappeared from view as the spread eagle replaced the sign of the grasshopper on British streets in Liverpool, London and beyond.