A Penny in the Bank

Charles Dickens, All the Year Round [successor to Household Words] 1859 

The place of business of the Bank in question is an enclosed railway arch at the east end of London. Its particular address is at the Christ Church schools, Cannon-street-road, Commercial-road East, and we are at a noonday hour on Monday, and for an hour on Saturday nights, exclusively commercial. Onr customers are, on Mondays, little girls with large street-door keys in their hands; wondering younger brothers, who with difficulty get their noses to the level of our desks; hard-working women; on Saturday nights we have for our customers, hard-working men and youths, who put the scanty surplus they can save out of their wages, beyond reach of the tempter, who at the street corner looks so jovial and bright, but whose wraith sits by the hearth at home so damp and cold, muttering curses, prompting cruel deeds and desperate resolves.

We hear of the Bank business on a Saturday night. We see the Bank business on a Monday, and are instructed on the subject of it by its manager, the Rev. Mr. McGill, clergyman of a poor — a very poor — parish at the most uncomfortable end of this great city. There was a journal once existing, which told one day what a London curate can do if he tries [see the first volume of Household Words, page 464 - text here]. The successor of that curate, manages this Penny Bank, which was established by his predecessor nearly a dozen years ago, and is almost, or quite, the oldest of its kind in London. It is a bank in which the year's account on a customer's passbook, shows an average deposit of about seven shillings and sixpence: yet the whole amount annually made the subject of its thousands of transactions is, in a round sum, two thousand pounds. Any man, woman, or child, who can afford a penny for the pass-book, and will lodge a penny as the first deposit, may enjoy the privilege of opening his, her, or its, banking account. There are such Banks, called Penny Banks, in several poor districts of London. There are such banks at Birmingham, Hull, Halifax, York, Leeds, Derby, Lichficld, Selby, Scarborough. Bolton, Southampton, Lancaster, Wakefield, Plymouth, and elsewhere. There ought to be such a Bank in every poor district, and there is no sensible and active gentleman who has a kind heart and a tolerable ousiness faculty, by whom such a Bank may not be established in some place where it is wanted.

He shall have statistics to encourage him. In evidence of the fact that poor people want to put by savings too small to justify tne opening of an account with the ordinary savings bank, let these figures be taken. At the Birmingham Savings Bank, seventeen pounds is the average balance owned by each depositor. At the Birmingham Penny Bank, it is not seventeen shillings; and a sum now rapidly growing towards a hundred thousand pounds has passed through that Penny Bank in deposits of small savings averaging less than three shillings a piece. At Halifax, the average amount paid in at once has not been two shillings. At Scarborough, it has been only eightpence, and the average balance kept in the Bank by its customers is six shillings and fourpence. At Shenstone, near Lichfield, threepence-halfpenny is the average sum paid in at one time by a customer. Yet, upon such terms, throughout the country, many thousands of accounts are opened.

Many of these establishments place in the savings' bank, or in a joint-stock bank yielding interest upon deposits, the bulk of the money of their customers, and allow two per cent., or more, on every small pile of penny savings. Others, need all the interest to cover the expense of management. It is not, however, for the sake of interest that money is deposited; where no interest at all can be afforded, the Bank is seldom found to prosper less. The object of the prudent depositor, is only to place a little hoard beyond the reach of any momentary impulse, while it shall yet remain at hand against the time of a substantial necessity. Three days or a week's notice must be given before money can be drawn out of a Penny Bank. For every case of absolute necessity, but in few cases of mere transitory impulse, that is equivalent to actual possession of the money.

Few who are bom to comfort know how various, how sacred, and how simple, are the impulses that send the poor man's hand into his pocket when there is a sixpence in it. Rich and poor, we are all hospitable if we are good for anything. There are some who know what is the hospitality of giving soup, fish, and companionship, to men who have soup, fish, and company at home; who, nine times in a dozen, reckon it irksome to leave home at all; and prefer to decline dining with a friend who cannot show himself, as to wine, cookery, and table-talk, a skilful entertainer. There are others who know what it is to give a dinner in the uttermost sense of the phrase. When the poor man feels a poorer comrade's claim upon his heart, God only knows the luxury he finds in dealing generously by him. To make a Sunday feast of beef and pudding on the table that is spread day after day with scanty fare, to pour beer into the glass and cheery words into the ear of a down-hearted brother, and, forgetting troubles for an hour or two to share with him the consolations of an after-dinner pipe, is not a light temptation under which only the thoughtless fall. Wife, old woman, you have been toiling and pining in your faithful love, and we are very poor, though we work hard and do our best. Day after day I have seen you looking anxious and distressed, and slatternly, through being tired and over-worked. This is our wedding-day — you mind it! What a peck of business it has brought us! There's our poor little Willy, who has gone, and - But you mustn't cry today; plenty are left. There's more love than meat in the house. In spite of that, or because of that, let's have it all our own way for once in a time, and let the children see that life is not all made up of struggling!  What sacred holidays are these; full of delicious rest, islands of bliss in which the storm-tost people anchor to forget their cockroaches and mouldy biscuit; where the air is odorous with flowers, and the fruits that grow under the idler's hand press their delights into his palm. The luxury of meat unstinted, to those who eat it sparely day by day, of idleness and pleasure now and then to those whose lives are but too full of labour and pain, the strength of a poor man's vity for another whose distress seems to be greater than his own — it makes the poorest quarters of our towns a harvest-field to beggars. This and much more than this, will force the hand of the poor Englishman to break into a hoard that lies immediately at his fingers' ends. We talk abundantly about the gin-shop, not without remembering by what temptations poor creatures are gathered into flocks and driven cruelly into those slaughter-houses of the inner life. But we do not give enough thought to the sources of ten thousand acts of improvidence over which good angels may rejoice rather than weep. It is one of the chief griefs of poverty that it compels natural men to deny themselves more than it is good that they should be denied — indulgence of right wishes, obedience to pure and worthy promptings of the heart.

There is a simplicity of mind in those who have been slightly educated, which gives to good impulses more strength and freedom than they usually have among persons who test what is in them by the long and wide experience of which all common knowledge is but the result. A household in which very few shillings arc enough to form a valuable and substantial saving, enough to tide over a day of unexpected loss, to meet some serious claim, or to find the little luxury that may be life to a sick child, must not be spent without deliberation. It is good to put it away in a teapot, and to put the teapot on a high shelf. If the shelf be so high that one must take two or three days to reach it, that is better still. There will be time for reflection interposed between the wish to spend it and the getting it to spend, and what is done will be done only for sufficient reason. This kind of storing does not forbid — why should it? — expenditure on seasonable pleasures. Whitsuntide has caused a cheery run upon our Penny Banks, for shillings very slowly saved, to yield a holiday worth having. Only it is well that such holidays should be deliberately chosen, and appointed, and provided for, as the great household events they are: not idly snatched on the first prompting of a bit of outer sunshine.

We sit by the paying-out table of the Penny Bank. There is one desk at which money for which notice has been given is paid out. There are three desks for paying in, each furnished with three recorders — one in pass-book, one in daybook, one in ledger — of the little sums paid in. No poor man's earnings shall be lost through negligence of record. We may read the secret of this girl, hardly too old to lead nursery games in a home ignorant of want, whose pleasant face is set so firmly with a sense ot the world's care and duty, and who stands erect, with the street-door key in her hand, waiting for sixteen shillings and twopence: a comparatively large sum, and her mother's whole deposit. It is a sum boarded through months of small solicitude, and now, no doubt, there is a great care to be killed by it. The girl knows all about it. Her face shows that she is acquainted with her mother's cares and is partner of her confidence. There is a boy here who has given notice of, and is fulfilling, his intention to draw on the Bank for a shilling. Many of these young people are depositors on their own account, for they all have found in their homes good reason for earning something at an early age.

Across the room there is a girl of twelve in a frock of deep mourning which she has outgrown, and to which a tiny brother clings with a small fist. She has to mind him, and has brought him with her, while she carries to the miserably slender hoard, the last mite wrung as savings from the widow's pittance for long days of toil. The girl is a child, with the sedateness of old age ia her manner. While she is giving her mind to operations with the pass-book, her young charge has wandered to the empty grate, and has made ahorse of something that he found there, and has vanished on horseback. When the business is over, the staid sister searches the whole room with a grave look, satisfies herself that her charge is gone (as a child should) into the sunshine, and quietly departs herself into the golden summer light.

She has gone out of an enclosed arch fitted with doors and mysterious suggestions of outlying premises, furnished with desks and stools, with a frill of zinc that may stop leakage from above, and with a smoky clock over the stove, suggestive of ideas not honourable to the contrivance serving in the place of chimney; and she is cone out into a hard and dull paved court that will lead into a street with forty smells, of which not one suggests the handiwork of God. But, she has fulfilled her small errand of love and duty; she has found for her mother true service in small service under that brick vault; and in the sordid street she has, at any rate, the vault of heaven overhead, and the pure light — the only thing in nature that cannot be poisoned.

We have spoken so far, without reference to the proverb, Take care of the Pence, and the Pounds will take care of themselves. As a general proverb, it contains more falsehood than truth. But, it is certain that they who count earnings in shillings, can save only in pence, and that the savings banks, which do not receive any sum smaller than a shilling, do not meet the want of thousands who are helped — as their free use of it bears witness — by the Penny Bank. In this Bank, money is easily deposited in a safe place, as fast as it comes in excess, however trifling the excess may be, and is easily withdrawn again for use. The founder of a Penny Bank should have as many Bank days in a week, as means allow. School teachers and monitors may readily be taught how to act as its clerks. An hour on one day, or on two days, in the week — Saturday night furnishing, if possible, one of these hours — is the usual time allowed. In the case of savings banks, it has been found that at Edinburgh, where the savings bank is open every day, and on three evenings in the week, the use made of it is three times greater than is general elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Into the minuter practical details of Penny Bank management we need not enter here. Various methods are used for securing accuracy of accounts, and a set of books published at Warwick (Morgan's Penny Bank System) is very suitable for establishments of this kind in winch the press of business is not great. Useful help for whatever head may plan the actual institution of one of these Banks, will be found also in the second of a series of Plain Papers on the Social Economy of the People, published by Messrs. Bell and Daldy. We remained at the Bank maintained in the Parish of St. George's in the East until its doors were closed. We saw the several books made up, compared and balanced with the money taken, of which a substantial part was a bagful of copper. Becord of the hour's work in ink, and in the metal that had been deposited, having been found to tally perfectly, the business was over for the day. It has been said that seven and sixpence is, in this poor parish, the average year's deposit of a customer, while in the Penny Bank of an adjoining district there are average deposits of a pound. The hour's work at a single bank time here, represents the paying in on one side, and the drawing out on the other side, of small sums, yielding a total in each case varying between ten and twenty pounds.

Now ready, price 1s.,
Tho Third Monthly Part of
With Two Illustrations on Steel by HABLOY K. BROWNE.
To be completed in Eight Monthly Parts.
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"ALL THE YEAR ROUND" Office, 11, Wellington-street North, London, W.C.

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