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British Banking History Society

banking life on the ocean wave

For nearly fifty years, Midland provided floating currency to transatlantic travellers with its exclusive branches on Cunard's fleet of ocean liners.

They say that like attracts like, and in the case of the long and fruitful sea-faring partnership between Midland and the Cunard Steam-Ship Company, this was certainly true.

Both were major players in their fields during the twenties. Cunard had emerged from the First World War in a healthier financial position than many other shipping companies, had made good its wartime losses and was expanding. Midland boasted more deposits than any other bank in the world.

As the "Midland 150 years of banking business" history puts it, "some of its new services were vehicles for goodwill and publicity rather than for attracting large slices of new business." The so-called Atlantic offices fell into this category.

The first office was installed aboard the Berengaria in 1920. (This ship, formerly the German liner S S Imperator, had been taken over by the United States after the Armistice. It was then given to Cunard as compensation for the loss of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed in 1915). Midland branches on the Mauretania and Aquitania followed soon after, introducing the bank to the growing numbers of ocean travellers.

Cunard's flagship, the Queen Mary, had Midland offices on board for 31 years, from 1936 to 1967. The Midland Venture of July 1936 carried an article by a passenger on the ship's maiden voyage in May 1936, about the services offered by the bank. He describes them as a 'sailing convenience, to eliminate the necessity for passengers to carry around an unusually large amount of ready cash for settling ship debts'.

A Unique Souvenir
The author tells us that cheques drawn on an account opened on board could not be used for purchases after leaving the ship, but had to be presented for payment during the voyage. Any balance remaining at the end of the trip was transferred either to Midland's Overseas Branch or to the customer's local branch, or held over for the return voyage. Many people opened an account on board simply to have the cheque book as a souvenir of their voyage.

During the fifties, the bank had branches on the Cunard liners Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, Mauritania and Caronia, for passengers crossing to and from the USA. The Queens and the Mauritania had three offices, in First, Cabin and Tourist classes, while the Caronia had two, in First and Cabin classes. They were operated by the Atlantic department of Overseas Division, which was also responsible for selecting the most appropriate bank employees for this work.

The Atlantic staff were obviously ambassadors for the bank, and were selected for their ability to get on with everyone, to be courteous, well-spoken and personable, as well as being well-versed in all aspects of foreign business. Besides manning the offices, they were expected to be available for personal service at all other times, including visiting important customers of the bank. The tour of duty was generally three years, entailing about 10 voyages a year, with round trips taking two weeks.

The services offered including changing money from one currency to another, and cashing travellers cheques and letters of credit. Deposits were also accepted for UK based accounts, and new accounts could be opened on board, which were then forwarded to the customer's mainland branch on arrival. Cashiers entered counter transactions onto cash sheets rather than in books. These were then taken to the Overseas Branch at the end of each voyage. Telegraphic transfers of funds to ship's passengers, via the ship's radio, could be made from the UK. Passengers could also make payments to recipients on either side of the Atlantic.

Fluctuating Funds
Currencies held on board included American and Canadian dollars, and French and Swiss Francs, while the bank was prepared to buy any currency that could be marketed in London. The currencies balance was calculated each evening and Overseas advised by radio of the dollar and French franc holdings. This was important, as losses from exchange rate fluctuations on these currencies were protected by forward contracts.

During the five-day trip from Southampton to New York the first and last days were always the busiest, but the bank did not open until the ship had passed beyond US or French territorial waters - two hours from New York past the Ambrose Light, and three miles from Cherbourg. On the outward voyage, the staff arrived at Southampton the day before the ship sailed. The officer-in-charge phoned Overseas Branch for last minute instructions and the latest exchange rates, and loaded the sterling cash he anticipated he would need for the trip.

Exchange controls
The Exchange Controls in operation at the time allowed not more than 10 in notes to be brought into the UK which theoretically meant that an American passenger could not change more than $28 into sterling. However, new Bank of England notes used on the ships were always consecutively numbered which meant that Customs had the serial numbers of all notes issued, enabling passengers to bring unlimited quantities of sterling into the country.

The duties of Midland's Atlantic staff were not over when the ship docked in New York - at Pier 90, the Cunard Company terminal at the west end of Manhattan's 49th Street. They had to lodge US cheques bought at sea with the Bank's New York agents and replenish their dollar stocks from one of the American banks.

Advert for ocean banking
Information was also exchanged about which Midland customers had travelled to the Big Apple, and which were heading back to the Old Country.

Only then could the Atlantic staff take shore leave to enjoy the famous Radio City Music Hall or visit the top of the Empire State Building, before their ship set sail for its return voyage two days later.

Serving aboard the greatest liners in the world, in their heyday, was a tremendous experience for the Midland staff. They regularly came into contact with leading celebrities of the period, like Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Bob Hope, Tommy Trinder and Ivor Novello.

They also collected a fund of amusing anecdotes. These included the one about the affluent American lady who appeared at one of the bank counters on the Queen Mary and asked to change her travellers cheques into 100 sterling. The cashier paid her mostly with 1 notes but included several of the old big white 5 notes.

"Say, what are these things?", she asked, peering through rimless spectacles at the huge fivers. "5 Bank of England notes, madam", replied the cashier. "Well, what to you know!", she exclaimed, "I figured it was wrapping paper".

Scott Keyser

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Copyright 2010 BBHS