50 Years On – Black Ties or Red Carnations – The Belfast Bank & Northern Bank Merger
50 years ago, on 1st July 1970, the Belfast Banking Company Limited and Northern Bank Limited merged into Northern Bank now known today as Danske Bank.
Belfast Banking Company Limited
To see why this merger took place, we have to go first back to 1827 when the Belfast Bank started business. On 25th May 1846 following redevelopment, the bank moved into the former Assembly Buildings situated at the ‘four corners’ of North Street, Bridge Street, Waring Street and Donegall Street. Within decades the bank was trading in branches throughout the northern half of Ireland. Moving forward into the 20th century, the London City & Midland Bank was following events after the 1916 Easter Rising. This bank wanted to move into Ireland and considered the Belfast Bank would to be the best bank should partition occur.
Following a failed agreement in March 1917, the shareholders of the Belfast Bank approved the amalgamation of their bank with the London City & Midland Bank on 9th July 1917. This merger was the first entry into the Irish market by an English bank. Merger negotiations had already started between the Ulster Bank and the London County & Westminster Bank. At the same time, London City & Midland Bank had decided to open a branch of their own at 17 Castle Place, Belfast. The decision was later taken to rebrand this branch as Belfast Bank.
Following partition, the Belfast Bank directors decided that they would only operate in what became Northern Ireland. In 1923, following secret negotiations, they transferred their business in the Republic of Ireland to the Royal Bank of Ireland Limited along with 20 branches and their staff.
Northern Bank Company Limited
Although the bank had links to a private bank (Montgomery & Company) dating back to 1809, Northern Banking Company, as a joint stock company, commenced trading in 1824. Northern Bank was based in Belfast with its Head Office at 16 Victoria Street (beside the Albert Clock and operated branches throughout all of Ireland. The two branch networks continued after partition.
On 1st April 1965 the news broke that the Midland Bank (as London City & Midland Bank was now known) were proposing to purchase all the share capital of Northern Bank. Belfast Bank branch managers were advised in a circular from the Directors’ that “It is not the intention to merge the Northern Bank with the Belfast Banking Company, but as opportunities occur in the future it will be possible to effect some rationalisation to the advantage of all concerned.” The Belfast Telegraph reported the news the next day under the headline “Northern Bank shares jump for take-over”. However, the public were more concerned with the ending of Saturday branch opening starting on Saturday, 3rd April 1965.
Further bank groupings, although not yet mergers, would soon take place on the island of Ireland with groups coming into being by 1967:
- Bank of Ireland, National Bank of Ireland and Hibernian Bank Limited
- Allied Irish Banks Group of Munster and Leinster Bank Limited, Provincial Bank of Ireland Limited and Royal Bank of Ireland Limited
- Belfast Banking Company Limited and Northern Bank Limited, both owned by Midland Bank
- Ulster Bank Limited owned by Westminster Bank Limited
Late 1967 saw the arrival into both banks of a team from Midland Bank with the aim of bringing their systems into line with each other. As Noel Simpson (Retired Head of Finance, Northern Bank) says in his book ‘The Belfast Bank 1827-1970’; ‘These men had a difficult and lengthy assignment, for the two Irish Banks had gone their separate ways for almost a century and a half’.
On 20th November 1968, the staff were informed of the creation of ‘United Northern Banks Limited’ to, at a later date, complete the integration of the 2 banks. The Belfast Telegraph reported the next day that ‘but so far it is not known if the names of both banks will disappear after the formation of the holding company, United Northern Banks Ltd.’ Press advertising started the following week.
On 29th November 1968 press advertisements were published to promote the name of ‘United Northern Banks Limited’ as ‘the big new name in Irish banking’. This holding company, registered in Northern Ireland was to promote a gradual harmonising of methods and services, thus fostering closer co-operation between the two banks. At that stage there were 287 offices of both the Belfast Banking Company Limited and Northern Bank Limited.
It would take until late 1969 for the banks directors to decide on the name of the future organisation. A process of legal changes involving Acts of Parliament on both sides of the border would be required and then there was the (bank) note-issuing rights that dated back to Victorian times. A separate 3rd company would not be able to retain the note-issuing powers currently held by both banks. A Private Bill was to be enacted in the Parliament of Northern Ireland that would allow the merger of the two banks on 1st July 1970 without the use of the 3rd company. The Belfast Bank Executor & Trustee Company would also be merged into the Northern Bank Executor & Trustee Company at the same time. The Bill when enacted would see the Belfast Bank branches be known as ‘NORTHERN BANK LIMITED, BELFAST BANK BRANCH’.
The Merger and Aftermath
Branch managers were advised on 25th June that the 1st July 1970 ‘will be a happy and memorable day for all of us’. All Managers, Sub-Managers, Pro-Managers and Cashiers are to wear red carnations as ‘something eventful is happening in our bank’. An anonymous slip of paper arrived in branches and departments with the circulars the next day announcing ‘that black ties should be worn’.
Northern Bank continued to trade in the whole of Ireland. Parts of Belfast and many of the towns and villages throughout Northern Ireland ended up with Northern Bank branches perhaps beside each other. Rationalisation of branches took place over many years in areas such as Antrim (16 & 42 High Street; Aughnacloy (93 & 134 Moore Street); Ballyclare (1 & 18 The Square); Shankill Road (15 & 93) and Holywood (74 & 98 High Street) to name a few. Branches would be merged into one site or even a brand-new site to create modern branch offices.
The Midland Bank during a financial crisis of its own eventually sold the Northern Bank to the National Australia Bank who later transferred ownership to Danske Bank. The (bank) note-issuing rights would again come into play. Once again, a Private Bill was considered to transfer the rights to Danske Bank but that was considered to be too expensive a plan. The decision was taken by the Directors’ to create a trading name of Danske Bank. Thus, the current bank is now known legally and, on their banknotes, as ‘Northern Bank Limited trading as Danske Bank’. Shortly after this, all the branches and offices were rebranded as Danske Bank.
Many of the former Belfast Bank buildings have been sold on to other businesses. However, the name of ‘Belfast Bank’ continues to adorn a few of these old buildings e.g. Portrush, Rathfriland & Warrenpoint. Some of their branches have been demolished and only photographs remain e.g. Lisburn & Duncairn Gardens. A brass nameplate saying ‘The Belfast Bank Bed (Centenary) 1827-1927’ is still on show in the ‘Victorian Corridor’ at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
Gavin Bamford is a retired Northern Bank Assistant Manager who worked for the bank from 1974 to 2013. He is Chair of History Hub Ulster and runs both Northern Bank War Memorials and Belfast Banking Company Architecture Facebook page.