The Reverend Henry Duncan, clergyman, philosopher, essayist, publisher, politician, archeologist, geologist, poet, artist, educator, philanthropist, social reformer, and the founder of the world’s first ever savings bank, was born on the 8th of October, 1774.
Henry Duncan was a remarkable man of vision and compassion with many and varied interests. As a Minister, Duncan’s vocation was to be the champion of the miserable poor of his post-Napoleonic era. Duncan of Ruthwell as he became known, devoted fifty years of his life to serving his parishioners and as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, he served the national congregation. Despite his fiscal acumen, he suffered financially from being a leading figure in the ‘Disruption’ of 1843 as a consequence of which, he lost his stipend. By that time, however, his fame had spread far and wide. He is known for having restored the magnificient, 8th Century Cross of Ruthwell, which was one of the finest Anglo-Saxon crosses in Britain. Thanks to Duncan’s efforts, it is still one of the finest Anglo-Saxon crosses in Britain as it can be seen today in its rightful setting in Ruthwell Kirkyard.
On the scientific front, Duncan was responsible for the first ever paper on fossil footprints. His report on the quadruped footprints of synapsid origin found in Permian red sandstone from Corncockle Muir Quarry in Annandale, was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1828. Duncan was the founder of two newspapers of which he was also the editor, and published tracts and papers on such diverse topics as slavery, emancipation, and education. In addition, he was a talented artist and he wrote essays under the title ‘The Cottage Fireside’. However, for what he is famous is having founded the world’s first ever savings bank, in 1810.
The foundation of the great banking movement that is represented today by the Trustee Savings Bank took place, quite remarkably, in a tiny cottage by the River Solway in south western Scotland. The mother of all savings banks was the ‘Society room’, which Duncan’s insistence caused to be built after he had revived the local Friendly Society. The building where it all started is now the Savings Bank Museum. Duncan’s scheme for aiding the underprivileged became a crusade, which began early in 1810. Duncan had thought that a poor rate was going to be introduced; something about which he had strong views. He felt that would be degrading to the poor, and contrary to creating a spirit of pride and independence or of nurturing the self esteem of the local people. Thus the aim of his revolutionary savings plan was “the erection of an economical bank for the savings of the industrious.” At the time, the Banks required a minimum deposit of ten pounds, which took them completely out of the reach of the vast majority of the populace. In contrast, Duncan’s local savings bank required a minimum deposit of just sixpence, which was enough to persuade the villagers to bank what little spare cash they had. The world's first ever savings bank paid interest on its individual investors' modest savings and one per cent of the interest earned on the combined deposits went to a charity fund.
The concept realised by the energetic and enterprising Duncan wasn’t a novel thought, but it was an innovative enterprise. Back in 1697, Daniel Defoe had written about such a notion and after that, prior to the Ruthwell savings bank scheme, there had been a few privately run institutions. However, the crucial facts, which qualify Duncan’s model for the label of ‘world’s first’ are that it was public i.e., open to all and its operation could be universally adopted. He made it happen and he made it work and its mass appeal has persisted to this day. Duncan’s pioneering plan offered security of investment, with a fair rate of interest and, initially, it was supported by wealthier members of the community and the district Burghers. Duncan’s own parish had been the proving ground and his confidence and ambition was rewarded by success. At the end of the first year the funds stood at one hundred and fifty-one pounds, which was a remarkable sum for such an impoverished community.
Not content with the success of his local scheme, Duncan determined that it be taken up elsewhere, for the common good, and be supported by legislation. He had a flair for publicity and used the medium of his newspapers to publicise the details and success of the Ruthwell experiment. He also wrote letters and entered into a global correspondence. It’s astonishing to think that, when his stipend was less than three hundred pounds a year, he personally bore the expense of printing and postage; the latter of which had risen to top one hundred pounds in one particular year. That wasn’t the only expense he bore as he also forked out for a locum Minister while he trooped off to London to lobby Parliament and of course, there were his travel and subsistence expenses whilst away in the capital. None of that substantial expenditure was ever repaid. Not content with becoming a printer, a publicist and keeping the nation’s Posties busy, he turned himself into a diplomat and successfully steered the concept through to formal legislation in Parliament. Within five years, savings banks based on Duncan’s model were operating throughout the United Kingdom.
Henry Duncan was born at the Manse of Lochrutton, near the Solway Firth, on the 8th of October, 1774. His early education was provided by his father, before the son went to Dumfries Academy. During that time, an early, influential event in his life was the visit to the Manse of Robert Burns and it is recorded that the father told his sons to look well at the famous poet “for you'll never see so great a genius.” In a further, albeit indirect association with the Bard, Henry’s education was interrupted in 1790, when he went to Liverpool to work at Heywood’s Bank, where two of his brothers already worked. The position there was gained for him by a relative of his, Dr. James Currie, who wrote an early biography of Burns. Three years later, he returned to University in Scotland and studied at St. Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow, in preparation for the Ministry. Interestingly, his entry to the Church wasn’t prompted by devoutness. Although his belief was never in question, his decision to become a Minister stemmed more from pure altruistic principles; from a wish to be of service to other men. Albeit that he was following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, at that time he saw religion merely as the natural way to fulfil his chosen role.
Duncan mixed in illustrious circles, being well known to such luminaries as Sir Robert Owen, Sir David Brewster, Thomas Carlyle and James Hogg. Duncan died of a stroke on the 12th of February, 1846, and Andrew Carnegie later said of Duncan that his exceptional story had captivated him. Rudyard Kipling also paid tribute to Duncan in an address at St. Andrews, where the University had awarded the Reverend the honorary degree of ‘Doctor of Divinity’. The Reverend Henry Duncan’s legacy is an association of some 2,700 savings banks and related organisations in seventy-nine countries around the world under the banner of the World Savings Bank Institute.