A Sunderland name you could bank on – the history of a historic Wearside firm swallowed up by Barclays

The Green, South East, Martins Bank, June 1955
The Green, South East, Martins Bank, June 1955
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WEARSIDERS can bank on finding something of interest on a website dedicated to an institution serving generations of townsfolk.

This year marks the 450th anniversary of Martins Bank, which was originally founded by Queen Elizabeth I’s financial adviser Sir Thomas Gresham as a goldsmith firm.

Scores of branch offices were opened across the North East during the early 20th century, surviving two World Wars and the Great Depression.

But a decision by Barclays to take over the business in the 1960s saw the name finally disappear – until its revival through a website dedicated to the history of the bank.

“Sunderland was once home to several Martins offices,” said website creator Jonathan Snowdon. “But this golden age ended when Barclays took over in 1969.

“The main branch was in Fawcett Street. Others were in Monkwearmouth, Hendon, Washington, Chester Road, Grangetown, Millfield, Pallion, Fulwell and Southwick.

“Of these ten branches, seven dated back to the 1920s or before, and three were added in the 1960s in key business/shopping areas, to boost trade for the bank.”

It was back in 1563, the year before Shakespeare’s birth, that Sir Thomas – financial advisor to Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I – founded his goldsmith’s business.

A grasshopper, part of his family’s crest, was adopted as the firm’s emblem and, for hundreds of years, the bank traded under the name of The Grasshopper.

Eventually, Gresham began to lend money at the statutory interest rate, building up his own cash deposits by offering interest to the depositors.

One of the first, and least reliable, of his customers was Charles II, who borrowed £300,000 and was unable to return it.

Sadly, the Grasshopper Building – Gresham’s HQ at 68 Lombard Street in London – was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1666 – along with his original records.

But the company still continued to flourish and, in 1703, Thomas Martin – the first of the Martin family to be associated with the business – became the firm’s first official banker.

“The bank became a limited company in 1891 and, in 1918, was acquired by the Bank of Liverpool and renamed the Bank of Liverpool and Martins,” said Jonathan. “Despite its background as one of the country’s oldest banks, Martins was the first bank to demonstrate the use of a computer for keeping accounts.”

The business was renamed Martins Bank in 1928, but the name finally disappeared in 1969 – when Barclays ‘swallowed up’ the institution once and for all. “Everyone who worked for Martins has good memories,” said former Barclays man Jonathan, who was inspired to set up the website after two decades of research.

Jonathan first developed an interest in Martins after spending six months at the bank’s former Liverpool HQ during the 1980s, as part of his job with Barclays. The experience inspired him to start collecting Martins memorabilia and, almost 30 years later, he has set up a website – www.martinsbank.co.uk – devoted to the subject.

“Martins was the first with mobile branches, first with computers, first with cash machines and first to recognise the power of branding.”

n Jonathan is appealing for old photos of local branches of Martins, especially Hendon and Pallion. He can be contacted via email at: gutinfo@btinternet.com.