Any time three New Yorkers get into a cab without an argument, a bank has just been robbed.

PHYLLIS DILLER (1917-2012)


Early Banks

The origins of banking can be traced back to Mesopotamian temples which were used as a safe place to store goods, particularly grain. Palaces and private residences were also used but the temples were seen as having the extra protection of the Gods. As well as deposits and withdrawals by the owners, these goods soon became used as assets with which to pay debts. From this, the idea of the loan emerged and there are records of Babylonian temples making loans as early as 2000bc.

The earliest currency was weighed not counted and this connection persisted. ‘Expenditure’, ‘spend’ and ‘pound’ all derive from the Latin expendere meaning ‘to weigh’. And the basic unit of weight in Ancient Greece world was the drachma which meant ‘a handful of grain’.
The first banking services in the UK were provided by goldsmiths and lawyers. The lawyers found themselves well-placed to match lenders with borrowers while goldsmiths expanded their services and began storing valuables for their clients as well as dealing in coins.

In the early 17th century, the written instructions given to goldsmiths to pay money to another customer developed into the ‘check’ (as in a check against forgery or tampering) – the fancy spelling cheque was probably influenced by the exchequer which was the name for the checkered counting table used since medieval times for financial transactions. But as well as receipts for deposits, the goldsmiths began to issue notes that guaranteed a customer’s ability to pay and by end of the 17th century these were being referred to as ‘banknotes’.


A banker need not be popular. Indeed, a good banker in a healthy capitalist society should probably be much disliked.

In 2011, 2,436 UK bankers earned over €1m. The nearest European rival was Germany with 170.

Promise to Pay

It used to be possible to take a bank note to the Bank of England and exchange it for gold but this hasn’t been the case since 1931 when the country left the gold standard.
Scottish money isn’t technically legal tender – which is a very niche legal definition about settling debts. However, notes issued north of the border do contain a promise to pay the bearer in ‘pounds sterling’ and every note issued in Scotland and Northern Ireland is backed by deposits or assets held by the Bank of England. This protects the notes in the event that an issuing bank runs into difficulty.
The largest bank notes issued in the UK are Titans (the size of an A4 piece of paper and worth £100 million) and Giants (A5 and worth £1 million) which are used internally to back the Scottish and Northern Irish notes.

Directors of large British banks receive salaries 75 times that of the average employee.

The average haul per bank raid per person is £12,706.60.

Bank Notes

Each year there are 30,000 applications to the UK’s damaged note service, with claims totalling a value of £18 million. In 2008 there were 4,916 claims (totalling £113,000) for bank notes which had been eaten by pets. 

Notes unfit for circulation are destroyed. They used to be burned onsite by the Bank of England – the incinerator's heat was used to supplement the site’s central heating – but today they're shredded which is more environmentally friendly.

Between 1988 and 1992, employees at the Loughton site stole £600,000 worth of notes intended for destruction by concealing them in their underwear. 


I sincerely believe that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies.

'Banks' appeared in QI's Telegraph column.

Read it here
'Banks' appeared in QI's Telegraph column. Read it here