- Rev Henry Duncan (1774-1846)
The Early Years
Henry Duncan was an outstanding man of vision and compassion, whose concern for the underprivileged led to the founding of a great banking movement in a tiny cottage by the Solway — and behind that tour de force there is a remarkable story, which begins in the Manse at Lochrutton where he was born on 8th October 1774.
The young Henry's education started early, under the guidance of his father, before he was enrolled at Dumfries Academy. Later he would spend time at the universities of St. Andrew's, Edinburgh and Glasgow, but his academic life was interrupted when he was 16, in a move which foreshadowed the great achievement of his life. A relative of his father, Dr. James Currie the biographer of Robert Burns, offered to find employment for Henry in Liverpool where two of his brothers already worked. So after only two terms he left university to begin a career with Heywood's Bank.
Strangely, for a man who would prove to be such a skilled entrepreneur, a dedicated mercantile life was not for him — after only three years he returned to Scotland and university, where he prepared for the ministry. With hindsight it seems almost inevitable that he would enter the Church; his father and grandfather were ministers, and through both sides of his family he claimed connections with 150 clerics in a lineage that could be traced almost to the Covenanters.
His licence to preach was granted in 1798 and since no charge was available he spent time as a tutor in the Highlands, a brief interlude which ended in 1799 when three pulpits were offered. He had a choice between Ireland, Lochmaben and Ruthwell, which was the least lucrative of the three. But he wanted time to write and found the quiet pull of the Solway irresistible, although with his political sense and zeal for reform he knew that life for the poor in rural areas was wretched - Britain had fought an expensive war with Revolutionary France, and in the aftermath of turmoil came the swift rise of Napoleon and the long wars that were fought across Continental Europe. It led to the introduction of direct income tax, a blockade of supplementary imports and a sharp rise in prices. The price of grain was to soar by 358% in fifteen months, a catastrophic increase for the rural areas. The misery inflicted by these events was increased by problems in the United Kingdom. Social reform was desperately needed, but sent a shudder through the establishment ~ reform had gone disastrously wrong in France and opened the way to unimagineable slaughter. So there was no release for adult workers who had to cope with a punishing seventeen hour day when business was good ~ nor for young children exposed to working conditions that were always harsh and frequently brutal. And if war-time prices soared wages did not; they remained appallingly low. In the cities, the sweep of the industrial revolution brought miserable conditions in the home and work-place, but a hand-loom weaver could at least earn one pound per week. The plight of those in the country was much worse. An agricultural labourer earned the equivalent of 5 pence per day. Work was casual and seasonal, a downturn brought instant unemployment ~ and to add deprivation to misery, several bad harvests had left the rural communities devastated.
It was against this bleak landscape that Henry Duncan began his remarkable career ~ it was to span nearly half a century, produce something of a banking miracle and ultimately carry the name of Ruthwell throughout the world. But none of this was obvious at the beginning when problems crowded in and seemed insurmountable until the arrival of the new minister.
He was preached into his charge on the text "Let no Man Despise thy Youth". It proved to be a prophetic choice when he brought his formidable energy to the difficulties, turning first to his brothers in Liverpool for help. Although grain was in very short supply the major dock areas were an obvious possible source, and a consignment of Indian Corn was shipped from the Mersey to the Solway. He underwrote the cargo personally and set guidelines for its distribution.
He also revived the Friendly Society which had been in operation in the village since 1795 ~ but according to the new man through mismanagement it had produced discord instead of harmony. Whatever its problems, the need for such a federation was great: a serious accident or long illness meant loss of earnings, and a death in the family brought a funeral that could rarely be afforded. The Friendly Societies guaranteed cash to support their members through these traumas.
If the parish was wary of becoming involved in such an enterprise again they overlooked the enthusiasm and skill of the new man, and under his guidance the Society flourished.
With that success under his belt he turned his attention to local unemployment. He supplied the flax to encourage a much needed cottage industry, and while the women were spinning the men were digging, employed in helping him to turn the barren manse glebe into a superb garden. And to add some pleasure to the long grind of existence, he brought a touch of lightness to the work of the Society. To encourage it he persuaded the Earl of Mansfield to build a Society Room, which became a welcome focal point for village soirees ~ and was ultimately the birthplace of the Savings Banks.
But if he was casting much bread upon the water of Ruthwel1 life, he also had it returned through his marriage. His first wife was Agnes Craig, daughter of his predecessor in the charge but although she was a strong and vital partner in his life she disliked publicity. It was something Henry Duncan never sought for its own sake ~ but his powerful intellect and untiring efforts on social reform brought a fair measure of celebrity, which he used skilfully for those who had no public platform.
Throughout it, Agnes remained in the background. Even in the Memoir of his father, their son George writes only briefly about his mother, describing the warmth of their family life, her radiance and kindness, and from other sources it is clear that she was greatly loved throughout the parish, but little else is said until her death, which devastated her husband and family. Later in his life he married Mary Lundie, with whom there had been close personal ties over a long period of years. She was the widow of his good friend the Rev. Robert Lundie of Kelso and his son had married her daughter. Mary Duncan, too, was an invaluable partner at a critical period.
They were not the only women to have a powerful influence on his life. Again from the Memoir it is evident that his entry to the church was not prompted by devoutness. Although his belief was never in question his decision to become a minister stemmed from a wish to be of service to other men - and with his leaning to religion he saw it as the natural way to fulfil that role. It was another decade before belief became devotion, after he attended a meeting held by a small group of Quakers who were visiting the Annan area. The warmth and simplicity of their message had a tremendous impact, and he invited them to visit with his family. His sister gives a clear account that his thinking was transformed by Deborah Derby a devout Christian whose conviction and sincerity had the same profound effect on Elizabeth Fry, the great prison reformer. Henry Duncan said he had been born again, and from that time everything that followed in his life was dedicated to glorifying God and his Son.
Founding of the First Savings Bank
It was his wish to do something of real and lasting value for the under-privileged that led to the beginning of the Savings Banks. He believed deeply in the dignity of the ordinary man. It is a constant thread in his life that wherever he saw injustice he worked and spoke against it. He disliked the unfair restrictions imposed on Roman Catholics and supported the moves to change them; he detested slavery and was a fervent abolitionist; and despite the appalling poverty of the time he was totally against the introduction of a poor rate, believing that poor law subsidies were degrading and did nothing to create a spirit of pride and independence.
So at the beginning of the year 1810 when he thought a poor-rate might be introduced to the area, he began his crusade to bring financial independence to the Scottish people by "the erection of an economical bank for the savings of the industrious." The thought was not original, nor did he claim that it was: as far back as 1697 Daniel Defoe had written of such a concept, and there had been a few similar institutions prior to the Ruthwell experiment ~ but they had mostly been insular and almost privately run. None had the critical ingredients of the Duncan model: its operation could be universally adopted; it was based on business principles; its founder had a flair for publicity; and it had mass appeal.
Despite these advantages, it was a bold and pioneering thought at a time of dreadful hardship ~ but the man from Ruthwell offered security of investment with a fair rate of interest, and sure that his plan could work he used his parish as the proving ground.
On the 10th May 1810 he opened his first ledger in the Society Room, persuading the villagers to bank the little spare cash they had ~ drawing support from the wealthier members of the community, from district Burghers and from Parliament. With the driving force of his belief and energy behind it, the pilot was successful. At the end of the first year the funds stood at 151 pounds, a remarkable sum for a community so badly scarred by poverty. The building where it all started is now the Savings Bank Museum.
Through the medium of his own newspaper, and by letter-writing across the country, he publicised the details and success of the scheme, which was swiftly taken up elsewhere. Within five years, savings banks based on his model were operating throughout the United Kingdom.
However, it took tremendous skill and effort to translate the idea to formal legislation, which Henry Duncan believed essential to protect the depositors. To achieve it he had to be diplomat, advocate and financier. Despite his low income he personally carried the heavy expenses. To deal with the mass of domestic and world-wide correspondence his postage alone reached about 100 pounds in a year, from a stipend that was less than 300 pounds. He also had to pay for printing details of the scheme, and for travelling throughout the country when he was asked to help establish other banks.
There was also the cost of a long stay in London, steering Scottish legislation on its complex course ~ and at that time too he had to pay for a minister to replace him, for he would not reglect his pulpit. He was feted in London ~ it was like being an aeronaut in a head-turning city he said ~ but for all the honour paid to him it palled, and acutely conscious of his real work he told Robert Lundie that he must look to the business of saving souls.
It is evident from his second wife that none of this heavy expenditure was ever repaid. It is also clear that there were times of great stress, exhaustion and controversy, which only a man of Henry Duncan's courage and stature could have withstood. But if there were trials there were also triumphs, and his circle of friends was wide and illustrious: Sir Robert Owen, Sir David Brewster, Thomas Carlyle and James Hogg. Andrew Carnegie would later say that the exceptional Duncan story had captivated him ~ and there had even been an early connection with Robert Burns, who was a friend of his wife's family. The poet had also visited the Duncan Manse at Lochrutton when Henry was eighteen: "Look well, boys, at Mr. Burns" their father said, "for you'll never again see so great a genius". There was no prescience that the boy who was listening would stamp his mark on the world as strongly as the Bard.
In recognition of his achievements, the University of St. Andrew's awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity. The accolade caused him some embarrassment, but his work for the poor, his wish to encourage their self respect and independence were even more widely acknowledged. When Rudyard Kipling gave his Rectorial Address at Dr. Duncan's alma mater he began with a tribute ~ "At first sight, it may seem superfluous to speak of thrift and independence to men of your race, and in a university that produced Duncan of Ruthwell...."
This admirable man had been given tremendous gifts. His interest in geology led to discovery of the first quadruped footprints to be found in Britain, and he presented a learned paper on the subject to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His garden became a showplace in the district, as did the model farm he developed at the rear of the Manse. He was a talented artist whose drawings skilfully capture the Ruthwell of his time ~ and a fine writer, who founded two excellent local newspapers; not for narrow parochial reporting, but to broaden the knowledge of his people by bringing world events to his remote corner of Scotland. He wrote a popular series of essays under the common title "The Cottage Fireside"; produced a highly acclaimed work in four volumes "The Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons"; and contributed to the Scottish Antiquarian Society with a paper on the Ruthwell Cross, which he was responsible for restoring.
This superb preaching cross has an amazing tale to tell through a history dating to Anglo Saxon times. In his book Scotland Through the Ages, Michael Janner wrote of it ~ "Scotland through the dark ages was not without its bursts of dazzling light." The cross is 18 feet high and is thought to have been constructed around 664AD. It is a powerful monument to the early Christian life of Scotland, with exquisite runic carving thought to depict Caedmon's poem The Lay of the Holy Rood.
The story of its destruction is brief and simple: the monument and its images fell foul of the Reformed Church of Scotland which had no place for iconography and ordered, in 1642, that it was to be cast down. For nearly two centuries parts of it lay on the church floor and fragments were buried in the grounds. They were unearthed during the ministry of Dr. Duncan, who recognised the enormity of the finds and, although the order had never been rescinded, through twenty years he devoted time and energy to their restoration.
You can see more on the Ruthwell Cross in the Places to Visit page of this site.
The Disruption of 1843
It was not his only point of disagreement with the Scottish Kirk. There is a twist of irony that he rose to its supreme office not long before the most distressing period of his religious life. He was appointed Moderator of the General Assembly for the year 1839 through 1840, coming to the position at a time when her history was building to another turbulent chapter, brought about by the increasing power which the state sought to impose on the Church. Such a situation was anathema to Dr. Duncan: The church worked through the divine guidance of God and interference by the state interrupted that divine authority. The growing problem erupted when the Law of Patronage conflicted with the right of a congregation to choose its own Minister. It was an issue on which the church was deeply divided and it led to the Disruption in 1843, when those who could not accept interference parted company with those who could.
Despite the pain his beliefs brought to him Henry Duncan never wavered. "A noble spirit prevails among us " he wrote to his wife. "What will occur this day will strike to the heart of Scotland" ~ but this time of bitterness and division also struck to the heart of the man and as he walked out of a stormy General Assembly and into the new Free Church of Scotland, he also walked out of his much loved Church and Manse, for the charge of Ruthwell was within the established Kirk.
It brought about a radical change in his life, although he stayed on in the district, at a cottage in Clarencefield and with his infinite sense of grace and compassion continued to help his people despite the bitterness of schism. And regardless of a greatly depleted congregation, he built a new Free Church and Manse at Mount Kedar. He was subsequently invited to live in Edinburgh and help the progress of the new Kirk. So although his health was failing as he entered his seventies he never really retired, nor did he fully relinquish his ties with the wide reaches of the Solway he loved
The Final Chapter
But time was closing in on him. He was invited to take a prayer meeting at Cockpool near Ruthwell in February 1846 when he was seventy-one, and there is something deeply touching in the knowledge that his religious work was to end in the parish where it had begun. Ten minutes into his sermon he collapsed with a stroke, and was taken to his sister's home at nearby Comlongon. One profile of his life captures its end with an eloquence he would have loved: "The summons calling him to enter into his rest found him in the midst of active duty. . . with his lamp burning".
For two days the long drive to the house was crowded with people stunned by the swiftness and severity of his illness. The wounds of disruption were forgotten and one of the villagers wrote of deep affliction throughout the parish. He died on 12th February, and his son tells of a funeral attended by an immense concourse of people from many churches and all walks of life. They have been followed through the decades by thousands who honour his name, and come from everypart of the world to see the Cross he restored and the room where his savings bank was founded.
Within his own lifetime he knew that his concept was enormously successful, although it is doubtful if even his vision could have foreseen the rich legacy he would leave. Spanning out from the small cottage on the shores of the Solway there is now an association of some 2,700 savings banks and related organisations in 79 countries across the world. (The logo is that of the World Savings Bank Institute).
This article was written by and is copyright of Kay Watt, formerly of TSB Bank Scotland plc and a number of the illustrations are her own. The graphic of the cash box used at Ruthwell is by Alister Lynn, the drawing of the boat on the Solway is by Rev Duncan himself, and the World Savings Bank Institute logo is copyright of WSBI.
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