Dramatic fall from grace of Falkirk’s leading man

The banking crisis of a few years ago, followed by the steady decline in service and regular closure of branches, has dropped bankers well down the professional popularity list.

By Ian Scott
Saturday, 15th February 2020, 10:53 am
The Old Commercial Bank.
The Old Commercial Bank.

Today, when they are about as welcome as a swarm of midgies in a nudist colony, it is easy to forget that the local manager was once a pillar of the community, a wise counsellor who would look after your hard earned cash and give you good advice about how to make it grow. But of course it wasn’t always like that.

Our first local venture, the Falkirk Banking Company, was launched in 1787 by a number of leading men who saw an opportunity to help promote the growth of new industry while making a tidy profit when these enterprises were successful.

Men like John Heugh of Gartcows and Dr John Meek of Campfield were shrewd investors whose families made small fortunes when the bank wound up in 1826. But by then a second bank had come and gone - the Union opened in Bank Street (where else?) in 1803 but collapsed after 13 years with debts of £60,000.

Competition had arrived in the form of the big national banks which many felt would offer greater security and less risk.

However the experience of the Commercial Bank proved that even in the best regulated world things can go wrong.

The bank had opened in the old Union Bank office in 1820 and was so successful that they moved to fine new premises in the High Street in 1832.

This is the building afterwards occupied by Hope the ironmonger and later Festus Moffat. It is now home to the Bank of Scotland and others. For most of the bank’s time in Falkirk the manager, or ‘agent’ as he was called, was Henry Salmon whose fall from grace has all the elements of a Greek tragedy which is ironic given the architectural style of the new building.

Henry was far and away Falkirk’s leading man.

He was elected as our first Provost in 1833 and thereafter was involved in all the main activities of the burgh often acting as chairman at banquets to celebrate occasions like the Queen’s birthday. He was a Justice of the Peace and a leading church elder as well as chairman of the Parochial Board. But ‘Mr Falkirk’ was not all he seemed.

One morning in 1857 inspectors from Edinburgh visited the bank to carry out a routine check and found that around £30,000 was missing.

The agent by then aged 62 was nowhere to be found and a massive manhunt was launched to find the missing man and, more importantly, the money! The police gradually widened their search and were soon on Henry’s trail.

Amazingly, and tragically, the hunt ended in the stable of a small inn in Conway in Wales where he was found hanged a few days later.

His two clerks, William Reid and Thomas Gentles, were charged with failing to follow procedure and while everyone, including the judge Lord Handyside, recognised that they had gained nothing financially and had been fooled by Salmon they went to prison for eighteen months, much to the displeasure of the public. It is hard to grasp the scale of this fraud.

£30,000 in 1857 when a skilled working man earned about £75 per annum must equate to well over £1 million at today’s prices.

Was any of the money recovered? What did he do with it all? Was he acting alone? We don’t really know but I’m pretty sure that afterwards, trust in the banking industry fell to a new low. Which is more or less where we came in!