The Ulster Bank story
Ulster Bank has been at the heart of Irish life for over 175 years. We're proud of our long and distinguished history. The journey we've made over the last two centuries is an important part of who we are today.
Ulster Bank has been more than 175 years in the making. Our story is closely entwined with that of the island and people we serve.
To explore our story in more detail choose a date-span:
Icon expand 1836 - 1860
In the 1830s Belfast had a population of 60,000. It was a growing port with a prosperous linen trade, yet it had few banks. Most of Ireland's banks were based in Dublin a full twelve hours away by stage coach. Our bank, Ulster Banking Company, was conceived and set up by Belfast businessmen to meet the region’s need for a reliable local bank. We opened for business for the first time on 1 July 1836 in Waring Street, at the commercial heart of Belfast.
From the outset we issued our own banknotes and were determined to open branches in all of Ulster’s main trading towns. Within a year we had nine branches - at Antrim, Armagh, Ballymoney, Comber, Downpatrick, Enniskillen, Lurgan, Portadown and Tandragee - and had appointed banking agents in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Dublin and the United States of America.
During the next two decades we established eleven more branches in Ulster. Many of our customers were engaged in the booming Ulster linen trade, enabling us to flourish despite the devastating effects of the Potato Famine.
Icon expand 1860 - 1890
In 1860 we opened not only an impressive new head office in Waring Street, but also our first branches outside Ulster, at Sligo and Ardee. These were clear signs that we had a lot more growing to do. A big change of direction came in 1862, when we surprised our Belfast rivals by opening an office in Dublin, at College Green. Previously we had relied on our Dublin agent, Bank of Ireland, to watch over our affairs in the city, but with our own office we were much better placed to protect and expand our business there.
Meanwhile the expansion of our northern branch network continued apace. Over the next twelve years we opened a further 24 successful branches. The rapid growth of the bank prompted our adoption of limited liability and a change of name to Ulster Bank Ltd in 1883.
Icon expand 1890 - 1920
Our Dublin business proved very successful. A couple more city centre branches had already been opened in Baggot Street and Camden Street, when our splendid new premises on College Green were unveiled in 1891. We also began to push out from Dublin into the south, establishing branches during the first few years of the new century in Wexford, Kingstown (later Dun Laoghaire), Cork, Waterford and Limerick.
By the outbreak of the First World War we were in an extremely competitive position. Measured in terms of our branches, deposits, assets and profitability we were out-performing our rivals. We even continued to open new branches throughout the war. Nonetheless the war years were difficult, with government controls and staff shortages. Many of our officials served in the forces, prompting us to employ women for the very first time in 1915.
In 1917 consolidation in the UK banking sector, combined with the uncertainty created by the political upheaval which followed the Easter Rising, led us to seek amalgamation with London County & Westminster Bank of London. Terms were quickly agreed. We retained the same name and continued to be run quite independently by an advisory committee in Belfast.
Icon expand 1920 - 1960
After the war the turbulence, bank boycotts and raids which accompanied the 1922 establishment of the Irish Free State caused problems, but the political settlement of 1925 ushered in a period of greater stability. From the late 1920s we began to establish new products and services. A foreign department was established in 1926, thrift deposit accounts offered to small savers from 1928 and executor and trustee services provided from 1933. Nonetheless, our growth was held back after 1929 by the effects of the world depression and the collapse of the Belfast linen and shipbuilding industries.
During the Second World War we were once again subject to government restrictions. Many staff enlisted and a number of our Belfast branches were extensively damaged during air raids. However, as prosperity replaced austerity in the postwar years, we began to innovate, pioneering personal loans in Ireland in 1958 and opening Ireland's first drive-in bank in 1961.
Icon expand 1960 - 1970
During the 1960s many branches were renovated and new ones opened, particularly in the expanding residential suburbs of Belfast and Dublin. We became the first Irish Bank to introduce cash dispensers, open airport branches with extended trading hours and offer an early cheque guarantee card. We began to advertise widely and adopted a new logo, featuring an entwined U and B. During these years we also entered some entirely new fields, including unit trust management, hire purchase and factoring.
In 1968 our parent bank, Westminster Bank, joined with another high street giant, National Provincial Bank, to create National Westminster Bank – then the fifth largest bank in the world. We immediately adopted the new bank's three-arrowheads brand mark. The change in ownership ushered in a period of development for us and in 1969 our profits exceeded £1 million for the first time.
Icon expand 1970 - 1980
During the 1970s we were inevitably affected by the Troubles. Many of our branches were damaged by bombs - 55 in 1971 alone - and our staff faced huge challenges in their day-to-day work. Nonetheless we continued to move forwards, diversifying into computer services and investment and offshore banking. We also introduced the new Access credit card scheme and mobile banks in rural areas. A larger head office was opened in modern premises in Donegall Place, in Belfast’s central business district.
In 1975 Ulster Bank Group's involvement in hire purchase was considerably extended when we acquired the Irish interests of Lombard Bank and North Central Finance (both subsidiaries of National Westminster Bank). Meanwhile, the slogan 'the friendly bank' was adopted by our retail bank to underline our enduring commitment to great customer service.
Icon expand 1980 - 2000
The 1980s witnessed continuing progress. Technological advances allowed all the bank's branches to go online for accounting by 1983. In 1980 the 'Henri Hippo' savings scheme was launched. Its huge success raised awareness of the bank across Ireland and prompted the later introduction of further products and services for children and students.
In 1989 we launched the Ulster Bank Visa card. Later ATMs began to be provided in non-branch sites - we had the largest number in Ireland by 1995 - and we were the first bank on the island to issue the Switch debit card. Throughout the 1990s expansion of our branch network also continued, particularly in the Republic of Ireland.
Icon expand 2000 - 2005
Our earlier growth and development meant we were well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the economic boom in the Republic of Ireland – ‘the Celtic Tiger’ – from the late 1990s. We opened prestigious new head office premises in the Republic of Ireland at George's Quay, Dublin, in 1997 and in Northern Ireland at Donegall Square East, Belfast, in 2000.
Following the acquisition of National Westminster Bank by The Royal Bank of Scotland Group in 2000, we continued to operate independently within RBS. During 2001 Ulster Bank Group’s legal structure was simplified by transferring its banking business in the Republic of Ireland to Ulster Bank Ireland Limited in accordance with the Central Bank Act 1971. The following year we successfully met the challenges posed by the introduction of the euro to the Republic.
Meanwhile, although the stockbroking interests we purchased in the 1990s were disposed of, growth continued. In 2003 we acquired First Active plc, Ireland's oldest building society, which continued to operate as separate brand. In 2005 Ulster Bank’s brand was changed to adopt the RBS daisy wheel.
Icon expand 2005 - present
The global financial crisis in 2008 affected all banks, and Ulster Bank and RBS were critically exposed to the downturn. In response to the difficult market conditions, we acted quickly and decisively, putting firm plans in place to rebuild the business. In late 2009, a single brand was adopted in the Republic of Ireland as Ulster Bank and First Active merged.
We remained firmly focused on the recovery of the business and the needs of our customers throughout Ireland. In response to customers wanting a bank that fits around their lives, we launched Help for what matters in 2010. This included extended opening hours throughout the week.
We are deeply proud of our heritage in Ireland and today provide a comprehensive range of financial services to personal, small business and large corporate and institutional customers across the whole of the island.
We started issuing banknotes in 1836 and still do so today. Over the last 175 years our banknotes have served our customers well and their design and security features have become increasingly sophisticated.
To find out more about our banknotes choose a date-span:
Icon expand 1836 - 1845
Our first banknotes
Many of Ireland's early banks depended for their survival on the issue of banknotes. Ulster Banking Company’s first banknotes were issued in denominations of £1, 25s, 30s, 35s, £2, £3, £5, and £10. The notes, printed in black and white on one side only, had a common style and size and depicted the industrial strengths of Ulster – shipbuilding, the linen trade and agriculture.
Commissioned months earlier, the notes were ready and waiting to be issued on the day we were due to open for business, 1 June 1836. In the event, we opened a month later than planned, but some of the first banknotes still featured the earlier date.
We established nine branches in Ulster during our first year of business. As branches could only accept notes they had issued, the branch name had to be printed on every banknote. Rather than having different printing plates for each branch, we overprinted unissued notes from our Belfast office with individual branch names.
Each denomination had its own serial numbers and every note was signed by the chief cashier. Careful records were kept of issued and returned notes, so that duplicated serial numbers (indicating forgery) would be spotted, and lost or damaged notes could be accounted for.
Icon expand 1845 - 1920
New name, new notes
In 1845, a period of financial crisis prompted new legislation to regulate the issue of notes. Ulster Banking Company became one of only six Irish banks authorised to issue banknotes. The new law allowed notes in round pounds only, so we withdrew our 25s, 30s and 35s notes.
With more and more branches opening, we switched to using notes carrying the names of all of our branches, rather than the issuing branch only. To start with, branches were listed alphabetically, but as their numbers grew, new branches were added chronologically at the end of the list. From time to time, new printing plates were made and the alphabetical order was restored.
In 1883 we changed our name from Ulster Banking Company to Ulster Bank Ltd and issued brand new banknotes. The new note denominations, which remained unchanged until the pound coin was introduced in 1983, were £1, £5, £10, £20, £50 and £100. The original motif portraying Ulster’s industrial strengths continued to feature.
In 1920 the Banknotes (Ireland) Act ended the practice of making notes payable only at specific branches. Instead, notes could be redeemed at a bank's head office. This meant there was no need to list our branches any more, just the location of the bank's principal offices. In line with this, we issued a new series of banknotes in 1920.
Icon expand 1920 - 1930
The need for control
In 1927, the Currency Act dramatically changed note issue in the Irish Free State. The Currency Commission was established to control note issue and coins. As a result, Irish Pounds or Punts, linked to sterling, were introduced. From 1928, the Currency Commission issued legal tender notes that included a depiction of Lady Lavery as the Irish Cailin (girl). This image was to represent the Irish spirit on banknotes for the next 50 years.
Meanwhile, Ulster Bank and other note-issuing banks were admitted to the Currency Commission as Associated Banks and their right to issue individual banknotes was withdrawn. Instead, they were allowed to issue consolidated notes overprinted with individual bank names. The agricultural scene depicted in the design led to them becoming known as 'ploughman notes', although they were never legal tender.
Icon expand 1930 - 1960
Double-sided notes and a central bank
In Northern Ireland, we continued to issue our own notes after 1929, and to use up old stock of £1 notes, initially overprinting them with 'Northern Ireland Issue'. New designs were soon made for all denominations with a new serial prefixing system – another measure to combat fraud.
From 1935 we started to print our banknotes on both sides. On the reverse we introduced an engraving of our head office in Waring Street as a security device. This image was later enhanced to include rays radiating from the building. All banknotes were personally signed by the bank's chief cashier until 1956. After that our new £1 and £5 notes were printed by lithograph and the design included a signature.
Meanwhile, there were further changes to the currency system in the Irish Free State, following the publication in 1938 of a report on the Currency Commission and the state of banking in the south. The main recommendations were to establish a central bank with more powers than the existing commission and to terminate the issue of consolidated notes. The Central Bank of Ireland came into being on 1 February 1943.
Ulster Bank, with five of the Associated Banks, stopped dealing in consolidated notes on 1 March 1954. Gradually the other banks followed and circulation ceased on 31 December 1956. Since then only the Central Bank of Ireland has had the right to issue notes in the Republic of Ireland.
Icon expand 1960 - 1970
A changed design
For 130 years the overall design of Ulster Bank's own notes had remained largely unchanged, but in 1966 the notes were fully modernised. The new designs paid homage to the industries shown on the original notes, but now also featured views of Ulster landscapes - the Mourne Mountains, the new Queen Elizabeth Bridge and the Giant’s Causeway.
The reverse of the notes was updated to incorporate the coat-of-arms and motto of Ulster Bank, surrounded by the four heraldic arms of the provinces of Ireland. New security features were also incorporated to combat forgery.
Icon expand 1970 - present
Enter the euro
For many years there had been a move in the Republic to break away from the parity link with sterling. After much debate, the Republic of Ireland joined the European Monetary System in 1978.
In the late 1980s further steps were taken to create a single European Monetary Union (EMU) with countries ending individual currency issue. The Republic of Ireland, along with ten other member states, had their currencies locked to the EMU by the European Central Bank in December 1998. But it was not until January 2002 that euro notes and coins were issued as legal tender throughout the participating EU countries. The notes were issued in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 euros. The designs, which were common throughout the euro zone, symbolised the openness and co-operation of the European spirit.
In 2006 we issued our first-ever commemorative banknote, celebrating the career of the great Northern Irish footballer George Best. The demand from fans around the globe for the new £5 note was overwhelming and the limited edition of one million sold out in ten days.
Later, in 2007, we gave our designs a facelift, bringing in more modern typefaces and updating our logo to include the RBS daisy wheel branding. Today we have £150 million worth of Ulster Bank notes in circulation.
Ulster Bank is part of The Royal Bank of Scotland Group (RBS). Like Ulster Bank, RBS values its long and distinguished heritage highly and keeps a historical archive where records relating to its history are protected, used and made available to researchers.
Our archives may well be of interest if you are a family or local historian or if you are undertaking postgraduate historical research and want to explore the part we’ve played in Ireland’s story.
To find out more about the archives and heritage of Ulster Bank and its Irish constituents, visit the RBS Heritage Hub.