The Ulster Bank Group, is a leading provider of financial services throughout Northern Ireland (UK) and the Republic of Ireland, with 267 branches and over 790 ATMs. It also includes the First Active Institution which has branches in the Republic of Ireland and Guernsey, and offers financial services in the rest of the United Kingdom.
In common with the other Big Four banks of Northern Ireland, Ulster Bank retains the right to issue its own banknotes. These are pound sterling notes and equal in value to Bank of England notes, and should not be confused with banknotes of the former Irish pound.
Ulster Bank's current notes all share the same design of a view of Belfast harbour flanked by landscape views; the design of the reverse is dominated by the bank's coats-of-arms. The principal difference between the denominations is their colour and size. Most recent notes incorporate the NatWest chevron, as previously used by the Ulster Bank however, the most recent issue of the 10 and 20 pound note incorporates their new logo, which is based on that of the Royal Bank of Scotland
In November 2006 Ulster Bank issued its first commemorative banknote - an issue of one million £5 notes commemorating the first anniversary of the death of Northern Irish footballer, George Best. This was the first Ulster Bank banknote to incorporate their new logo, similar to the logo of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, and the entire issue was taken by collectors within hours of becoming available in bank branches.
The story of Ulster Bank began with a meeting called by local men of business at the Royal Hotel, Belfast, Ireland, in February 1836. At that time Belfast had a population of 60,000 and was a growing port with a prosperous linen trade. The stage coach journey to Dublin, where most of Ireland’s existing banks were based, took a full twelve hours. The men that met at the Royal Hotel believed Belfast needed more local financial services, and within weeks had issued an ambitious prospectus for the new bank. Sufficient capital was quickly subscribed and Ulster Banking Co opened for business for the first time in Waring Street on 1 July 1836.
The bank was managed by two directors, local merchants Robert Grimshaw and John Heron, and was administered following the pattern of the Scottish banks – Scotland was widely respected for the stability of its growing banking system. From the outset Ulster Banking Co issued its own banknotes and determined to open branches ‘in the principal trading towns throughout Ulster.’ Within a year it had eight branches – at Antrim, Armagh, Ballymoney, Cootehill, Downpatrick, Lurgan, Portadown and Enniskillen - and had appointed correspondent banks in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Dublin and the United States of America.
During the 1840s and 1850s the infant bank survived various monetary crises and established 11 more branches in Ulster. Many of its customers were engaged in the booming Ulster linen trade and the bank prospered despite the effects of the devastating Great Famine. In 1860 Ulster Banking Co. opened prestigious new head office premises in Waring Street, as well as its first branches outside Ulster, at Sligo and Ardee. A big change of direction came in April 1862, when the bank stole a march on its Belfast rivals by opening a branch at College Green in Dublin. Previously the bank had relied on its Dublin bankers, Bank of Ireland, but free to set its own interest rates in Dublin through the medium of a branch bank it was better placed to protect and expand its business.
The growing bank was clearly in confident mood. Over the next 12 years it opened 24 more branches. The rapid growth of the bank prompted the adoption of limited liability, as Ulster Bank Ltd, in September 1883 – a move that increased the number of its shareholders and better protected their interests. The Dublin business had proved profitable and further branches were opened in the city in Baggot Street in 1876 and in Camden Street in 1888. In 1891 the bank’s splendid premises at 32-33 College Green were opened, built to the designs of architect Sir Thomas Drew. Ulster Bank also began to push out from Dublin into the south, establishing branches during the first few years of the new century in Wexford, Dún Laoghaire, Cork, Waterford and Limerick.
By the outbreak of the First World War, Ulster Bank was in an extremely competitive position. Measured in terms of its branches, deposits, assets and profitability it was out performing its rivals and continued to open new branches throughout the war. Nonetheless the war years were difficult with the bank required to provide gold to the government and to handle war loan issues. Staff shortages, caused by many of its officials serving in the forces also presented problems, prompting the bank to employ women for the 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, prompted Ulster Bank to seek amalgamation with London County and Westminster Bank – one of London’s largest banks. The formalities of the merger were quickly agreed. Ulster Bank retained the same name and continued to be run independently by an advisory committee in Belfast. A local newspaper reported that: ‘Great development of trade and manufacture are confidently predicted after the war and with the strength and influence of this great company behind it, the Ulster Bank will be in a better position than ever to meet the requirements of commercial and industrial enterprise’.
In the event the post-war boom was short-lived and more difficulties lay ahead for Ulster Bank. The troubles attendant upon the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, and related bank boycotts and raids caused problems, but eventually the political settlement of 1925 ushered in a period of greater stability. From the late 1920s Ulster Bank began to develop new products and services and departments. A foreign department was established in 1926, thrift deposit accounts offered to small savers in 1928 and executor and trustee services provided from 1933. However, Ulster Bank’s growth was constrained after 1929 - by the effects of the world depression and the collapse of the Belfast linen and shipbuilding industries - and it was not until the 1950s that its business really took off.
During the Second World War Ulster Bank was again subject to government controls. Many staff enlisted and a number of Belfast branches were extensively damaged during air raids. The bank was also drawn into handling clothing coupons, national savings certificates and transactions for US troops in Belfast. As prosperity replaced austerity in the postwar years, Ulster Bank expanded, pioneering personal loans in Ireland in 1958 and opening Northern Ireland’s first drive-in bank at Finaghy in 1961.
In 1961 the management and capital of Ulster Bank was reorganised and a new board with clearly defined functions and powers was appointed. During the 1960s many branches were renovated and new ones opened, particularly in the expanding residential suburbs of Belfast and Dublin. In 1968 Ulster Bank became the first bank in Northern Ireland and the South to introduce cash dispensers and also opened pioneering airport branches with extended opening hours. During these years Ulster Bank also entered a number of entirely new fields. These included unit trust management - with the creation of Ulster Unit Trust Management Ltd in 1963; hire purchase - with the launch of Ulster Merchant Finance Ltd and Ulster Merchant Finance (Dublin) Ltd in 1967; and factoring - with the establishment of Portland Group Factors (Ireland) Ltd in 1968.
In 1968, Ulster Bank’s owner since 1917, Westminster Bank, joined with another high street giant, National Provincial Bank, to create National Westminster Bank - launched as an integrated brand on 1 January 1970, the fifth largest bank in the world. The new bank’s forward-looking three-arrowheads brand mark was immediately adopted by Ulster Bank. The change in ownership ushered in a period of development for the bank and in 1969 Ulster Bank’s profits exceeded £1 million for the first time. In 1970 the bank’s management structure was re-organised to devolve authority to a regional level and establish the posts of chief executive and non-executive chairman. In 1974 more suitable accommodation was found for the bank’s enlarged and restructured head office operation in modern premises in Donegall Place, at the heart of Belfast.
During the 1970s the bank was inevitably affected by the troubles. Many branches were damaged by bombs - 55 in 1971 alone - and staff faced challenges in their day-to-day work. Nonetheless the bank diversified into computer services and investment and offshore banking and introduced its first mobile units in rural areas. In 1975 the group’s involvement in hire purchase was considerably extended when it acquired the Irish interests of Lombard Bank and North Central Finance (both subsidiaries of National Westminster Bank). These businesses were combined with Ulster Merchant Finance to create Lombard & Ulster Banking Ltd in Northern Ireland and Lombard & Ulster Banking Ireland Ltd in the Republic. Meanwhile, the slogan ‘the friendly bank’ was adopted by the retail bank to underline its commitment to good customer service.
The 1980s witnessed continuing progress. Technological advances allowed all the bank’s branches to go online for accounting by 1983. In 1980 the enduring ‘Henri Hippo’ marketing campaign was launched with the issue of Hippo savings boxes and raised awareness of the bank across Ireland. Its success prompted the later introduction of the Henri Super Saver and Teenscene services for children, as well as a range of student products. In 1989 the bank launched the Ulster Bank Visa card. Later ATMs began to be provided in non-branch sites. In 1995 Ulster Bank had had the largest number of ATMs in Ireland - and became the first bank in Northern Ireland to issue the Switch debit card. In the early 1990s expansion of branch network continued, particularly in the Republic.
Prestigious new head office premises were opened in the Republic 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 - the largest take-over in United Kingdom banking history - Ulster Bank has continued to operate independently within the new group. During 2001 Ulster Bank Group simplified its legal structure by transferring its banking business in the Republic of Ireland to Ulster Bank Ireland Limited in accordance with the Central Bank Act 1971. Meanwhile, although stockbroking interests acquired by Ulster Bank in the 1990s were disposed of, growth has continued. In 2003 First Active plc, Ireland’s oldest building society, was acquired.
On 24 October 2005 Ulster Bank dropped the National Westminster Bank chevron logo it had used since 1970, and switched to using the RBS symbol, with the RBS logo type replaced by the words "Ulster Bank" in the same font.
Today Ulster Bank Group is the third largest bank in the Republic of Ireland and provides a comprehensive range of financial services to personal, small business and large corporate and institutional customers across the whole of the island of Ireland – its success firmly rooted in its long and distinguished heritage.
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