John Campbell: a banker under fire

Portrait of John Campbell, 1759. Image © RBS 2013

Portrait of John Campbell, 1759. Image © RBS 2013

Who: John Campbell
Job: Bank Cashier
Where: Edinburgh
When: 1745
Archive: The Royal Bank of Scotland Group Archives

John Campbell joined the staff of The Royal Bank of Scotland at its foundation in 1727, when he was in his mid-twenties. 18 years later, he became the Bank’s Cashier – equivalent to CEO today. He probably felt sure of his ability to do the job; his predecessor was in poor health, so Campbell had already been deputising for him for some time.

Things were, however, about to get interesting. It was 1745, and Campbell’s new job was destined to put him at the sharp end of that year’s Jacobite Rising.

Bonnie Prince Charlie had just sailed from exile in France to Scotland, in a bid to claim the British throne for the House of Stewart. His cause was popular in Scotland, and he soon gathered around him an army of supporters. Marching south, they arrived in Edinburgh in September 1745. Campbell became responsible for protecting his Bank amid siege conditions, with the Jacobite forces controlling the streets and the Government still holding Edinburgh Castle. This in itself would have been challenge enough, but on 1 October, the Jacobites brought events direct to Campbell’s own door. They presented a large quantity of Royal Bank notes and demanded payment for them in gold.

Campbell had to comply. Just like today, his banknotes carried a ‘promise to pay the bearer on demand…’ – but there was one problem. He had placed all of the Bank’s gold in Edinburgh Castle for safekeeping. He now had to persuade the Castle authorities to let him in to retrieve it. And before that, he had to persuade the Jacobite street sentries not to shoot him before he even got that far.

Diary kept by John Campbell, cashier of The Royal Bank of Scotland, during the 1745 Jacobite rising (Ref D1733)

A page from John Campbell’s diary, October 1745. Image © RBS 2013

Campbell’s diary, which still survives in the RBS Archives, tells of how he negotiated with both sides before heading up the Royal Mile with a party of colleagues – waving a white flag all the way – to beg access to the Castle. Once there, they withdrew a large sum of gold and tore up thousands of unissued notes. While they worked, gunfire continued outside.

Their task completed, they left the Castle and walked back down the Royal Mile, this time weighed down with gold. Once safely back in the Bank’s offices, Campbell sent word to the Jacobites that he was ready to meet their demand, and then – his diary tells us – ‘adjournd to dine at Mrs Clerk’s Vintner’. He’d earned it.

Campbell went on to serve as Cashier of the Royal Bank for another 32 years, until his death in 1777. Those years brought many changes and challenges, both for the Bank and for Scotland as a whole, but for Campbell, probably none was as eventful as the threat he faced in those first few months in the job.

John Campbell is just one of the thousands of people who’ve worked for The Royal Bank of Scotland Group over the centuries, and have left their mark in the RBS Archives. Located in Edinburgh, these archives are a rich resource, used by researchers from all over the world. An extensive website of supporting information – including much more about John Campbell – is available at www.rbs.com/heritage.

You can also find RBS Archives on Twitter @RBS_Archives and Facebook.

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