Object 23: Bank founder's portrait, c.1810

Portrait of Forrest Alexander, founder of Commercial Bank of Scotland, c.1810

Portrait of Forrest Alexander, founder of Commercial Bank of Scotland, c.1810

Although banks brought huge economic benefits to 18th century Scotland, by the early 1800s there were still large parts of the economy that they were serving badly, if at all. Banks did not like dealing with strangers, or with people whose financial needs were unusual or unfamiliar. Although motivated by prudence, their caution had the effect of stifling the open and fair conduct of business. A radical change was needed, and it came in the form of Forrest Alexander and the bank he started. 

The story of Forrest Alexander's important role in banking history began the day his own bank let him down. He was a successful Edinburgh businessman, a self-made man who had risen from poverty to become well known and respected in commercial circles. But one day in 1808 he asked his bank to discount some bills of exchange for him - common business at that time - and got a nasty surprise. The bank refused.

Alexander was furious. He decided there and then that in future, he wanted to work with a bank that was in tune with its business and commercial customers; that understood their needs and commitments, and would support them through thick and thin. When he realised that no such bank existed, he made another decision. He resolved to start his own.

Alexander and his allies started planning to create a new, different bank

Commercial Bank £1 note, 1913

He asked around among fellow businessmen, and found that plenty shared his frustration. Many felt that the banks were more interested in serving private wealth, and found the specific needs of business customers rather inconvenient. Alexander and his allies started planning to create a new, different bank. They worked in secret, so that the existing banks would not hear about it and squash the enterprise, but by 1810 they were ready to launch the Commercial Banking Company of Scotland.

The new bank was formed with a larger board of directors than the existing banks, and most of them came from the business sector, so they could well understand the needs of their business customers. To prevent the bank from being unfairly diverted towards the interests of a few over-powerful people, measures were taken to encourage a very broad share ownership.

Alexander's bank went on to become one of the largest in Scotland, with a long and admirable history. Its staff remained justly proud of their bank's founders, and this portrait is one of the bank's treasured set of 16 silhouettes of the first generation of Commercial Bank men. After Commercial Bank became part of The Royal Bank of Scotland in 1969, they came into this bank's care. Today, this silhouette still reminds us of the great difference one man can make - whether he be a disgruntled customer, an entrepreneur, a banker, or all three.