Updated on 25 March 2021
Priscilla Wakefield (1751 – 1832) was a philanthropist, writer and feminist economist who founded Britain’s first savings bank in 1798.
Born into a Quaker family in Tottenham, North London, Priscilla Wakefield (née Bell) married the merchant Edward Wakefield in January 1771. The couple soon had three children but they fell on hard times as Edward made a series of business loses. To support the family, Wakefield turned to writing in order to gain an income.
Over the course of the next 20 years she wrote 17 books. Wakefield covered a range of subjects that included natural science, feminism, and economics. She also wrote children’s literature and, inspired by the Quaker botanists, she drew several water colours.
Wakefield was one of many female English writers at the end of the 18th century who began to campaign for women to have a more broader role in society. In 1798, she published a book on feminism, Reflection on the Present Condition of the Female Sex.
The book was written in response to the economist Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, written two years earlier. In Reflection on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, Wakefield examines women’s prospects for employment in the modern world and asks, what wealth would be created by more women receiving an education?
During her writing career, Wakefield found the time to become a social activist in alleviating poverty in North London. In 1791, she founded the Lying-In Charity for Women near her home in Tottenham, to support around 120 poor women a year, during and after childbirth.
The following year, she founded the School for Industry, which was for 36 girls who were taught reading, writing and arithmetic as well as sewing and knitting.
England’s First Savings Bank
In Tottenham, 1798, Wakefield founded the Benefit Club, which provided loans to women that were much cheaper than the local pawnbrokers who exploited the poor. The club also incorporated the Children’s Bank.
In the Children’s Bank anyone could open an account on behalf of a child and make monthly payments of a penny or more. Annual interest was accrued on the deposits, thus making the Children’s Bank the first savings bank in England.
In 1804, using the model of the Benefit Club, Wakefield established the Tottenham Benefit Bank. This paid 5% annual interest of deposits of a £1 or more. The first account opened was by a 14 year-old orphan girl who deposited £2, which she had initially saved with the Benefit Club.
The Benefit Club inspired other savings banks across the country and by 1816 there were 74 in England. Today there are an estimated 250 million postal savings accounts worldwide, all of which began with the foresight of Wakefield.
In 1832, cared for by her sisters, Priscilla Wakefield died aged 81.
The green plaque was erected in 2018, on the 220th anniversary of the Benefit Club, near the North London home where she had lived.