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 datespan or view our history booklet.
Win a copy of The Ulster Bank Story
We’ve 4 copies of The Ulster Bank Story by Lyn Gallagher to give away. The book covers the history of Ulster Bank from 1836 - 1998.
For more information visit our competition terms & conditions page.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.