What was the first bank?
A grocer deals in food, a hardware store in household items, and a banker in money. The main business of banks is to lend money and to handle money which has been deposited with them. Of course, banks today provide many more services than just these, but it all has to do with the handling of money.
Ever since man had a kind of money, it has been necessary for someone to hold it for him safely, or to lend him some when he needed it. For example, in ancient Babylon, even before coins had been invented, there were men who made a business of borrowing, lending, and holding money for other people. They might be called bankers, though they were considered moneylenders. Some of that business was in the hands of the priests in the temples, and there were laws that regulated this business. In ancient Greece, there were moneylenders, too. In Roman times, there were already large banks in existence and they carried on business with firms in widely separated parts of the Roman Empire. There were Roman laws that regulated some of the banking methods. So we might say that the first bank came into existence with the first moneylender, and that banks as such go back at least to ancient Roman times.
In medieval times the business of lending money was no longer thought of as lawful. In many places, laws were passed forbidding it. Those who did continue to lend money often had their places of business on benches in the market place. The Italian word for bench is banco, and this is where we get the word “bank.”
In England, the business of holding and lending money was chiefly in the hands of goldsmiths. These trusted craftsmen received people’s money and valuables for safekeeping and in return gave goldsmiths’ receipts. These receipts passed from hand to hand, much as bank notes did later, for people were willing to take them in payment for goods and for debts.
In 1694 a group of businessmen agreed to lend a large sum of money to the English Government in return for permission to establish the Bank of England, which today is one of the greatest financial institutions in the world.