Why Was The World's First Cash Machine In Enfield?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 14 months ago

Last Updated 13 April 2023

Why Was The World's First Cash Machine In Enfield?
The bank manager of Barclays on Enfield High Street tries out the world's first cash machine with Reg Varney (in the golf cap). Image courtesy of Barclays

"We're not sure why Reg was used but he was a big name at that time," admits a spokesperson from Barclays.

"And a Barclays customer," she adds.

Reg Varney — the Canning Town-born comedian and star of Beggar My Neigbour — seems an odd choice to introduce the world to the concept of instant cash. He'd soon come to be known as that dolly bird-ogling perv of a bus driver Stan Butler in the iffy sitcom On The Buses, a role later brilliantly spoofed by Harry Enfield. He was hardly the most far-sighted celebrity London had to offer.  

A three-storey building, the lower floor is beige while upper floors are terra-cotta. The Barclays name is on the lower storey
The historic site today. Image Matt Brown

Still, on 27 June 1967, a small crowd formed outside a branch of a Barclays bank, where Varney — dressed in cardigan, slacks, shiny tie and golfing hat — was about to feed a paper cheque (these pre-dated the plastic card) into a strange machine in order to take out the maximum amount allowed... £10.

Here was another strange thing: that bank was on Enfield High Street.

The US wouldn't unveil its first ATM for another two years (they'd obviously prioritised putting a man on the moon) and the same went for the Australians (their Chubb cash machines didn't instantly hand back the card — it was posted to you). Here was a chance for the Brits to give their technological nous a twirl, so surely it'd have been better to demonstrate the cash machine in Leicester Square, with, say, Michael Caine or Elizabeth Taylor punching in their four digits?

It turns out Barclays had its reasons. For the location, at least.

The bank with two cash machines, one gold
© Historic England Archive

"Enfield was chosen as it had a model cross-section community, was fairly self-contained and had sufficiently high enough windows and enough space inside for the safe," Barclays tell us.

Quite what's meant by 'model cross-section community' and why that's important for a cash machine, isn't clear. The 'windows' logic seems feasible, even though there must be banks all over London with high ones.

Truth is, the bank probably didn't want too many people fiddling with their latest toy — not before it had been properly tested out. And it's easier to sweep something under the carpet if it's in Enfield, rather than the West End.

Members of the public strain to catch a glimpse of the new fangled cash machine

That would explain the other relatively low-key venues for the first cash points. Enfield's machine may have been the first, but it was one of six prototypes; the others rolled out later that year were in Hove, Ipswich, Luton, Peterborough and Southend. They were, of course, a roaring success. In 1969 there were 34 cash machines within a 15-mile radius of Marble Arch announced for installation, and today there are three million cash points across the world. The irony, of course, is that fewer people are now taking out banknotes, and soon, cash machines could be relics of the past.

The grand red brick bank building
© Historic England Archive

It's almost fantastical that something so universal should have started in Enfield; it's tantamount to Paul Daniels launching the internet in Penge. A small plaque, installed in 2010, marks the spot where the event that would change the world took place almost 50 years ago. The terse legend reads:

The world's first cash machine was installed here on 27 June 1967. Lives made much easier.

A blue plaque saying that the world's first cash machine was installed in the Enfield branch of Barclays Bank
A plaque commemorates the location of the now-vanished cash machine (no mention of Reg, though). Image Matt Brown.

Update: since we first wrote this piece in 2016, there have been a couple of developments.

In 2017 — 50 years since the landmark occasion — one of the cash machines ( a newer one, of course — the original is long gone) was painted gold, and given its own plaque. Then, in April 2023, the Victorian bank building itself, dating back to 1897, was awarded Grade II listed status. A beaut in its own right, we like to think the heritage status also had something to do with Reg and that cash machine.

A gold cash machine
© Historic England Archive

Finally, Londonist's sagacious Facebook community has alerted us to the fact Reg Varney was actually living in Enfield at the time, meaning his appearance makes a LOT more sense to us now. Although we can't help but think Barclays could've flashed the cash to convince someone a little bit cooler to honour the occasion.