Early Days at Sparkbrook Branch
Golden Jubilee Reminiscences by Harold Carver
In 1969, the Golden Jubilee year of the Birmingham Municipal Bank, everyone associated with it, in the present or past, must feel proud of its outstanding success. The volume of business recorded over the years tells its own story, and the extension in the services and facilities now offered, shows the Bank Committee's continued endeavour to meet the needs of the present day depositor.
I have been requested in common with other old members of the staff to give my impressions of the Bank's earliest days, as I saw them when a Branch Manager from 1919 to 1922.
After the success of the temporary war-time Savings Bank, the Birmingham Corporation obtained powers under the Birmingham Corporation Act 1919, to maintain a permanent Savings Bank, and to establish a Housing Department for the purpose of making advances upon the security of freehold or leasehold estate.
The Bill received the Royal Assent on the 15th August 1919, and the Bank Committee, as Mr. Hilton, the General Manager states in his book Britain's First Municipal Savings Bank set up a record for municipal hustle, and opened on the 1st September 1919, 17 branches (5 daily, 4 on alternate days, and 8 on certain evenings).
The Committee had been cautious in selecting premises for branches; only renting or leasing them in the first instance in case their location should prove unsuitable.
I had transferred from the staff of the Birmingham Gas Department, and enthusiastically believed, as I still do, that I had gained a unique opportunity to serve in a very praiseworthy civic enterprise to provide easy savings facilities in the interest of all classes of people.
On that morning of 1st September 1919, I like other recently appointed Branch Managers set off with my assistant (Mrs Facey) in a taxi from the Head office, in the Council House, for Sparkbrook Branch, taking with us Ledger and cash books, forms, stationery and office equipment including two stools.
The Sparkbrook Branch, temporary premises, No. 163, Stratford Road, consisted of a lock-up shop, which a short time before had been an old fashioned butcher's shop. The windows had been presentably painted in pale yellow, and information regarding the Hours of Business etc, shown in black letters.
The front door had originally been in two halves, so that for the convenience of the butcher during bad weather or otherwise, the lower half could be closed and the upper half left open. Inside, the meat hooks suspended from the ceiling, and the two slabs used for the window display remained on view, as also did a small curved cash desk, up several steps in a corner (called by us the "pulpit").
The interior of the Branch had been suitably decorated, and adapted; a substantial counter fitted with cashiers' desks thereon; and a ledger desk, a safe and a small electric fire provided. Mrs Facey and I hurriedly arranged our equipment, filled ink wells and laid out forms, blotting pads, pens etc., for the use of the public - and promptly at 10 a.m. the Branch was "open for business"; but incidentally not before Mrs Facey, womanlike, had raced round the counter, counter desks etc., with a duster.
The business from the first day of opening was very encouraging. Women-folk strolled in during the course of shopping, and children looked in on their way home from school at midday. Of course, the publicity by Head Office had stimulated local interest.
We were very enthusiastic and determined to make the Branch a success. It was our Branch. We agreed, as a policy, that the interest of the depositor came first, he must be served promptly, addressed by name as noted from pass book and made to feel welcome; the counter work came second, and ledger posting third.
We were quite happy about the accommodation provided for the commencement of the venture. Opportunity was knocking, and we were eager for the fray. We appreciated how much the Bank Committee had achieved in so short a time.
The modest premises and equipment were no detriment to Savings Bank business: in fact I always believed that it made approach by the public easy. The door was always open (there was of course, no vestibule) people in the street could see us at work and walk in for a chat in a neighbourly way, and end up by opening an account. Even tram conductors began to call in to exchange bags of copper for notes.
Working class people in those days appeared to be somewhat shy about entering a Joint Stock Bank to deposit a small sum. But the Municipal Bank was the citizens' own Bank, governed by their elected representatives; and it encouraged a feeling of civic pride. We learnt of numerous cases where people had formerly secreted their savings in odd receptacles in queer places in their homes.
So far as temporary accommodation was concerned, Sparkbrook was of course no exception; other branches were similarly situated in adapted lock-up shops. The temporary premises of the Duddeston Branch however had a flavour all their own. They had formerly been the Highland Laddie public house, and the old bar-parlour and smoke-room were still there at this time. In the Small Heath area, the business of the branch was conducted for a short time in a ticket office at the Corporation Baths; while in the Saltley area "a little wooden hut" which had formerly been used as a fireman's shelter served the purpose. For other branches accommodation was found in Libraries, Institutes and Schools for the time being.
The evening hours of business, Monday and Saturday, were very popular and business was always brisk. The opening of many new accounts would sometimes slow down transactions at the counter, and with the limited public space available, cause crowding at the doorway. This was advertisement however - a crowded shop usually attracts attention.
Much of the early business of the new bank was concerned with transfers from the old bank. Of the 24,411 open accounts in the old bank, no fewer than 22,592 were ultimately transferred to accounts in the new bank, either at Head Office or branches. The clerical work involved in transferring without delay large batches of these accounts daily from the ledgers at Head Office was too much for the staff there in addition to their daily business. Branch staffs willingly co-operated, and after concluding their branch business for the day attended at Head Office during this period, and dealt with transfers destined for their own branches.
Naturally Birmingham Corporation Bank coupons, the currency of the old bank, continued to be presented; and these were accepted for deposit in the new bank, until such time as outstanding issues had been cleared.
After a few weeks, in view of the increase in business, we were given an increase in staff - Miss Marion Crawford, a junior who had had experience in the old bank. She was keen and efficient and shared the spirit of the enterprise.
We were careful to welcome children at the counter, who tendered a few pence to open an account. There was always the possibility that the parents might follow the example of their children. On one occasion a father did tell me on opening an account that he had been surprised and gratified to find that his young daughter had opened an account with a penny. He was now following her example he said but with £100 as the deposit. No doubt there were other cases unreported.
In those very early days we had no facilities for cooking. If we wanted a cup of tea at lunch time, we boiled water by putting a small kettle on the protective grill of the electric fire, laid on its back. Water we obtained from a tap in the yard at the rear. Improvisation in those days seemed to be fun - the spirit was there. Food we could get from the shop next door. An easy and quick lunch for me was so often - pork pie.
Although for sometime we did not have the telephone; I do not think that we suffered any great inconvenience. In any emergency there was a telephone at the Post Office, next door but one. If supplies of stationery were required, it seemed quite natural for one of us to call at Head Office, generally en route in the morning, and bring it on the tram to the branch. There were, of course, no cash orders; any cash required was obtained from Head Office.
As the cold weather approached, we found that the ventilation which had very properly been provided for a butcher's shop, allowed the ingress of too much fresh air for our comfort. This ventilation was by means of a narrow open grill extending near the ceiling along the whole of the shop front. To ward off colds and the risk of absence from duty, until the grill was covered up, the staff each morning on arrival took a dose of ammoniated tincture of quinine. It worked.
The ladies as depositors always impressed me with their habits of thrift, saving for something in the home, or for a deposit on a house, or for a holiday or a rainy day.
On one occasion an elderly lady said she wanted to open an account. After I had taken the lady's name and address, and obtained a specimen of her signature, I enquired how much she wished to deposit. "Turn your head away, young man" she said. I did so, and heard a faint rustle and a "click". "Here you are young man" she said with a broad grin on her face, as she handed to me a fair-sized bundle of notes, which I felt on counting to be pleasantly warm. In the spirit of the encounter I also grinned broadly as I handed her pass book to her.
Occasionally there would be a domestic flavour in a case. One man with a sense of humour said that he kept a canary and that during the course of feeding it, had hidden a spare £1 note at the bottom of the bird seed tin from time to time. But no more - his wife had taken over the feeding of his canary.
On the subject of small deposits, I recall an exceptional case where a man frequently deposited a Penny in his account at Sparkbrook, but also frequently deposited a Penny at other branches spread over a wide area for credit of his Sparkbrook account, entailing a credit advice on each such transaction. When later as opportunity offered I tactfully enquired what purpose he had in mind, he said that it proved that he was in a certain place on a particular day. When however I pointed out that there was no proof of the time of day, or that he himself, and not someone else, had produced his pass book and made the deposit, he discontinued the practice.
Miss Crawford after rendering excellent assistance was transferred by Head Office to help elsewhere. It was about this time that Norman Ling joined us as a Junior. He proved to be a most promising young man, capable and, particularly tactful. Some time later the staff was increased to four, when Miss Percy, an experienced cashier arrived. Further we had a part-time assistant for Monday and Saturday evenings - Mr. D. W. Woodcock.
The weeks seemed to pass quickly by, as we approached the time for the Annual Balance (or more correctly the first seven months) viz: 31st March 1920. A test of our accounting.
The Chairman, Councillor C. T. Appleby, and the General Manager, had early impressed upon all the staff, the necessity for accuracy and neatness in all written work.
Mrs Facey had had considerable commercial experience
before joining the staff of the old bank. Her writing and figures were excellent. We took particular pride in our ledger work and
incidentally all ruling off was done in red ink. I think that it is appropriate to mention here that when Mr. Hilton appointed me
as a Branch Manager, he told me that I should have a lady assistant. My comment was - then let it be one who has passed the "powder on the nose" stage. (How whimsical and old fashioned that sounds today, fifty years later.) Mrs Facey was a widow who had successfully brought up a family. She was a most capable and loyal assistant.
Before the 31st March we took the precaution of having an interim balance. The Annual Balance was a strenuous exercise in the limited time available, as it has been everywhere since. Capitalizing the ledger accounts, and extracting principal, interest and total. We had no comptometers or mechanical aids, but in those days most clerks were good casters. All came out well - and we congratulated ourselves.
I recall that there was considerable delay in balancing at the Duddeston Branch and sometime after the 31st March at a suggestion from Head Office, Mrs Facey and I, after our branch had closed for the day, went there, to see what we could do, having enjoyed some success elsewhere. After hours of checking, the ledgers were balanced; but by then the night was far spent. The next morning I received the following letter from Mr. Hilton, which incidentally I still retain.
I understand that you have been able to balance the books at the Duddeston Branch, and am very pleased; but I am rather upset to learn that you stayed through the night again, and that it was not until about 3 o'clock this morning that you were able to leave Duddeston.
While I appreciate very much your action upon this occasion, as upon the previous occasion, in helping Mr......... to get out of his difficulties, I do feel that you are overtaxing yourself, and that it may have bad results on your health.
I am sending this letter down by Mr. Neighbour, with the request that you will take advantage of the day, and get out in the fresh air. Mrs Facey can carry on in your absence, and Mr. Neighbour will be there as a protection.
Will you also please convey to Mrs. Facey my thanks for her assistance, which I understand was very willingly given yesterday at Duddeston until very late.
(Signed) J. P. Hilton.
April of course was a very busy month, as it has been ever since at every Office of the Bank: the influx of pass books for interest to be added, and the crediting of interest for the current year on the ledger accounts. Many pass books in those days bore eloquent testimony to regular habits of thrift. It was not uncommon to find page after page showing on every line the same weekly deposit 6d, 1/-, 2/6, 5/- or other amount. And by the way many of these steady savers, in fact the greater number, were of the fair sex.
In those days two officers were necessary for every cash transaction. "Double Check System," it was called. The counter clerk entered A/c No., name and amount on a counter sheet, and the amount in words and figures in the pass book which she initialled. The pass book was then passed to the cashier who received the cash from the depositor, initialled the pass book, and recorded A/c No. and amount in his cash book. I have often reflected since then, how much time could have been saved if deposit slips had been in use, and specimen signatures available on ledger sheets. The advantage of the present day system, where each cashier acts as an independent unit at the counter is obvious.
The Bank's House Purchase Scheme was very favourably regarded by the public from the outset; particularly in the calculation of interest on the monthly reducing balance outstanding. The desire of people to own their own homes had become popular even among the working class.
Some applicants for advances had had previous experience in buying a house; but many others with limited resources, on being invited by their landlord to purchase the house at a certain price, came to us to discuss all the aspects of the problem. The Bank's scheme would be fully explained, and attention drawn to the point that valuation for mortgage purposes would almost certainly be lower than the proposed purchase price. When in due course the applicant was advised of the Bank's offer, in certain cases, he would call to tell me that it was lower than he had expected, and that with the addition of the savings he could spare, less allowance for legal costs, he could only muster £X. What could he do? In appropriate circumstances I would suggest that he told the landlord that the most he could possibly offer was £X. Frequently the lower offer was accepted, and everyone was satisfied. Some such tenants, I believe, recommended the Bank's service to other tenants nearby. At least the number of enquiries increased.
There was a healthy competitive spirit among some of the branches, our nearest rival in the race for expansion was at Small Heath, a thickly populated area. Mr H G Wright the Manager there was very keen and capable. It was stimulating and friendly.
Mr. Ling after excellent service was transferred to another branch. His place was taken by Mr. J. W. Raftery, a quiet and somewhat reserved young man, but sound and diligent. Later Mr. Woodcock, our part-time assistant, earned promotion to the permanent staff and was likewise posted to another branch. He was succeeded by Mr. Atkinson, an accountant's clerk.
Business continued to grow - Sparkbrook appeared to be the busiest branch. The Bank Committee purchased our premises, No. 163, Stratford Road, and obtained possession of the accommodation at the rear, which eased our domestic situation somewhat. The next door premises, No. 161 Stratford Road, formerly a green grocer's shop, were also purchased.
In due course plans were prepared for the conversion of the two premises into a modern branch building. The plan was in two stages. First, structural alteration to No. 161, and later to No. 163. During reconstruction of No. 161 we continued to carry on business as usual in No. 163. The inevitable noise and disturbance of building operations next door, we bore philosophically. Were we not soon to benefit considerably?
When in due course we did take over the completed half of the new branch, we felt that our status had been much improved.
The Annual Balance, 31st March 1921, was completed without incident to the best of my recollection; but we did have the aid of a comptometer and operator. Incidentally the staff were very pleased to receive a bonus for extracting the annual balances.
The second half of the work of reconstruction was in due course completed. We now had fine and commodious premises. The design was on usual bank lines: stone front: well-proportioned windows and doors, giving a look of stability and permanence. Inside excellent equipment and fittings, strong room, and messroom etc. In comparing at the time the picture presented by the new premises with the picture of the original premises, as affectionately remembered, my thought was - Well! Well! We have travelled quite a way.
These premises, constituting the first permanent branch of the Bank, were formally opened by Mr. Neville Chamberlain, M.P., on the 25th July 1921.
About this time Miss Percy, who had rendered good service was transferred to another branch, and replaced by Miss Burton, who was likewise an experienced cashier.
Although we were now operating in imposing new premises, we took pains to preserve the friendly atmosphere we had fostered with depositors in our former modest abode. Business continued to grow.
While in this narrative we have been primarily concerned with Sparkbrook Branch, the business of the whole of the Bank, Head Office and branches, had meanwhile made astonishing progress. Mr. J. P. Hilton, the General Manager, was the inspiration and driving force in establishing and expanding the Bank. He was the architect of its success, and dedicated to the task.
Time was marching on. The Bank was well established, and the organization itself was settling down to regular routine. The days may not have seemed to be quite so eventful, but the progressive spirit of all concerned remained undimmed.
In 1922 I was promoted to a senior post at Head Office; but I have always looked back with great pleasure to those early days, and still retain a high regard for the old Sparkbrook staff, for their spirit, their unstinted efforts and their personal qualities, which helped to make a happy and successful team.