Safe Deposit Department
by Norman Monk
Not many callers at the Bank's Head Office to do banking business, purchase National Savings Certificates or Premium Bonds, or visit the House Purchase Department realised what there was on the lower floor.
Part of the basement area was a Safe Deposit containing over 10,500 safes for the use of depositors of the Bank.
The safes were of four sizes, all with a depth of about 19" (arm's length).
Before callers were allowed through the grill gates, bags etc were inspected for anything suspicious - security was most important in this department. Having been allowed in to the reception area, renters were requested to give their signatures to ensure that they were the renters of a particular safe, or their appointed representative. This being done they were escorted into the safe itself with an attendant who would release one of the two locks. The renter's personal key would then open the door of their safe.
The Bank did not ask what was deposited in the safe or taken out; the only stipulation was that nothing offensive to other safe users should be left - no liquids, explosive devices, etc.
On application to rent a safe it was a condition that you were a depositor of the Bank - in order for the annual rent to be paid by standing order. An agreement was then signed covering the above conditions.
There was an exception to a previous paragraph regarding the Bank's knowledge of the contents. When a renter died, their next-of-kin or proposed executor would be allowed to inspect and make a list of the contents for Probate purposes in the presence of a member of staff, who would ensure that all the contents were replaced in the safe. The only exception would be the original will which would be released to the named executor(s). On production of the Probate of Will or Letters of Administration the contents would be released.
On one occasion I escorted a deceased renter's relative to inspect the contents of the safe - only to find a lock of hair carefully preserved. On another occasion, the only item was a certificate of competence at midwifery. We all have our priorities as regard to valuables.
Another unusual enquiry was from two CID police officers who produced a key and requested access to the safe. They were told that access could only be authorised by the renter. I was informed the renter was in police custody and would not give such authority. Never having come across this before, I suggested they obtain a Search Warrant. On opening the safe it was found to contain a bunch of keys. The police needed this to proceed with proceedings of burglary.
Most safes were used for the safe-keeping of house deeds, stamp collections, etc. An enquiry was once made by a church warden as to the possibility of keeping the church silver in a safe. Eventually, they rented a safe and only took the contents out on the Friday before a church festival and returned them on Monday morning.
The safes were fully occupied most of the time, sometimes with a waiting list.
The rental charges were not great in the early days; it was considered a service to the citizens of Birmingham.
In the years 1970/1980 before the premises were vacated, there was considerable interest from the Asian community for the deposit of their some time considerable amount of gold jewellery.