Broad Street Revisited
by David Parkes
On Friday, October 23rd 1998, the Birmingham Municipal Bank's former Head Office in Broad Street (then a branch of Lloyds TSB) permanently closed its doors to customers for the first time since its opening by HRH The Prince George on November 27th 1933. In 2006, this Grade II listed building was sold back to its original owner, when Birmingham City Council purchased it for a sum reported to be over £3 million. The property has outline planning consent for leisure purposes as part of the overall outline consent granted for the Arena Central (*) scheme. However, the current (2009) economic situation has placed these plans on hold. The choice of October 23rd as the date of closure almost 'celebrated' an anniversary - the building's foundation stone was laid by Neville Chamberlain on October 22nd 1932.
The iconic Broad Street building was the Bank's Head Office from 1933 until the cessation of the Birmingham Municipal Trustee Savings Bank on November 20th 1979. It then became the site for the Regional Office of the TSB of Birmingham & the Midlands, until this administration function was transferred to an office block in Sheldon, Birmingham, in 1985. The Broad Street building then underwent substantial alteration and refurbishment in order to incorporate the facilities required for an Area Office (ie the control of a group of branches). The closure of the building followed the merger of TSB with Lloyds Bank in 1995.
My relationship with Head Office began in 1959 when I spent the first year of my BMB career working in Broad Street. After a spell in the branch network, I returned to work there in 1967, and only left when the Bank's Administration moved to Sheldon. Not having visited Broad Street since that day in 1985, I was anxious to view the interior of the building in order to be able to describe its original layout accurately on this website, and to ascertain its current state.
Obtaining permission to gain access to Broad Street proved to be a long process, with written requests to the City Council ignored. Eventually, arrangements were made following an approach by Gill and Mike Price to their local councillor. Thus, on one of the coldest days of the winter (January 5th 2009) the building was opened to four visitors. In the case of three ex-BMB employees (Gill Price; Jeanette Parkes; and myself) this was Broad Street revisited; we were accompanied by Mike Price.
Over a period of 1½-hours, we were given free access to explore at our own pace. If the Council had chosen to utilise the Health & Safety excuse to bar visitors, it would have been fully justified. There were no heat, light, water, or working toilet facilities in the building - we found that its virtual lack of use over the last ten years had resulted in it having become a cold, dark, and sad building now.
We were able to wander through most of the building's four main floors. There were a few locked doors, but it was possible to see all the major features. I had not seen the alterations that were made in 1985 that created an Area Office, although Gill was familiar with them from her days working in the Safe Deposit. In essence, the 1985 alterations had created small offices within the old House Purchase, Accounts, and Current Accounts Departments.
There seemed to be a profusion of new toilets, staff rooms, catering facilities, and electrical cabling, scattered all over the building. Although the 1985 alterations must have modernised, and possibly given back the building some of its original grandeur, many of the alterations were unsympathetic, and in its present ramshackle condition, it was depressing to see. The abundance of litter, the feeling of neglect, with even some mindless graffiti, and the general air of abandonment, combined to present a sorry picture. There had obviously been some water ingress in one area of the Ground Floor; apparently, a glass roof was broken when the adjacent, old Masonic Temple was demolished in 2008.
Without the availability of artificial light, we were only able to explore major sections of the building with the use of torches. The torches were essential, of course, in the basement level of strongrooms and the Safe Deposit. Access to the basement level was possible via the stairs in the south corridor that give direct entry to the secure area, and by one of the stairwells into the Safe Deposit zone. The Safe Deposit's interior was accessible, but it looked as though there had been a robbery. Many of the individual safes had their doors ajar, and there was broken glass on the floors that had come from the frieze lighting units. The number tag that designated the safe with the highest number (10,528) had been removed - presumably as a souvenir. It was very sad to see this once magnificent facility in such a dilapidated condition.
On the same level, the cash strongroom door was locked shut, but the corridor surrounding the Safe Deposit was accessible. The muniment storage rooms, and the safe that had once contained the deeds relating to properties for which the Bank had provided mortgages, had been emptied of everything except that the original shelving and deed containers were still there. In one of the muniment rooms though, there were what looked like the original lanterns that had been removed from the Banking Hall, and a couple of 'Municipal Bank' metallic signs - one of the few remnants of the building's early history.
The former Stationery Department, which during its working life was filled with shelves that stocked the vast array of forms etc that were used by the Bank, was now unfurnished and empty. The adjoining loading bay and garage were similarly vacant. Door number 12, connecting the Stationery Department with the north side of the basement level, no longer had affixed the plaque commemorating the staff's work during World War II, when parts that were vital to aircraft production were inspected here.
Fortunately, the building's listed status has probably ensured the future protection of some of its original features on the Ground Floor. In the entrance corridor, the four windows of antique glass (that depict Labour & Perseverance; Commerce & Integrity; Industry & Progress; Banking & Finance) are still in situ. High on the walls of the Banking Hall, the shields that depict the Egyptian signs for Gold & Silver; Plenty or Prosperity; and Trade or Commerce, remain; together with the Bank's 'Key' symbol and Birmingham Corporation's Coat of Arms.
The counter has been removed from the Banking Hall (and was in pieces in one of the stairwells); leaving just a bare, open space. A new floor has been overlaid over the original, and apparently, this space has been used by opera and ballet companies during the last ten years. In fact, there was evidence of this, such as hand-written signs on some of the doors and corridors: 'stage entrance' etc. The original clock was still in its place, suspended from the ceiling, but the ceiling skylights have been covered over. In the gloom, this once magnificent space had an abject appearance.
The room that originally housed the building's telephone exchange was not accessible; this space overlooking the building's loggia is now occupied by a Lloyds TSB Automated Teller Machine.
The four offices in the 'General Manager's suite' on the First Floor still looked quite grand - partly because there was quite good natural light in them, and partly because the lack of furniture gave a feeling of spaciousness. Vegetation growing on that side of the building, however, has been allowed to grow against some of the windows. On the north corridor of the First Floor, we took advantage of the opportunity to stand on the small balcony overlooking the Banking Hall, as the doors that provide access to the balcony were open. As these doors had always been kept locked during the building's operational years, this was an opportunity not to be missed. Of course, the portraits of the BMB's chairmen, that originally hung in the First Floor's north corridor, were gone - presumably removed in 1985.
In the room at the back of the old Accounts Department, evidence of the room's conversion in the 1970s to accommodate computer apparatus remained - including some of the original equipment cabinets, switchgear, and air conditioning units. Off the narrow south corridor connecting the Accounts' area to the General Manager's corridor, in the small room next to the lift on this side of the building, was the original lift motor; another door that would have always been locked in the building's working years.
On the top floor, I had never seen the caretaker's flat before, and did not realise how small it was. The corridor connecting the flat entrance and the old kitchen area was barred by a locked door, requiring us to go via the floor below in order to reach the kitchen. The original kitchen that supplied the staff meals for so many years has been gutted, but the doorway to the servery brought back pleasant memories of queuing to choose the main course for lunch.
The Assembly Room has been shortened at both ends by the creation of offices and other small rooms, thus ruining the original proportions of this magnificent area. As with the portraits of the Bank's former chairmen, the 1985 alterations must have been the occasion for the removal from the Assembly Room of a number of mementoes of the BMB: portraits of General Managers; the boards listing the successes of employees in banking examinations; the memorial plaque to staff killed in the Second World War. The Assembly Room's original superb floor is now in a ruinous state.
Two rooms on this floor had originally been panelled beautifully with Ancona Walnut: a small library and the Boardroom used for meetings of the Bank's Committee of Management. The library's panelling has been removed, but it still exists in the Committee Boardroom, though the barrel-vaulted ceiling has been covered up. As with the Assembly Room, the alterations that were made in 1985 may have provided more practical use of the space (in the case of the boardroom, conversion to a training/lecture room) but they have ruined the architect's original work. The clock in the boardroom has gone, leaving an ugly hole in the panelling.
Although revisiting Broad Street was a somewhat depressing experience, particularly seeing such a splendid facility as the Safe Deposit not being available for use, it was a useful visit to refresh my memory on various aspects of the building, and brought back many pleasant memories of the years worked in a wonderfully designed environment.
Photographs relating to this Memory are reproduced in four separate pages of the Images section: