Golden Jubilee Reminiscences by Fred Parsonage
I joined the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment on September 1st 1914 at the age of 18. I was prior to this employed in the cashier's office of Pinsent & Co, one of the largest firms of solicitors in the city - doing a large amount of Company Law work and having large Trust accounts in the office. This experience helped me tremendously in the years that followed.
I was wounded in July 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, and discharged from the Army on account of the wound in August 1917. My right hand was practically paralysed through injury to the main two nerves. I returned to Pinsent & Co but my position was held by an elderly man and because I had not the full use of my right hand, I felt that I was more or less a passenger.
I saw an advertisement in the Birmingham Mail which I answered and eventually had an interview with Mr Hilton, General Manager of the Birmingham Corporation Savings Bank and Mr Collins, the then City Treasurer. I had not asked Pinsent & Co for a reference, but produced my Army character which I had on discharge and which was "smart, intelligent and trustworthy". Mr Hilton seemed delighted with this and said it was sufficient. On the strength of his delight, I suggested the salary I had mentioned in my letter ought to be increased by 5/- (per week) but he thought we had better wait a bit.
I joined the staff of the 'Old Bank' in November 1917 as cashier. I had several new titles given to me as time passed, but happily, each new title meant a salary increase. I was of course handicapped by my hand but the treatment I was having as a Hospital Out-patient was proving beneficial.
I had not been with the 'Old Bank' many weeks when a man on the other side of the counter said to me "A pity a young man like you is not in the Army - you ought to be". I told him my position but he did not apologise and I should have gone 'over the top' again to him, only he had a Bulldog with him. I reported the incident to Mr Hilton and he wrote to the depositor but we had no reply. We did find out however that he was an ex-Army officer.
Note: we opened three nights a week if I remember correctly, Monday; Wednesday; Friday. I remember having to leave home at 6am to be at Longbridge Works of the Austin Motor Company to catch the night shift workers leaving. I used to catch a Midland Red Bus at St Martin's Church in the Bull Ring. (I probably walked from home to the Bull Ring - I forget). The workers were able to save good money in those days.
Another journey I used to make was to the Aston Chain & Hook Co Ltd at Bromford Bridge. I had to carry a rather large ledger and when I got off the tram the other side of Gravelly Hill, I walked down Wheelwright Road to the factory and when the work was completed walked back to the tram on the main road. Good exercise but would it be done today?
A not unusual remark we heard in the 'Old Bank' came from Mr Hilton: "Parsonage, there are some Coupons missing - tell the girls to look in their drawers"
I was in charge when Mr Hilton was away. The staff was mainly composed of young girls, elderly persons of both sexes, and a 'crock' like myself.
We had two Balances a year - March 31st and September 30th and without mechanical aid the work was very tough.
Armistice Day came and then the staff seemed to realize that they were only employed temporarily, but our efforts continued to provide good evidence that we were helping the 'Savings Movement'.
At the end of the War, I was responsible for preparing the details of the Birmingham Mail Prize Draw, and I well remember the evening when the Draw was made in the Town Hall. I was sitting there with the Register of Eligible Depositors on my knees and checking off. I was glad when it was all over - a lot of work was involved.
Soon after the end of the War, someone in the City suggested a procession symbolising the City's efforts in the War. The Bank had a miniature lighthouse made - about 20´ high and it was placed on a lorry. The procession went to either Cannon Hill Park or Calthorpe Park - I forget which.
Surely, no truer words have been spoken in connection with the 'Old Bank' than these: "If it had not been for the loyalty and hard work of the staff of the 'Old Bank' the new Bank could not have been brought into existence".
And so to the Birmingham Municipal Bank with all the hard work entailed in effecting the transfer of balances from the 'Old' to the 'New'.
There were many, many hours of overtime and I remember one night when we were working, hearing a voice suddenly shout "Mr Hilton, I'm putting a notice in my front window: Half bed to let - man's side!"
In 1925, Head Office was transferred to new premises in Edmund Street. The strongroom here was in a filthy basement with plenty of rats about and when one went to the strongroom; the rats could be heard scurrying away. Papers and documents in the strongroom became covered with black dust. Kirtland, the caretaker had a lovely rough-haired fox terrier and he had great sport catching the rodents. These were not ideal premises.
It was in the late 1920s that the Bank changed from bound ledgers to loose leaf and I immediately saw the possibility of cutting our expenditure and almost as important - a reduction in clerical work. My idea was to have the depositor's name and address and signature on the ledger sheet instead of using the Signature Book - a very expensive type of book - good paper and expensive binding. I put the idea to Mr Hilton in writing but he returned my note with the following on it: 'The Chairman does not agree'. The Chairman, I think was Councillor Appleby, but I had my own back two years later. Mr Hilton came to me one day and said "Fred - we have got to economise". I replied "but you don't want to". He said "what do you mean by that" and I told him he had turned down my idea that would save our costs increasing as more branches were opened. I had kept my original report to him (I knew the idea was a winner) and produced it again to him. Within a few days, my scheme was in operation. What this idea has saved the Bank in time and money is anyone's guess.
During the building of our present Head Office, there were many discussions between the senior executives of the Bank of all the pros and cons involved and I also remember going to Nottingham with Mr Hilton to see Mr Howitt (the Architect). Mr Hilton told me that Mr Howitt did not want any furniture of any sort in the Banking Hall to be taller than the counter. I asked him who was going to work over there and suggested a "Battalion of Japs". I thought I was going to be sacked!
Come the transfer to our new Head Office premises, all ledgers, documents, etc were conveyed to Broad Street from Edmund Street during the night. The staff involved had worked all day and then came back in the early evening and worked all night and all next day. We had a few policemen keeping an eye on us. This work was rather exhausting and of course, such hours would not be tolerated today. I felt really sorry for one elderly member of the staff - and expressed my feelings on the matter rather strongly. He had done the day, night, and day shift, and was in charge of Safe Deposit and when he thought he was going home at the normal time he was instructed to keep Safe Deposit open because certain people wanted to see it. He was half-asleep!
The matter of no furniture to be higher than the counter referred to previously, was very impractical and the female staff were constantly damaging their stockings. The bottom drawers of such things as index cabinets were practically on the floor but this turned out to be only part of the 'fun'. There was no 'date' holder provided and there was quite a to do before one was ordered. Several depositors wrote in about it and that helped.
We had been there only about two weeks when a strong northeasterly gale blew for some days. Head Office faces northeast and so we had the full effect of the gale in the Banking Hall. Deposit slips and Receipt forms were blown all over the place and the conditions for the staff were terrible. We were like frozen rabbits. The revolving doors were not fitted then, and all the sundry doors were just blown open by the wind - nor was there a heater over the door as now. Draughts there were in plenty. The lighting was very poor, a form of diffused lighting from above the lay lights - absolutely hopeless from a practical point of view. We had an instruction that before the staff left every pen and inkstand and all papers were to be put in drawers, and what about keys? There seemed to be hundreds of them. Each lock had a different key.
Then again, the rubber flooring along some of the corridors - being greyish in colour, used to show up the boot marks when walked upon - particularly in wet weather - and many a time the cry went around asking who was wearing such a type of boot or shoe. There used to be quite severe admonishments for making marks on the floor. Yes, things were rather difficult at times.
During the last War, nearly the whole of the staff did a fire watching duty at Head Office or a branch in addition to their other ARP fire watching and special police duties. I was on duty one night at Head Office with the fire watching party when the siren went and we made our way up to the main roof - there are several roof levels. I know I was responsible for the Air Raid Precautions, when we suddenly heard a 'swishing' sound. I said, "here they come" meaning a shower of incendiary bombs, but they did not arrive. After a minute or two, we heard the sound again and discovered it was an engine at New Street Station getting up steam.
A great deal of voluntary work was done by the staff during the special war savings weeks that were held during the last War. We had staff working in one of the rooms at Head Office and the money used to be brought in on some occasions in buckets and any other containers. The coins were mostly coppers but there were silver coins and paper money in plenty. Then again, special collecting boxes from a factory or an organisation were brought in; the staff counted the contents and kept a written record. Sir Ernest Cadbury was the National Savings Chairman in those days and he used to come in and joke and praise our efforts. I wonder how much we counted!
Then of course, to prevent us being idle we sorted rivets for aeroplanes. At first, we did this voluntarily but a Trade Union official said we should be paid for our work, and so we had some slight recompense.
Of course, there were many incidents where depositors and professional men were involved. I will just relate one. I was called down to the Safe Deposit where the Custodian was having an argument with a Birmingham solicitor. I got down there and knew the solicitor quite well. He wished, he said, to get to his client's safe. He had the key but had not a Power of Access form. He was rightly refused. I tried to placate him but he was very rude using such expressions as "I am a solicitor of the Supreme Court" etc, but it made no difference. Shortly afterwards, I was sitting in the Members' Enclosure at the County Ground and I happened to turn round and in the seat behind me was my solicitor 'friend'. We both smiled; I said "good afternoon, Mr -". He replied "good afternoon, Mr Parsonage". We are still friends.
incidents I recall in connection with Annual Balances:
One year, the 31st March occurred on a Friday and that meant that with that day being closed, Saturday morning would be a 'snorker'. To help the staff, I implored Mr Hilton to let the staff work all day Saturday, but he was an ardent Aston Villa supporter and would not agree and said I must pack up and get home at lunchtime and come in on Sunday. He knew I didn't like his decision, and to make sure I did 'pack up' he came down and 'fiddled' around me and eventually we both left the premises together. The Villa were playing at home that day, but I will say this for him, that if he had been to a match he would always come and see me on Monday morning before he went to his room. I gave him my views on the 'Blues'.
During the years we often had all night shift work at Balance time just for one night, but the staff didn't really like the idea and in the February of the year that Mr Hilton was retiring I gave him the draft Balance instructions to look through. After perusing them, he brought them to me and said "no night shift then, Fred". I said "no". I didn't think it necessary. He gave me a peculiar look but we haven't worked night shifts since.
When I look back over the years I have often said that if by any chance I ever wrote a book I don't know whether it would be a comedy or a tragedy, for we had tough times and jolly times, and also tragic moments.
With my record, many may think why I never achieved the General Managership, that is another story.
Now a very personal note:
This Jubilee Year of the Bank is a momentous occasion for me and it is of course a milestone in my life. I went to the 'Old Bank' when Depositors' Balances totalled £100,000 and when I retired as Deputy General Manager, the balances were £80,000,000.
This, I think, it will be agreed, is a unique and wonderful record and probably never been accomplished before in Savings Bank history. Also, my record includes the longest continuing service in the 'Old Bank' and the BMB, and of course can never be equalled. Yet some persons who work for a few years in National Savings get some Government Honour thrust upon them. Is it possible for the Bank Committee to sanction that my photograph be hung in the Assembly Room as some appreciation of my service to the Bank? I don't think such a proposal was put before the Committee on my retirement. Jubilee Year could be made more memorable to me and my family!
(NOTE: these recollections have been extracted from 1969 correspondence by Fred Parsonage with the then Bank's General Manager (Mr S A Guy) in relation to a possible publication to celebrate the Bank's Golden Jubilee.)