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038 

All by Hand!

 

Recollections of the Annual Balance at Selly Park Branch in 1951 by Norman Worwood

 

With many labour-intensive procedures, the separate processes are simple, but what becomes important is the successful co-ordination and combination of these processes leading to the final, grand conclusion. So it was with the 31st March Annual Balance at any typical small 'hand-branch', that is to say a branch where there were often fewer accounts and therefore staff, and even less mechanical aids.

 

My own first experience of such a situation was in 1951 at Selly Park Branch. Members of staff: just two. There was the Manager, one Horace Williams, a real gentleman to whom I later owed a debt of gratitude for his excellent tuition, guidance and advice; and myself, with only a little over two years of Bank experience, this being wholly as a relief clerk/cashier until being posted permanently to Selly Park Branch, and now faced with the task of single-handedly helping the manager with a hopefully fault-free Annual Balance.

 

My initial encounter with Mr Williams (as I respectfully addressed him) had not been all that good. I had discovered that he was the organiser of the Bank's cricket team and foolishly remarked that I had enjoyed playing the game at school. He leaped at this chance of a new recruit and within days I found myself facing the rather fast bowler of a rival Corporation department's team at the sports ground at Pebble Mill. It was not to be for long. I remember smiting the fourth ball (or was it the third?) towards the boundary, not for a moment contemplating the risk that it was an easy catch. So …. out for a duck in my debut game. Horace never asked me again. Things could only get better, I decided.

 

As with all branches, whether 'hand' or 'machine', the ledgers were balanced at intervals throughout the whole of the financial year in order to ensure the continuing accuracy and integrity of the depositors' accounts. These intermediate balances of the ledgers ensured that if errors had been made in the 'posting' of transactions and had been missing in the checking process, only a limited amount of back-checking (i.e. to the date of the previous balance) was necessary in order to find the offending mistake.

 

At a hand-branch, entries to the ledger sheets were made in black or red ink (at that period the recently-invented Biro ballpoint pens were forbidden) and balancing the ledgers required that the capital sum held by each depositor be 'extracted' and totalled to agree with the theoretical 'control' balance of the ledger. At this point, the entire mechanical capacity of the Selly Park Branch was brought into play --- with the aid of a No. 36 tramcar, that is. We needed an adding-machine and as we did not have one of our own, I was despatched to the Stirchley Branch, about a mile away, where their manager had permanent custody of a shared Burroughs, no-frills, heavy, handle-operated machine. It was expected that we would retain it for no longer than three or four days, during which time we would have extracted the balances of around seven ledgers (if my memory is correct). When travelling on trams, instead of my usual transport (a bicycle), I always sat on the upper deck, but nursing an adding-machine on my lap meant sitting on the lower deck, amid the curious stares of the other passengers. The ledgers were duly 'taken out', as they called it, and unlike my cricket, Horace seemed pleased with the results and the machine was repeatedly returned on time.

 

With the 31st March fast approaching, all branches endeavoured to keep their ledgers free of error and the final interim balance before the Great Day was especially important. Indeed, it was done as late as possible, yet not so late that it might jeopardise the preparations for the Balance itself, for as well as pre-listing the account numbers on to the printed sheets for the eventual addition of depositors' balances, in a hand-branch an extra task known as 'double-ruling' of ledgers had to be instituted --- not too early, as it had to be strictly maintained thereafter until the actual Balance and thus became an additional chore during the daily 'posting' of transactions, but not so late as to make it an unnecessary worry. As can be seen, timing of these tasks was of critical importance and there was much comparison between branch managers when speaking on the telephone. ("How's the double-ruling going, Jack? You've finished?" Large gulp, 'phone hastily replaced. Dash into staff area to announce that XYZ Branch have finished their double-ruling. "We might need to stay over for a couple of hours this afternoon if we don't push on hard enough during the day"). Double-ruling was in fact merely an advance time-saving device and involved the totalling of all subsequent deposits (by its very nature a withdrawal had a necessarily new total), then the scribing of a line leaving one space below each capital balance of the ledger, so that the amount in the interest column of each individual account could be brought across and added to the capital without hindrance, when the time came. As no annual interest for the current financial year could be earned on deposits after the 1st March, only net withdrawals altered the interest on an account and even this would not be alterable on account balances shown at the 30th. The transfer of interest to the capital column could therefore happen immediately after the closure of the branch on the 29th March and throughout the 30th, until all interest had been capitalised. The simple, prior act of constantly renewing totals and of drawing, and maintaining, a line beforehand had thus made the whole process of capitalising the interest infinitely more efficient at the very time when speed was essential, a fact recognised and carried out without exception by all hand branches.
Overtime work was necessary (and this was the only time of year when any payment for it was permitted) for all these extra tasks and commenced several days prior to the 31st March, usually getting progressively later until it became as late as 10pm immediately prior to Balance day. On the 31st itself, work would commence at 8am and finish at 10pm or even later. Head Office issued guidance to all branches as to the maximum hours that could be worked and it was a welcome relief if occasionally the overtime finished earlier than expected, due to progress having been better than anticipated. For those at the lower end of the salary scales, however, this concession was not always appreciated, for a new suit or dress may have been in the offing if overtime pay was sufficient. There was often a great camaraderie too, all of which helped the staff to work through the extra hours without complaint. Upon serving the final customer on the last working day before the 31st March, when all branches would be closed for the whole of that day, the main aim was to have the cashiers balance their cash, the ledger postings completed, and all payments for the Clearing Department at Head Office placed into a suspense account. Immediately, capitalisation of interest would be continued if not already complete and extraction of the new capital amounts on to the special sheets, which had been pre-numbered with the account numbers by the branch staff, could now begin in earnest.

Often, on the 31st March extra staff would be brought in from Head Office administration departments to help branches where ledger amounts had to be extracted by hand on to the official, final lists of depositors’ balances. After these had been finally extracted and balanced with the control figures and after the completion of a large sheaf of final branch accounts, the manager or a suitable deputy would be taking the Annual Balance returns into Head Office and there was always some unofficial competition between them as to who was the first to get there. With the smallest branches, such as Selly Park, ledgers and paper work had been taken into Head Office and the extraction work and balancing done there, using their additional accounting facilities. Although not the first to make his presentation, in 1951 Horace Williams was at least able to report that his Balance had gone without a hitch. I could only hope that he did not feel the need to discuss cricket.

 

…. and on the morning after the Balance, long queues of depositors would expect their interest to be available for entry into their passbooks! …. which it invariably was. Meanwhile, all available staff were engaged in writing against each new capital balance a figure of interest representing interest for the ensuing twelve months, all of which would have to be checked (a system which is explained fully elsewhere in this site). Overtime work continued to be necessary for several days in order to do this.

 

With the passing of the years and the post-War privations of the 1950s left behind, the housewives’ old Victorian cast-iron mangles with wooden rollers were replaced by light mangles with rubber rollers, then by electric dryers and then washer/dryers. Similarly, the Bank’s dearth of adding machines was suitably addressed and not only were more machine purchased so that no branch had to share, but they were of lighter, superior quality and later still were operated by mains electricity instead of mechanically. Eventually, even the system was changed and the ledger sheets were substituted by cards. Although entries were still made by hand and relied for accuracy on the skill of the persons posting and checking, the extraction of depositors’ balances at the 31st March could be made by machine, obviating the laborious use of pen and ink.

 

For me, there would be more balances at both hand and machine branches, in different roles, before transferring to the machine-branch which ended my time in the branch network. It is worthy of note that the whole process of achieving a successful Annual Balance at all branches was the result of the overall excellence of the arithmetical and organisational ability of the entire BMB staff. Without exception, it was a feat everyone could be proud of. Perhaps at a hand-branch, though, there was a little less certainty and thus a little more thrill about it?

 
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