On Broad Street, opposite the Library of Birmingham of 2013, stands a building which opened 80 years before: a grand and impressive construction that was the head office of one of Birmingham’s great civic institutions, Birmingham Municipal Bank, which although now closed, has a rich and fascinating history.
Birmingham Municipal Bank was first set up after WW1 as a savings bank for the citizens of Birmingham, by Neville Chamberlain, the Lord Mayor of the city at the time. The first head office of the bank was situated in various offices on Edmund Street, sharing space with the Water Dept.
As the bank grew over the next decade, the space became inadequate and a site for a new head office building was allocated, on Broad Street, where the first Lee Longlands furniture store had been situated. On 22nd October 1932, the foundation stone was laid, and the building was officially opened by HRH Prince George on 27th November 1933.
The building was designed by Thomas Cecil Howitt, the architect of the nearby and equally grand Baskerville House, and features an impressive Portland stone façade, intended to fit with the adjacent (now demolished) Masonic temple, and the Hall of Memory.
This columned frontage was described in a souvenir book commemorating the opening ceremony as conveying ‘a sense of security.’ The grandeur of the exterior continues inside; the triple-height banking hall is walled and paved with marble slabs, and many of the interview rooms are panelled with Ancona walnut.
In the centre of the banking hall was once a 100ft long teak-topped U-shaped counter, which has since been taken out, leaving an empty vastness far removed from the activity and interaction which would have once filled the space.
The counter is not the only original feature of the bank which has been removed or changed: according to a former BMB employee, the revolving door at the central entrance had to be put in some years after the bank opened - after a gale-force storm blew the original doors open, sending papers and documents flying around.
There are shields on the walls depicting the Egyptian signs for gold and silver, symbols for prosperity and trade, and in the front corridor there are several panels in antique glass representing Labour & Perseverance, Commerce & Integrity, Progress & Industry and Banking & Finance. The bronze central entrance door, as well as the bronze features inside the building, were said to be a testimony to the fine craftsmanship for which the city is known.
The main banking hall also features a small first-floor observation balcony, which a former bank worker recalled ‘always having one eye on,’ in case the general manager should walk past and look down for a moment. In a strict working environment, there weren’t many places staff members could chat with one another.
The machine room however, located on the ground floor, was where a previous bank employee remembered sometimes having a chance to catch up with workmates. Another particularly curious memory about the building is that of rumours of a ghostly presence on the first floor, which would apparently open the curtains every night, despite them having been closed by the caretaker at the end of the day.
The safe deposit, was, according to the aforementioned souvenir book, the largest of its type in the area and ‘designed in such a manner as to give the finest security of any known type of engineering construction.’ It originally contained 4,640 safes - a further 5,888 were later added as demand grew, utilising the previously open floor space.
The safes came in four sizes, and all had a depth of nineteen inches, which is roughly arms length. The bank did not enquire about the nature of items left in the safes; all that was stipulated was that it should not be anything dangerous to other safe users, and items found when safe owners had deceased were hugely varied and included stamp collections, a gun, diamonds and even a single lock of hair.
Despite not having functioned as such for nearly 20 years, the safe deposit is the part of the bank which remains the most unchanged since its closure, and offers an utterly fascinating look back in time.
The bank also issued home safes to its customers, which despite being originally intended for children, became very popular with people of all ages. There were several different models of the home safe over the years, and some are now available to buy online as somewhat of a collectable. A particularly charming item from a former bank worker’s collection is a 1970s plastic version of the home safe, made in the shape of a rocking horse.
In 1976, the bank became a Trustee Savings Bank, before ultimately becoming part of Lloyds TSB in 1995 when the Trustee Savings Banks were privatised. The branch was closed in 1998, having operated as a bank for over six decades, spanning over a time that saw four English monarchs and nineteen olympic games. The building’s listed status protects it from the fate met by many other city centre buildings, but since its closure, save for its occasional use as an arts space, the building has remained largely unused. In an ever-changing city, it is interesting to consider what the future might hold for this grand and historically significant building.
Written by Ally Standing - @AllyStanding