This article was first published in the Birmingham Mail.
Carl Chinn kindly forwarded it to us to share on here!
Neville Chamberlain is a much maligned prime minister. For many Britons, he was a well-meaning but weak leader whose lack of strength both allowed and encouraged the aggression of Hitler. Denigrated as an appeaser, Chamberlain was also damned as a man guilty of failing to prepare the United Kingdom for war.
Dispirited and dejected by stunning German victories in Denmark and Norway in April 1940, he resigned as Prime Minister on 10 May - the same day that Belgium and Holland were invaded by the enemy. An honourable and patriotic man who put duty above self, Chamberlain stayed on in the War Cabinet. Stricken by bowel cancer, he resigned from office in September. He refused all honours and lived and died a simple citizen. In a world dominated by wicked men, Neville Chamberlain was a virtuous man who sadly died on November 9.
Six days later he was cremated in London and a memorial service was held for him in St Martin's, the parish church of Birmingham. By contrast to the dismally negative verdict of him by his political enemies, large numbers of Brummies regarded him more positively.
Chamberlain was praised by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Wilfred Martineau, as one of the city's 'most distinguished sons' and as a man who 'had a passionate desire for the betterment of the health and living conditions of the people'. Dr Barnes, the Bishop of Birmingham, emphasised Chamberlain's 'brief but valiant effort for peace', and added movingly that though he did not succeed he 'failed greatly'.
Support for the man who was a Freeman of the city, was as obvious in the ‘Birmingham Weekly Post’. Its editor stressed that Chamberlain's 'supreme effort for peace' at Munich had been 'acclaimed by the whole nation, and not least by those who have since, in the light of events, been bitterest in the denunciation of the man who instigated it.' Crucially, he had bought the nation 'twelve months' reprieve, during which the United Kingdom became 'better prepared to wage war'.
The people of Birmingham had good cause to praise Neville Chamberlain, for he was the inspiration for and instigator of a unique bank – the Birmingham Municipal Bank. As Lord Mayor of the city in 1915, he was walking across Chamberlain Place when he later recalled that ‘the thought of a need of a bank, backed by the municipality, flashed across my mind’.
It was the second year of the Great War, and the Government needed money desperately to prosecute a total war. Striving to draw in funds, it made constant appeals for funds via bonds and other means. Chamberlain felt these were unsatisfactory, especially with regard to encouraging working-class savers. He believed that ‘the real problem is to how to make a man save who hasn’t saved before’.
Not one to let a good idea remain unrealised, Chamberlain set to work. Although a Conservative he was steeped in the Birmingham tradition of co-operation and consultation, and he quickly sought the local trade union leaders. They included Councillor John Beard, head of the Workers Union, and Councillors Joseph Gregory and Eldred Halls of the Amalgamated Society of Gas, Municipal and General Workers. All of them responded enthusiastically.
Chamberlain then sought the support of councillors, chief of whom was Councillor C. T. Appleby, a chartered accountant. Together they drafted a scheme which was looked at by Sir William Schoolings and leading bankers and financial experts.
After taking into account their suggestions, Neville Chamberlain put the plan to the City's Finance Committee and on April 4, 1916 it was backed by the full Council. There was still a major hurdle to overcome, as Parliament had to approve the initiative. It failed to do so, giving way to pressure from bankers worried about opposition. Chamberlain was undeterred contacting the top bankers, he persuaded them to withdraw their obstruction and on August 23, 1916 the Municipal Savings Banks (War Loan Investment) Act was passed.
Over the next few weeks, an intense publicity campaign urged Birmingham's workers to join the bank. Neville Chamberlain and a variety of councillors, aldermen and other prominent people held more than 1,000 meetings in factories, workshops, offices and club rooms. This was because savings were made through workplaces via coupons paid as part wages or purchased from employers.
Then On September 29, 1916 the Birmingham Corporation Savings Bank opened the doors at its first premises - a basement in the service-laying section of the council's Water Department. The counter was only five yards long and behind it was a screen which portioned off a little office. It was small beginning for what was to become a great bank.
Workers flocked to join. By the end of 1917, the bank had 30,000 depositors who had collected over £500,000 – 80% of which was loaned to the Government. However, according to the Act the Bank had to be wound up within three months of the end of the war.
From the first Chamberlain had been determined that this problem would be overcome. During the publicity campaign he had declared that if the bank ‘is really shown to meet a need, not all the bankers in Lombard St. will prevent its becoming a permanent part of the municipal undertaking’. He was proven right.
In 1919 the Savings Bank Committee reported on the ‘remarkable stability of the accounts opened by the early depositors’. This feature made plain that ‘the desire to save is not a passing fancy, but the expression of a powerful instinct which will continue to act so long as the people are provided with the facilities suited to their habits and considerations.’
Sustained by such findings, Chamberlain and his supporters pressed for the Birmingham Corporation Act of July 1919 which allowed the city to open a permanent facility. The new Birmingham Municipal Bank opened on September 1 that year. It was a resounding success and within a year it boasted over 40,000 open accounts.
By 1927 this figure had expanded greatly to a quarter of a million, a figure encouraged by the opening of branches in working-class neighbourhoods and in large factories and schools. With its motto of ‘Security with Interest’ and symbol of a large key facing downwards, the Birmingham Municipal Bank was indeed the people’s ban – but just as Birmingham’s citizens expected their Lord Mayor to represent them by wearing regalia befitting the status of such an office so too did they expect their branch to have a headquarters befitting such a proud municipal enterprise.
A site was chosen on Broad Street in the area that had been designated for the Civic Centre Scheme. Across the way was the Hall of Memory, opened in 1925, and next door was the Masonic Temple, opened two years later.
The premises of Lee Longlands were cleared to make way for the new headquarters of the Municipal Bank. This company specialised in high-quality and distinctive furnishing, much of it made by hand in their own workshops, and had been set up in 1902 by Robert Lee and George Longland. With the demolition of their buildings, the second generation of the families oversaw the move further along Broad Street into a superb new art-deco style showroom with offices.
It was opened in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression. With unemployment rising inexorably and hard times stalking the land, Robert and Herbert Lee and Gilbert Longland took a brave decision to invest such large sums of money not only in their impressive building but also in pioneering ranges of furniture, some of which was imported from abroad. Thankfully it paid off and Lee Longlands continues to thrive on Broad Street. Managed by Robert Lee, the fourth generation of his family involved in the prestigious business, the company now boasts eight stores and outlets.
As for the headquarters of the Birmingham Municipal Bank, they were designed by Thomas Cecil Howitt, who went on to be chosen as the architect for the Civic Centre that is best-known as Baskerville House. They were opened His Royal Highness, the Prince George, on November 27, 1933.
The building continued to act as headquarters replaced by the Birmingham Municipal Trustee Savings Bank until 1976 when the Birmingham Municipal Bank ceased to be and became the Birmingham Municipal TSB. This change had come about because of national policies and not as a result of a desire locally.
Birmingham Council continued to appoint the trustees until three years later when the bank amalgamated with others in the region to form the TSB of Birmingham and the Midlands. A special relationship was ended. Further mergers followed and in 1995 the TSB Bank merged with the Birmingham-founded Lloyds to form Lloyds TSB.