In 1931, the Bank invited architects to submit designs for a new Head Office to be built in Broad Street. The commissioning of this major project, less than 12 years after the Bank’s commencement, was initiated during the Great Depression of 1929-1932. In August 1931, Birmingham’s unemployment peaked at 76,000. Although, after 1931, unemployment in Birmingham became less of an issue as the car industry expanded, the construction of this prestigious building must have brought welcome employment in the city. This economic background must have been a factor in the new Head Offices being built to a very high standard, in a little over twelve months, and within budget.
Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, following the 1931 General Election, was the BMB’s first Chairman: Neville Chamberlain. On October 22nd 1932, Mr Chamberlain formally laid the foundation stone of the new Head Offices; he had recently returned from the British Empire Economic Conference in Ottawa. This conference, held to discuss the Great Depression, agreed to the abandonment of the gold standard; to tariffs giving preference to the members of the British Empire; and the adoption of Keynesian economic theories.
Following the formal foundation-laying ceremony, Mr Chamberlain, made a speech at a lunch held in the Council House, reflecting this economic background, as reported in the local press:
The attitude to be adopted towards the cry for economy, and the prospects of trade revival were cautiously dealt with by Mr Neville Chamberlain, Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a speech at a luncheon which followed the formal laying of the foundation-stone of the new head offices of the Birmingham Municipal Bank – in Broad-street – on Saturday.
Already, Mr Chamberlain said, the rising tide of unemployment had been arrested, and he would not be surprised if before many weeks had passed it began to set in the opposite direction.
Also there was, he thought, a more solid prospect of the beginnings of trade recovery than at any time since the present Government took office.
In these times there appeared to be a certain controversy upon the subject of savings. People were asking whether, if a man could spend, he ought not to spend in order to contribute to the employment of the people.
Since the economists disagreed he thought it would be best to disregard theories and rely upon their own commonsense.
There was a distinction between the duties in respect of savings or expenditure of public authorities and of private individuals. The more that was taken out of rates and taxes the less there would be for the private individual to spend.
He was convinced that public authorities, both national and local, had spent too much in relation to the resources of the people.
He was satisfied that for the present, both national and local authorities ought to confine themselves to essentials.
When times were hard, it was better to leave the private individual to spend money on amenities rather than to have them provided out of public funds.
For the private individual it was not easy to lay down any rule with regard to spending. It was obvious that for the individual to spend more than his income was folly.
“In my view,” Mr Chamberlain added, “every person who can afford to spend anything should do so, while at the same time striving to keep some reserve for himself and his family against times that may be even more trying than those we are suffering from today.
“Use your own commonsense and apply it to your own circumstances.”
It would be idle for him to predict that we should see the end of our troubles in the immediate future. He was certain we should still find setbacks and that there would be still further occasions when “progress would seem to be backward rather than forward.”
On the side of political achievement, he said, the result of Ottawa would not be seen all at once, but he was convinced it was going to lead ultimately to the salvation of this country, find new openings for our people, and new markets for our trade.
“I think one can already begin to discern the cumulative effects of these three great achievements of reparations, conversion and Ottawa. One can see that they are already beginning to produce results,” he continued.
“Orders are coming in today from quarters from which none has been received for a very long period, and I am told that money is being spent today extensively on advertising which for many months has not been deemed to be worth the expenditure of money.”
Mr Chamberlain laid the foundation stone of the new structure before the luncheon.
A feature of the building, the cost of which will be approximately £83,000, will be the safe deposit in the basement, which is the first of its kind to be constructed in the provinces.
The Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress (Alderman and Mrs J B Burman) and members of the Bank committee and the City Council were present at the ceremony. Opening the proceedings, the Lord Mayor, referring to Mr Chamberlain’s associations with the bank, said: “The child of his imagination has grown into a lusty youth, with prospects of further development.”
Mr T Cecil Howitt (architect) handed to Mr Chamberlain a silver trowel, and a representative of the builders, W J Whittall and Son, Ltd, presented him with a souvenir mallet with which to lay the stone. At the request of the Lord Mayor, the stone was spread with cement, it was gently lowered into place, and having given it three taps, Mr Chamberlain declared it well and truly laid.
The inscription of the stone reads:-
The first Municipal Savings Bank in Great Britain …. This stone was laid on 22 October, 1932, by the Right Hon. Neville Chamberlain, MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Chairman of the Bank, by whom the idea was originally conceived, and who was principally responsible for its initiation.”
In asking Mr Chamberlain to lay the stone, the Lord Mayor said that all would agree that the words on the stone were noble and true words.
Alderman R R Gelling, chairman of the Municipal Bank Committee, proposing a vote of thanks to Mr Chamberlain, said the building would be put up without a penny cost to the ratepayers of the city, although it was their property. It was the safeguard for the whole of the ratepayers of Birmingham, who desired to deposit their money there.
Alderman Sir Percival Bower, seconding, said he believed the Birmingham Municipal Bank to be the greatest institution of its kind in the country.
Acknowledging the vote of thanks, Mr Chamberlain declared that while the memory of the public was often short they had shown, by asking him to perform that ceremony, that though many years had elapsed since he ceased to take an active part in the management of the bank, they had not forgotten the contribution he was able to make towards bringing it into the world.
“I could not but be deeply touched,” he added, “by your permitting my name to be inscribed on that stone accompanied by such words as those. I like to think that long after I have gone, the future citizens of Birmingham will perhaps cast an eye on that stone and may reflect that I served my apprenticeship to public life in my own city and that the long connection with the administration of local affairs in which my family has engaged and which was begun by my father, in due course descended to his son.”
Naturally, on an occasion like this, Mr Chamberlain continued, his thoughts went to back to the early days of the bank, and he thought of those who shared with him the anxieties and labours which attended its birth and the joys and success that followed.
Mr Chamberlain referred to Mr J P Hilton, the present manager of the bank; to Alderman Lovsey, who “went with me into so many factory yards and whose persuasive eloquence wheedled the savings out of the more responsible munition workers”; to the late Mr Eldred Hallas and the late Councillor Appleby, who succeeded him (Mr Chamberlain) as chairman of the bank.
“I am proud to think that in Birmingham we can always find fresh hands and hearts to take the place of those who are gone.”
In later years, the bank had experienced harder times, but there will still be those who showed an equal care, industry and readiness, sacrificing their time and leisure to maintain the bank’s wonderful reputation. Every time he came back, he found the bank bigger and stronger and commanding greater support.
To-day the bank had reached a landmark in its history. The foundation stone had just been laid of a building which was not only going to provide increased necessary accommodation but which, by its dignity and beauty, and by the place it could occupy in the civic centre of the city, would be a monument worthy of a great and beneficent institution.
“Long may the bank prosper! Long may it continue to grow in the confidence and affection of the people of Birmingham!” he concluded.