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The Bank of England Branch Banks, 1826-1831 (353)

The Bank of England Branch Banks

Sir John Soane served as architect and surveyor to the Bank of England for 45 years from 1788, during which time he completed 'the most important commission of his life' (Colvin, op. cit., p. 962), the rebuilding of the Bank of England. Less well known is that, as part of this role, between 1826 and 1831 he was also responsible for making alterations and additions to the 11 properties to be used as branch banks. Soane's branch buildings were short-lived, and the majority do not survive. The drawings in Sir John Soane's Museum, therefore, provide the most important and extensive visual record of the original branch banks, which were among the architect's final work for the Bank of England before his retirement in 1833. Consequently the drawings also offer an important insight into the workings of the Soane office towards the end of his career, when greater responsibility was delegated to his long-time assistant, George Bailey.

Britain in the 1820s was suffering a severe financial crisis owing to insufficient gold reserves and the inability of provincial shopkeeper-bankers to meet the demand for cash. In 1825 this culminated in a recession as 37 note-issuing banks failed while a further 22 (and some non-issuing banks) followed in the early part of 1826. A Committee was thus appointed by the Bank of England's Court of Directors in January 1826 to discuss 'how far it may be practicable to establish branch banks' (quoted in Acres, op. cit., p.427). The idea had, in fact, been proposed around the turn of the century, but nothing had come of it then (Roberts, op. cit.). On 13 January 1826, however, the Committee announced its recommendation for the establishment of branch banks as 'it would increase the circulation of bank notes, give the Bank much more complete control over the whole paper circulation, and protect the Bank against the competition of large banking companies' (Acres, op. cit., p. 427). The recommendation was endorsed by the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, on 28 January, and the passing of the Country Bankers Act - a bill that lifted restrictions on joint-stock banking outside a 65-mile radius of London - on 26 May 1826 paved the way for the branch bank scheme to commence.

The first places for branches to be established, it was suggested by the Committee, should be 'large commercial and manufacturing towns, embracing also the surrounding agricultural interests' (quoted in Roberts, op. cit.). Enquiries were made and it was decided that Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester would all be suitable locations, while a branch would also be welcome at Gloucester due to the failure of local banks. The decision to open a branch in Swansea, meanwhile, 'followed immediately upon the petitions of influential business people in the locality' (Roberts, op. cit.). Bristol and Leeds were also chosen as suitable locations, and to these were added Hull, Newcastle, Norwich and Exeter in 1827. Subsequently, branches were established at Plymouth, Portsmouth and Leicester, but these all post-dated Soane's employment by the Bank.
The need for speed in establishing the branch banks was paramount, and as such the majority of the premises acquired by the Bank in the localities were subjected to only minor alterations before opening for business. Most of the buildings bought by the Bank were houses, although those at Gloucester, Birmingham and Swansea were existing banks. Soane's work, as A. T. Bolton writes, 'important as it was, was probably, architecturally, not very attractive, and... there was nothing done of much artistic interest' (Bolton, op. cit., p. 298). The ceiling of the branch bank at Manchester (q.v. drawings 17-21) is perhaps the only decorative feature of note among the whole set of existing drawings. Nevertheless, they remain a useful source for highlighting some of the peculiarities of bank architecture in the early nineteenth century.

Security at the branch banks was an obvious priority, and for this reason Soane added iron railings, window guards and reinforced iron doors to the newly-acquired premises. Acres describes the security features of the former Exeter branch bank as he found it in 1930:

'The inside of the front door is protected by a sheet of steel; two heavy iron bars, which were fixed across the door at night-time, stand upright in a recess at the side of the door; and the fanlight above the door is heavily barred. From the front room on the ground floor, which was probably the Banking Hall, two doorways opened into a room behind, and the window of this back room [the agent's room] is provided with an iron shutter, concealed in the sill of the window, which could be raised or lowered in a similar manner to the safety curtain of a theatre. The basement is also protected by iron-lined doors with iron bars for fixing across them' (op. cit., p. 82).

The basements of each of the branch banks were indeed heavily protected, for the reason that this is where the strong room was usually built. In addition to having fortified doors, the treasure vaults were usually double-walled. Good examples of Soane's security measures are the strong doors at Hull (drawing 6) and Manchester (drawing 34) and the strong room at Norwich (drawing 75). To each bank was also added a 'book room', a small room often adjoining the agent's office and perhaps used for the secure storage of the banks' account ledgers.

Another requirement was that domestic arrangements should be made for the branch bank agents, who the Committee stated should 'reside in the Banking House' (quoted in Acres, op. cit., p. 429). As well as bedrooms, bathrooms and dressing rooms for the inhabitants, this included service areas, wine cellars and lodgings for servants and footmen - entertaining guests must have been an important aspect of branch bank business. The model of having an agent and a sub-agent at each of the branch banks was adopted from the Bank of Ireland. It was resolved that the agents 'should be persons of commercial knowledge with local experience who were not engaged in other business, that they should give security for at least £10,000, and should receive a percentage of the net profits in addition to their salaries' (Acres, op. cit., p. 428). It was later decided that, in addition, the agents should own property to the value of £20,000, that sub-agents should give security for £5,000 and that their respective salaries should not exceed more than £1,000 and £500 (Acres, op. cit., p. 429). They were to be joined at each branch bank by a principal, a deputy and a small number of clerks which varied according to the size of the bank.

By 1826, the 73-year-old John Soane's eyesight had begun to be seriously impaired, and as a result of this it appears that George Bailey, Soane's pupil since 1806, then assistant (and subsequently the first curator of the Soane Museum), performed much of the survey and executive work for the branch banks (Stroud, op. cit., p. 168; Bolton, op. cit., p. 298). Entries in the Soane office Day Books record Bailey leaving for Birmingham on 10 August 1826 before travelling to Swansea on the 17th, 'taking plans of Burrows Lodge & Eaton & Gibbins' premises' on the 19th, and arriving back in London on 22 August. Less than a fortnight later, on 4 September, Bailey was 'at Bristol taking plans', and at the end of the month he spent five days in Liverpool and Manchester surveying the premises there. Bailey's survey visits continued over the course of the next three years; that is not to say, however, that Soane did not travel at all during the same period. In December 1826 he surveyed and valued the premises in Liverpool before they were purchased by the Bank, and the following April, Soane made the journey to Bristol and Gloucester to visit the branch banks there (as recorded in his notebooks), reporting back to the Bank Directors on 1 May. There are also several instances of Soane commenting on drawings for the branch banks made by his pupils - for example, his observation on a drawing for the Manchester branch that 'I think this alteration will be found extremely inconvenient' (q.v. drawing 61), or on the 'Estimate of the Repairs' at Swansea that 'this alteration if practicable will not give the accommodation required' (q.v. drawing 18).

The hand of four of Soane's pupils is evident in the branch bank drawings. As well as Bailey, drawings were made by David Mocatta (1806-82, pupil 1821-27), Stephen Burchell (1806-?, pupil 1823-28), C. J. Richardson (1809-71, pupil and assistant 1824-37) and David Paton (1801-82, assistant 1829-30). Many of the initial survey drawings of premises being considered for branch banks were contributed by local surveyors. This is most evident in the case of Norwich, where an advertisement was published in a local paper as part of the search for suitable premises (Acres, op. cit., p. 91). Further drawings were made by the clerks of works at the various branch banks, whose duties included regularly communicating with the architect with regards to progress, asking for instructions, checking the quality of the works carried out and the materials used, and reporting to the architect any problems that might arise on site. Soane appears to have relied on a select number of individuals to act as his clerks of the works at the branch banks, including Thomas Champion (Swansea), Joseph Pepper (Birmingham and Gloucester) and Thomas Heath (Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle and Norwich).

The branch bank agents, it seems, also had a hand in the process of acquiring and altering the premises bought by the Bank of England. Mr John Parry Wilkins, the agent at Swansea, accompanied George Bailey in his search for suitable premises in August 1826. A letter from Thomas Champion to Bailey dated 20 November 1826 reveals that 'Mr Wilkins wish to have a chees [sic] house built in the stable yard.' (This request was seemingly ignored). Elsewhere, a drawing of the Manchester branch bank shows a 'water closet / put up by Mr MacGregor's [the agent's] order' (drawing 39). At Bristol, too, it was at the request of the sub-agent, Robert Morris, that some of the windows of the neighbouring hospital were stopped up to remedy the 'great inconvenience' caused by 'St. Peter's Hospital, which includes many lunatic patients, being separated by a court of only about 6 feet wide from the back part of the Branch Bank' (quoted in Acres, op. cit., p. 433).

The branch banks were beset with problems from the start. A review in August 1831 found that only the Manchester and Birmingham branches were operating at a profit sufficient to cover their expenses, whereas Exeter, Bristol, Swansea and Gloucester were all struggling. Acres attributes this lack of success to a general preference for local bankers, as well as the inexperience of the agents and the inconvenient situation of some of the premises (Acres, op. cit., p. 565). Individual issues also added to the branch banks' woes. At Newcastle, for instance, dead cats and refuse were thrown over the wall into the yard and a woman had to be employed at 1 shilling a week to drive away troublesome children from the doorstep. The clerks at Bristol not only faced the threat of cholera and disturbance from the neighbouring hospital, but of violent riots during the Reform Bill protests in 1831 as well. Meanwhile the Norwich branch lost a considerable sum of money after discounting a large number of what were later found out to be forged bills.

Nevertheless, the majority of the branch banks survived until the mid-1990s, although the businesses had long since vacated the premises altered by Soane. The branch at Exeter closed and was relocated to Plymouth in 1834, to be followed by the closure of the branches at Gloucester (1849), Norwich (1852) and Swansea (1859). Others of the branches fared better, though, and new premises designed by Soane's successor at the Bank of England, C. R. Cockerell (1788-1863), were built in Newcastle, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol between 1837 and 1847, and by P. C. Hardwick at Hull (1856) and Leeds (1864). None of Soane's branch banks survive in their original state. A. T. Bolton suggests that Soane's work was only ever supposed to be temporary, the Bank's governors desiring speed and aware that a new, younger architect would be more appropriate for any new building work (Bolton, op. cit., p. 298).

The branch bank drawings are arranged here in alphabetical order by city. There are also in Sir John Soane's Museum two drawings for chimneypieces that were designed for other premises but subsequently marked as being suitable for the branch banks at Liverpool and Bristol (SM 81/2/55 and 56, catalogued among the drawings for the Bank of England). The Bank of England Archive also has material related to Soane's work at the Bank of England, including Minute Books of the Committee of Building, 1803-38, and online articles relating to each of the branch banks. Besides the drawings catalogued here, there is substantial material relating to the branch banks in the Museum's archive, including surveys of and correspondence regarding the various buildings under consideration. For more information about this material, please contact the Archivist, Sue Palmer, spalmer@soane.org.uk.

W. Marston Acres, 'The Bank's Branches', The Old Lady, June 1926; A. T. Bolton, 'Bank of England: Branch Banks, 1826', The Old Lady, Sept. 1926; W. Marston Acres, 'Closed branches of the Bank of England', The Old Lady: 'I. Exeter', Sept. 1930, 'II. Gloucester', Dec. 1930, 'III. Norwich', June 1931, 'IV. Swansea', Sept. 1931; W. Marston Acres, The Bank of England from Within, Vol. II, 1931; R. O. Roberts, 'Financial crisis and the Swansea 'Branch Bank' of England, 1826', National Library of Wales Journal, Vol. XI/I, 1959; G. Kentfield, 'Crisis', The Old Lady, Sept. 2001; D. Abramson, Building the Bank of England, 2005; H. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, 2008.

Tom Drysdale, May 2013
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