Sir John Soane and the Bank of England’s Branch Banks, 1826-31

Tom Drysdale looks at Soane's role in the Bank of England's scheme to avert fiscal crisis in the 1820s - the creation of a series of regional sub branches.

Sir John Soane’s involvement in the Bank of England’s scheme to establish provincial branches in the late 1820s was short-lived and not of any great architectural interest. The story of the establishment of the branch banks is, however, an interesting one to tell and shines a light on some of the curiosities of commercial architecture in the Regency period and on the workings of the Soane office towards the end of the architect’s illustrious career. For local historians in particular, the branch banks are worthy of attention in the context of provincial banking and business in the localities.

The decision by the Bank of England to establish branch banks came at a time of economic crisis in Britain, a consequence of insufficient gold reserves and the inadequacies of provincial shopkeeper-bankers, which culminated in a recession in 1825-6. A special committee gave its recommendation to the Bank’s directors in January 1826 for the establishment of provincial banks in the hope that this would give the Bank more control over the circulation of paper notes. The Country Bankers Act was passed in May 1826, clearing the way for the establishment of joint-stock banks outside a 65-mile radius of London, and the branch bank initiative was given the green light.

Large commercial and manufacturing towns were targeted first by the Bank; Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool were all chosen as suitable locations for their size and industry. The failure of local banks in Gloucester gave the Committee reason to open premises there, and a petition from local businessmen led to the establishment of a branch in Swansea (below). Bristol and Leeds were also earmarked, and branches were opened in Hull, Newcastle, Norwich and Exeter in 1828. Plymouth, Portsmouth and Leicester received branch banks later, after Soane’s retirement from the Bank of England.

Plan of the Swansea branch bank (SM 56/5/10).

Plan of the Swansea branch bank (SM 56/5/10)

Soane’s work at the branch banks was dictated by three requirements: speed, security and accommodation. Rather than building new properties, the Bank purchased buildings in the localities which were then subject to alterations by Soane. Three of these premises – in Gloucester, Birmingham and Swansea – were existing banks and the rest were houses. A. T. Bolton, Curator of the Soane Museum from 1917 to 1945, wrote that ‘important as it was, [Soane’s work] was probably, architecturally, not very attractive, and… there was nothing done of much artistic interest.’ This is undoubtedly true; nevertheless the security features added by Soane are of interest (below). Iron railings, window guards and reinforced iron doors were added to each of the houses, and double-walled strong rooms with heavily-fortified doors built in the basements. A ‘book room’ for storing account ledgers was also incorporated into each of the new banks. Domestic arrangements were another important requirement, as it was resolved by the Committee that the agents of the new branch banks should each reside in the premises. It was Soane’s duty to incorporate bedrooms, bathrooms, dressing rooms, dining rooms and wine cellars into the houses, as well as rooms for the footmen and other servants.

Working drawing of a reinforced door and frame for the Hull branch (SM 56/10/8).

Working drawing of a reinforced door and frame for the Hull branch (SM 56/10/8)

The branch bank project offers a window into the mechanics of the Soane office towards the end of the architect’s career. In 1826, Soane was 73 years old and his eyesight was seriously impaired. This did not prevent him from travelling, as he did to Liverpool, Bristol and Gloucester in 1826 to survey buildings for the Bank of England. It was George Bailey, Soane’s assistant and later the first Curator of his Museum, though, who performed the majority of the legwork – surveying properties, taking plans, making drawings and dealing with correspondence on Soane’s behalf. The ideas were, of course, Soane’s, and his comments on his pupils’ drawings show that he was still very much in charge.

The story of the branch banks during Soane’s lifetime is not a particularly happy one. In August 1831 it was found that only the Manchester and Birmingham branches were making a profit. A loyalty to local bankers was probably the main cause. Other branch banks faced their own difficulties. In Newcastle, for instance, refuse and dead cats were thrown over the wall into the yard and a woman had to be employed to clear away groups of nuisance children from the front steps of the bank. The Norwich branch became the victim of a scam after discounting a quantity of forged bank notes for a customer. Meanwhile the clerks in Bristol had to contend with the disturbance of the neighbouring hospital, cholera outbreaks and the violent reform bill riots of 1831.

The majority of Soane’s branch banks were vacated within 20 years. The Exeter branch was relocated to Plymouth in 1834 while those at Gloucester, Norwich and Swansea had all been closed down by 1859. Six new buildings were designed by Soane’s successor as architect to the Bank, C. R. Cockerell, in Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Plymouth and Portsmouth, and two by his successor, P. C. Hardwick, for Hull and Leeds. Remnants of Soane’s branch banks survive in Exeter, Hull and Norwich (below), and on paper in some 350 drawings at the Soane Museum, which have been catalogued and are freely available to view online.

Old Bank of England Court, Norwich (photograph by author), 2013

Old Bank of England Court, Norwich (photograph by author), 2013

The Bank of England branch banks have been catalogued as part of ‘Money, Power and Politics’, a two-year project funded by the Pilgrim Trust which began in January 2013. Two of Soane’s other commissions for the Bank of England – New Bank Buildings, Princes Street and the National Debt Redemption Office – are in the process of being catalogued. These will be followed by Soane’s public works as Attached Architect to the Board of Works for Westminster and Whitehall, which included additions to the House of Lords, the House of Commons and the old Foreign Office as well as the new State Paper Office. The cataloguers are Tom Drysdale and Jill Lever.

Digital photographs of a large proportion of the Soane drawings have been generously funded by the Leon Levy Foundation.

Posted on 30 August 2013 in Looking at Drawings
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