Sunny Offs

It begins with the usual touch of drama, a ship unloading, a BR van speeding through London until it is ushered through Grandma’s back door by the majestic porter in top hat and long fawn coat who usually deals with Rolls-Royces; then we have little wooden cases slipping down rollers, a hatchet lifted – crack, and in each case there glints a couple of gold ingots. We admire the gold, we admire the basement stacked high with stuff, we even swallow the narrator’s saliva; but then the film begins. It shows us the Bank glinting in the sunlight, dedicated crowds pouring over London Bridge, Mr Cobbold smiling at Mr Jacobsson, committees meeting, directors in session, Mr Cobbold communing silently with Mr Mynors, hordes of perky girls managing the national debt, hordes of knobbly boys playing hockey, pink-coated waiters, the nightly guard, and a world thrilling to the news of an unchanged Bank rate. But 35 minutes is much too long.

‘Each time one thinks that the film is at last dropping off,’ added in July 1960 the New Statesman’s weary but observant critic of the new colour film about itself that the Bank had commissioned as part of its deliberate opening up following the Bank Rate Tribunal and all that, ‘it jerks up again, remembering the weather-vane, or the bust of Governor Norman, or the George Washington share-certificate which we haven’t seen yet, eager to show us one more picture of a Comet or a supermarket and hint once again that all the affluence is Grandma’s own work.’

A documentary film-maker had plenty of activities to choose from. On any fairly typical working day during the quarter-century or so after the war, these might have involved (in no particular order): monitoring sterling’s performance on the foreign exchange market and dealing as required; examining the macro-economic problems of one of the larger Latin American countries; resolving knotty problems to do with contravention of the exchange control regulations; managing the national debt; ‘passing transfers’, that is, updating the ledgers kept as registrar of government stocks; calculating dividends for holders of government stocks; storing and moving around the gold held in the vaults on behalf of government and other central banks; examining, destroying and issuing banknotes; ‘posting’ and ‘pricking’ (in other words, stamping and checking) the Bank Note Registers; training central bankers from overseas; producing balance of payments estimates; borrowing in the money market to meet the government’s need for short-term funds; acting as banker not only to the government, but also to commercial banks, discount houses, accepting houses, other central banks and some private customers; implementing the government’s monetary policy through operating in the money and gilt-edged markets; executing customers’ orders for the purchase and sale of foreign currency and gold; providing special certification facilities for jobbers in the gilt-edged market; enabling discount houses to discount bills or borrow; operating in gold, foreign exchange and foreign securities on behalf of the Treasury’s Exchange Equalisation Account; and, often on a deceptively informal basis, attempting to keep an eye on the rest of the City. Each day – as no film-maker could ignore – ended with the Bank Picquet, mounting guard through the night over the Bank, the officer in charge favoured with a suite of rooms, where he was served dinner with claret and port.

The total size of the concern remained broadly constant over the quarter of a century. In 1949 there were 8,263 staff, of whom just over 7,000 were in the offices and the rest were at the Printing Works; by the end of the 1960s, after a decade or so of significant mechanisation in the offices, the aggregate figure was around 7,400, of whom almost 2,000 were at the Printing Works.1 They were all part of the living but sometimes slumbering organism that was the Bank – and that was still, in many ways, a world of its own.

During these years the most customer-facing part of the Bank’s work was through acting as the government’s agent in administering exchange control – or, in Stephen Fay’s apt words once exchange control was a memory, ‘monitoring the export of money from Britain’. By 1950 as many as 1,600 staff were involved in the work, and two years later one of the Bank’s non-executive directors, Hugh Kindersley of Lazards, wrote a lengthy letter to an executive director, Harry Siepmann, expressing concern about the way in which ‘City houses and their industrial clients’ found themselves ‘frustrated by the eternal delays which they meet once they have crossed the threshold of the Bank’. The implications, he believed, were serious:

The technicalities and difficulties faced by the Bank are not appreciated nor understood so that inevitably faith in the Bank as the leader and parent of the City becomes progressively shaken. In other words I believe the reputation of the Bank is at stake and unless something can be done to improve matters and to put things on to a more businesslike footing, also to guide the City as to what is or is not wanted of it, the great regard in which the Bank has been held will gradually diminish and it will come to be looked on as just another Government Department with wheels that turn just as slowly as any other Department. In other words the result of nationalisation as foretold by many in the early days …

Siepmann countered with a robust set-piece defence. After noting that 80 per cent of all letters were answered within eight days of receipt, and 50 per cent of forms dealt with within twenty-four hours, as well as observing that the Bank was left with ‘all the difficult cases’ after the routine ones had been delegated to authorised dealers, he went on:

When one considers how arbitrary and tyrannous, how intrusive and impertinent, the foreign exchange control is bound to seem to those who suffer from it, the surprising thing, to my mind, is that we are not more hated and execrated. Partly this may be due to the fact that in some domains we are financially ineffective, i.e. that personal suffering can often be prevented by evasive action. But I believe it is also due to our having realised at the Bank from the very start, that what you do matters, very often, less than how you do it. Dilatory we may be, where we have not the authority to be prompt and decisive; but if you were to tell me that we are inconsiderate, tactless, rude, or even pert, and that we take sides with the Sheriff of Nottingham rather than with Robin Hood, I should feel deeply hurt …

Through the rest of the decade the work declined somewhat, and staff numbers with it, so that exchange control even became known as ‘the Bank’s withered arm’; but the sterling crisis of 1961 then gave renewed importance to exchange control, and by 1969 (when almost 500 staff worked there) governor O’Brien was describing it to the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries (SCNI) as ‘a regrettable necessity’: ‘We have it still because we have to have it. If we were to achieve such a change in our affairs that we achieved the strength which some countries not very far away have achieved since the war, we, like them, no doubt, would no longer have exchange control.’

The work itself could undeniably be difficult, requiring a mixture of experience, knowledge and judgement. Around the time O’Brien gave evidence, the chief of Establishments, Ken Andrews, recorded that in October 1968 the superintendents ‘working as signatories in the Exchange Control’ had requested extra payment (discontinued in 1964) on the grounds of their ‘special position’; and that the governors had consented, on the basis of ‘the creation of goodwill towards the Bank in a field which is potentially a source of conflict and dissatisfaction and the small proportion of decisions on Exchange Control questions which, in practice, have to be submitted to administrative staff for decision’. Exchange control itself was abolished in 1979, and many years later an old Bank hand, Eddie George, would recall that it had been administered ‘in a flexible, sensible way’, with ‘on the whole remarkably little challenge as to why we are not being allowed to do this and he’s being allowed to do that’. The last man in charge – at which point there were more than 200,000 live case files in London alone, quite apart from those being dealt with by the Bank’s agents – was the eminently pragmatic Douglas Dawkins. ‘If the control was to be acceptable, those who administered the rules also had themselves to be accessible,’ he wrote shortly after abolition. ‘Over the years, controllers at all levels gave countless interviews and answered countless telephone enquiries. For a controller, face to face contact with an applicant was a salutary experience. Nothing concentrated the mind on the shortcomings of a rule quite like a well-aimed attack on it from an irate applicant across the table. Nothing, on the other hand, boosted confidence quite like a successful defence of the rule and the collapse of the irate party (not that it always happened that way). Most interviews in fact proceeded in a relaxed and friendly fashion …’

From across a huge range of possible areas (‘foreign trade, greenfield investment, take-overs, investment in securities, oil, insurance, shipping, diamonds, films, bloodstock, commodity trading, merchanting, documentary credits, factoring, Euro-bond issues, roll-over credits, cheque cards, bureaux de change, trust law’, as listed by Dawkins), a specific if minor example is illuminating and perhaps representative. At some point after leaving the Bank in 1962 and returning to academia, Roger Alford was approached by a postgraduate student, ‘very worried and carrying a letter he had just received from the Bank threatening him with dire penalties for breaking the Exchange Control Regulations’:

He was Swiss, and he had noticed that in London large, crown-sized, continental silver coins of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century were not popular with British collectors and were considerably cheaper here than they were on the continent. To help pay for his stay at the LSE he began a small arbitrage business, buying such coins, taking them back with him to Switzerland and selling them at a profit. He then remitted these funds to his account in the UK and I think that it must have been at this point that he broke the Exchange Control Regulations by not declaring his foreign currency earnings. I suggested to him the commonsense solution: that he should write a contrite, even grovelling, letter to the Bank explaining that he was only a Swiss student who knew nothing of these regulations, and was deeply sorry for breaking them inadvertently. He should go on to ask if the Bank would be kind enough to tell him exactly what he should do to rectify his position because he was anxious to be on the right side of the law. I explained that the Exchange Control experts in the Bank would enjoy exercising their deep understanding of their own intricate regulations in telling him what he should do. In due course he received a letter back which in a kindly way told him how to put everything right.

The crux was a necessary degree of flexibility. ‘Real life stubbornly refused to limit its variety to that provided for in the body of rules as it existed at any one time,’ reflected Dawkins. ‘As a result, there was a constant need for review and adjustment which was often a ticklish matter since exchange control in its maturity was represented by an intricate network of rules, each supporting, dependent on or derived by analogy from one or more other rules. The art in devising a new rule, or in introducing a relaxation for that matter, was to ensure that the whole corpus remained more or less in equilibrium and that one did not create intolerable anomalies or internal contradictions.’ ‘Devotees of the old game of spillikins,’ he added, ‘will recognise the problem.’2

The note issue remained of course the Bank’s most visible responsibility. ‘This new fiver is not a beautiful thing,’ commented Punch in March 1957 about the predominantly bluish £5 note that now replaced the old and larger white fiver. ‘It is rather like a Victorian sampler as seen in a nightmare by the Council of Industrial Design. Amorphous panels sprawl on both sides, vaguely suggesting lacework, commemorative masonry, wallpaper and the covers of old-fashioned exercise books. There is Britannia (decapitated), St George and the Dragon, a loveable old lion mauling a key on a chain, and the magic signature “L. K. O’Brien.”’ Not everyone would agree. One historian of banknote design, John Keyworth, has called Stephen Gooden’s note ‘a powerful, confident design exhibiting extraordinary draughtsmanship’; but such was its curtailed size that, as a letter to the press pointed out in 1959, Lear’s owl and pussycat would have found ‘difficulty in wrapping honey, money or anything else in it’. Either way, its reception was mild compared to that in March 1960 for the new £1 note – the Bank’s first note to bear the likeness of a reigning monarch. Outspoken critics included (in a rare show of unanimity) Harold Wilson and Osbert Lancaster, while according to the Daily Telegraph’s art critic, Terence Mullaly, ‘severe without being stately’ was ‘not the Queen we know’. The unfortunate artist-designer was Robert Austin. ‘He had no previous experience of bank-note design,’ ruefully recorded O’Brien (who as chief cashier was ultimately responsible for the new note), ‘and found himself severely constrained by the experts in the Bank of England printing works intent upon incorporating every anti-forgery feature they could think of. The result was a note of far from distinguished appearance which lived to haunt me for many years.’

In 1963, on the new blue £5 note designed by Reynolds Stone, a more acceptable likeness of the monarch appeared; but most attention focused on the surprisingly young and even racy Britannia on the back, prompting the Bankers’ Magazine to reflect that ‘we can get used to anything’. A pause ensued, during which the Bank turned to the fine artist Harry Eccleston as its full-time banknote designer. The upshot was the Series D notes: the Bank’s first fully pictorial banknotes, featuring the Queen on one side and notable historical figures on the other – William Shakespeare (£20), the Duke of Wellington (£5), Florence Nightingale (£10), Isaac Newton (£1) and Christopher Wren (£50), issued in that order between 1970 and 1981. Artistically the series was a triumph, but the significantly smaller size of the new £1 note issued in February 1978 prompted the president of the Royal Academy, Sir Hugh Casson, to comment that ‘it looks cheap, feels cheap and is cheap’.3 As for the gender aspect of Series D – four men, one woman – that for the moment was the dog that failed to bark.

From 1956 the banknotes were produced at the new, purpose-built Printing Works at Debden. The old works at St Luke’s in Old Street had become increasingly beset by capacity and other problems; while the choice of Debden in Essex – a London County Council out-county estate rapidly filling up with young families of Londoners leaving rundown housing in Bethnal Green and elsewhere in the East End – was influenced partly by its greenfield potential, partly by the fact that many of the printers already lived in the north-east London area. ‘Compared to St Luke’s, it seemed a paradise, with the outlook on open country,’ observed a former non-executive director, Arthur Whitworth, following a visit to Debden shortly after the move had been made in June 1956, though graciously adding that ‘the grim and grimy St Luke’s served its purpose’. The huge main production hall, designed by the leading architect Sir Howard Robertson, had no central roof support, enabling uninterrupted use to be made of its whole area. ‘At first sight,’ explained the Old Lady, ‘the interior appears to the spectator to be enormous, which indeed it is, though he may be a little surprised to learn that the areas provided under this roof are not very much greater than the corresponding ones at St Luke’s. The clear space, however, makes it possible to arrange the machines more economically.’

Around the time of the move from St Luke’s, the decision was taken also to transfer from the Cashier’s Department to Debden the task of inspecting, checking and destroying used notes – deeply repetitive and boring work for which the Bank had found it increasingly difficult to recruit female clerical staff whom it regarded as sufficiently well qualified. The Paid Note Building opened at Debden in 1961, with facilities enabling a reduction in the number of examiners needed. ‘You seem to have a splendid body of women there,’ declared Colonel Lancaster to the governor in July 1969 after he and the rest of the SCNI had visited the Debden complex. ‘A lot of them look to me the epitome of honesty … Your system seems such a perfectly splendid one that it did not look as though there was any chance anyhow of getting away with anything. I tried very hard myself and found I could not.’ Security at the Printing Works was undeniably stringent, but of course it was always, as O’Brien said in reply, ‘a matter of judgement as to what is enough’. Moreover, he went on: ‘The Committee will have noticed from walking round, I expect, that the control corridors which might be manned by hundreds and hundreds of people certainly are not. There is an exercise in psychology there.’4

Throughout these years, the most populous part of the Bank, excluding the Printing Works, was the Accountant’s Department, home of the Stock side, where the already considerable attritional daily workload expanded greatly as a result of the Labour government’s nationalisation programme soon after the war. Between the wars it had largely been based in Finsbury Circus; but even before the nationalisation programme fully unfolded it was clear that extra accommodation was needed, leading to the move in 1948 of some offices to the West End’s Regent Arcade House, quickly nicknamed ‘Spiv House’. In 1951 the decision was taken to purchase a substantial bomb site just to the east of St Paul’s, with a view to housing virtually the whole department there; and in due course this became the Bank’s New Change building, as designed by the veteran architect Victor Heal (who had been responsible for the Southampton branch just before the war) and situated just slightly set back from a new road (New Change itself) running from Cheapside down to Queen Victoria Street. In its way the ambitious construction, varying between eight and eleven storeys, represented the arrival of modernity at the Bank:

The offices are lit by fluorescent tubes in specially designed fittings [noted the Old Lady in June 1958 three months after the department had taken possession]. There are at present three groups of press-button lifts, to be increased to five groups when Phase 2 is complete; each group is controlled by its own electronic ‘brain’, which sorts out the demands that are made upon the group as a whole and arranges the journeys of each lift so as to provide the maximum service in the minimum time. At first the Staff had some natural scepticism as to the powers of the ‘brain’, but they were soon reassured, despite a few electronic tantrums in the early days. Some of the older members have been a little embarrassed on finding themselves, as creatures of habit, murmuring ‘Thank you’ to a non-existent liftman.

Architecturally speaking, however, modernity was hardly the mot juste. ‘The designer might have pressed for a skyscraper in which case he would have earned the plaudits of the modernists,’ gratefully noted the Financial Times. ‘But he had a greater regard for the precepts of Wren than for those of Le Corbusier.’ Inevitably, others were more critical. Professor Anthony Blunt of the Courtauld Institute led the attack on what he saw as the Bank’s unimaginative, backward-looking effort, while according to Dr Nikolaus Pevsner the ‘vast pile’ was ‘shockingly lifeless and reactionary’, indeed ‘almost beyond comprehension’. Certainly, once the asperities of contemporary debate had died down, no one ever claimed it was a great building. Updating Pevsner some forty years on, even the measured Simon Bradley wrote of a ‘general stuffiness’, of ‘silly little semi-period balconies’, of sculpture ‘in what might be called the George VI style’, and of ‘a shapeless public courtyard, disastrously bleak despite the plain fountain and lead cisterns, in C18 style but dated 1960, scattered about’. Perhaps so, but the anonymous 1958 writer in the Old Lady was also justified in welcoming the way ‘at New Change the light and colourful appearance of the offices is making its own contribution – impossible to measure but nonetheless real – to the well-being of the Staff’.5

If Debden was an outpost, and New Change sort of an outpost, so too were the branches. ‘They were formed in the 1820s for the distribution of the note circulation,’ O’Brien explained in 1969 to Colonel Lancaster and his troops:

We now have eight of those branches [Plymouth having closed in 1949]. Their main function is, indeed, to distribute notes to the local Banks and to recover notes from them, to mill them and send them down to the printing works to be destroyed. They also hold the accounts of the local banks, the local government accounts, customs and excise and so forth, and a certain amount of private business still survives, but not very much. The function which they now perform which they have done only since the last war is to act as centres from which our agents make contact with local industry, get to know local industrialists, visit local factories and help us to have a better view of what is happening in industry.

In answer to another question, O’Brien agreed that for the eight cities themselves the Bank’s local presence was a valued ‘prestige symbol’. ‘Indeed recently,’ he related, ‘we were very strongly pressed by the Corporation of Cardiff to have a branch down there. We examined it with every sympathy, but came to the conclusion it would not be justified, particularly now the Severn Bridge makes it easier for us to look after Wales from Bristol.’ Altogether by this time the eight branches comprised some 334 staff, with the recruitment policy essentially being women locally, men from head office, and no graduates. As for the steady jog-trot of life in the branches, the recollections of B. M. Lahee, who as a young man was seconded from London to Newcastle in 1947, are broadly applicable to the 1950s and even to some degree the 1960s:

It was a small branch: Agent, Sub-Agent and Secretary, about ten of us in the banking hall – Fairmaner and Folliot usually at the counter, Homfray bustling about behind the scenes, machining piles of cheques (‘Burroughsing’, in Bank parlance) or reading down to find a difference – Philip Smith and a couple of others in the Foreign Exchange room, and, upstairs, a bevy of young ladies who spent their days counting, banking and cancelling used banknotes under the, no doubt, watchful eye of Miss Dick. This was sometimes quite an unpleasant job if the notes had originated in a branch near the fish market.

No computers, of course, only adding machines. Customers’ accounts were kept by one of us juniors in hand-written ledgers and a young lady would come down from upstairs in the afternoon to type the day’s debits and credits on customers’ statements. The Branch operated accounts for Government agencies, the other banks and a few private individuals. One of the latter was for a single lady who had given standing orders for a number of charities – one called the Fund for Assisting Missionaries to attend the Keswick Convention, and another, the Japanese Evangelical Band, whatever that may have been.

Included in our duties was a daily ‘walk’ to the offices of the two Newcastle Collectors of Taxes and the Inland Revenue Stamp Office. Two of us – or one with a messenger – would venture into the Newcastle streets carrying a small Gladstone bag to which was attached a chain which we were supposed to fasten round our waist; more commonly we just wrapped it around a wrist. At our ports of call we would count notes and examine cheques, put them in the bag for paying in and continue on our way.

Every morning representatives of all the banks in central Newcastle would come into the Branch and exchange bundles of cheques in a local Clearing House. One of us would supervise this process and see that the net creditor and debtor positions were equal. We were always glad to be able to announce ‘House agrees’. Just about the last job on a Saturday morning was to enter the total of the week’s clearings on a postcard and send it off to the Clearing House in London.

As before the war, there was also of course a monthly ritual. ‘A small group would go down to the central railway station to meet a “Treasure” – a large consignment of new notes sent up in a special van attached to the London train. Closely guarded by one policeman, they would be transferred to a road van and taken to the branch’s secure courtyard and we would all lend a hand at getting them down into the vault via a wheezing hydraulically-operated lift.’

The whole feel of the branches, during these immediate post-war decades, remained largely Victorian. ‘The banking hall, sombre-furnished and heavy with time, tolerates its visitors with a built-in dignity,’ was how the Birmingham Post as late as 1970 evoked its local branch in Temple Row. ‘Elaborate cornices and Wedgewood-blue ceiling; an atmosphere which feels cloistral, even though it isn’t; a murmurous air of purpose which could just as aptly have been a pen-scratched silence.’ Fundamental physical change, however, was already under way. ‘Almost all our branches are about 125 years old, built for a different age than the present one,’ the governor told the SCNI in 1969. ‘Their vault space in particular, due to the growth of note circulation, is entirely inadequate, and the bullion yard space in which vans have to come in with massive quantities of notes is very exiguous indeed.’ To this he might have added that the Great Train Robbery of 1963 (£3.5 million in banknotes on their way from Glasgow to London on behalf of the clearing banks) had made a significant difference. ‘Before the Robbery, well over half the notes used by the public were drawn by the clearing banks from the Bank in London,’ observed the Bank’s George Blunden in the 1970s. ‘After the Robbery we had to decentralise the operation further, because the banks wanted to withdraw money from our branches. But decentralisation meant larger security vaults …’

In Bristol there was already a new building – the controversial, unfortunately proportioned Wine Street building, opened in 1963 and described in the Architects’ Journal as ‘an architectural disaster of the first order’; in Liverpool, Charles Cockerell’s greatly admired 1848 building was much modernised inside between 1961 and 1965; while in 1967 designs were displayed in Threadneedle Street’s Oak Room for completely new and on the whole uncompromisingly modernist buildings in Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham, all of which were duly erected and opened by the early 1970s. ‘There is, no doubt, an enormous change in atmosphere between the two offices,’ reflected Newcastle’s D. J. Baker somewhat regretfully in 1971 shortly after the closure of the old building in Grey Street and the opening of the new one (‘pretty dreary and noisy’, thought O’Brien) in Pilgrim Street. ‘I think that not many of us realised the extent to which the lofty ceilings, polished floors and mahogany fittings affected all who worked within or visited the Branch,’ continued Baker. ‘This atmosphere at least ensured that the inconveniences of using, for present-day note handling, a building designed for small issues of gold were passed over with courtesies appropriate to an earlier age. The new arrangements are so secure that there is very little possibility of face-to-face conversation with one’s cash-handling customers …’6

Everywhere, an obligatory aspect of the modern was computerisation. ‘I remember exactly when it started,’ Peter Edgley told the Old Lady half a century later. ‘It was in 1955, when Ron Middleton and I were both working in CCO [Chief Cashier’s Office]. Ron was summoned to see the Chief Clerk and emerged with a bemused expression on his face. “I’m off to America with the Deputy Chief Accountant next Monday, to learn about computers,” he told us. Whereupon his audience – supposedly a cross-section of the Bank’s finest – turned to each other and chorused: “What’s a computer?”’ Middleton would be the go-to computer person through to the mid-1980s, with the Accountant’s Department to the fore during the pioneer years. In 1959 there began on the fifth floor at New Change the Powers-Samas experiment – named after the British company that merged that same year with British Tabulators to form ICT, later ICL – and essentially involving each holding of stock being stored on the system’s 160-column punched cards; the following July, the first ‘live’ (as opposed to ‘dummy’) dividend was paid, on 2 Per Cent Consols; by October 1962 cards had been punched for one million accounts (one-third of the total); and in the course of that decade, following the purchase of two powerful and appropriately huge 1301 computers, the process began of putting the stock registers themselves on to tape. ‘Computerisation has been undertaken by the Bank on its own initiative and entirely under its own control,’ O’Brien told the SCNI in 1969. ‘We can claim, I think, that in this sphere we were in the van.’

What about computerisation for the Bank as a whole? ‘The first steps were being taken to computerise staff records and payments, much of the processing of statistics, and even our banking operations,’ recalled O’Brien of his time as deputy governor in the mid-1960s. ‘It was urged by some that a centralised computer service for all departments was the obvious next step, but the Chief Accountant [‘Billy’ Bardo] was resistant. He had long had a large and efficient computer operation which was vital to the management of the enormous government debt in gilt-edged stocks. He did not want to lose control of this operation and very likely get caught up in teething troubles of more sophisticated computers which the work of other departments would require. This made sense to me …’ Even so, March 1968 saw the official opening by the Queen Mother of the Head Office Computer Centre, as she pressed the button of an ICT 1904E computer and thereby produced a print-out of Britannia. Already in general the savings through computerisation were considerable; but, quite apart from the obvious manpower implications, not everyone enthused. ‘All was fine until the advent of the computer,’ was David Harris’s wry memory of being superintendent in the Drawing Office at about this time. ‘A selected few were sent on courses but on return considered themselves an elite race apart, unwilling to impart their new-found electronic expertise to the old sweats, who were simply told “you will just have to pick it up as you go along”.’7

A final functional aspect during these post-war, post-nationalisation years was the opaque matter of the Bank’s own finances. Asked in 1950 by the Treasury about the possibility of introducing a procedure to vary the fixed half-yearly payment of £873,180 that the Bank made to the Treasury under the terms of the 1946 Bank Act, Cobbold was adamant that he was ‘entirely opposed’, insisting that he ‘did not see how any such discussions could take place without going into the accounts as a whole’. As for the annual report that the Bank was now compelled to publish, the comforting fact that it need not involve a profit and loss account allowed the chief cashier, Percy Beale, to observe in 1953 that ‘the Report is as dull and free from controversy as usual – rightly in my view’. Retrospective examination by Forrest Capie reveals the Bank enjoying what he calls ‘a very comfortable level of profits’ – mainly derived from interest earned on bankers’ balances – with gross annual profits steadily rising from somewhat under £5 million in the early 1950s to around £13–14 million during most of the second half of the 1960s. Fielding a question from the SCNI in 1969, O’Brien explained how things evened out:

The Bank’s work as bankers to the Government is much less profitable than its work as bankers to other customers, because of the Government’s low balance with the Bank of England, but in fact you do not lose money by being bankers to the Government, I take it? – Yes, we do. In agreement with the Treasury we keep the Exchequer balance at the Bank to the lowest figure compatible with efficient operation of those very large accounts, and certainly that balance does not provide sufficient remuneration to cover the cost of those services to us. The banks’ balances, on the other hand, are very substantial, and the services we provide for the banks are very small in relation to those we provide for Government, so it could be said that the cost of the work we do for Government in part comes from the banks’ balances.

The following year, in its report, the Select Committee successfully recommended not only that the Bank publish full annual accounts, but that it charge the full cost for services performed for government and pay a variable dividend to the Treasury, with that dividend comprising the entire profit apart from agreed provision for reserves and working capital.8 Less than thrilled by the dawning age of transparency, the Bank had no alternative but to go quietly.

From 1940 onwards, women outnumbered men in the Bank. ‘We must be prepared,’ reflected an executive director (Dallas Bernard) towards the end of the war, ‘to cater for women who are able to and desire to do more important work than has been allotted to them hitherto. It is a grave reflection on the organisation of the Bank that there is no scope for really intelligent women in any capacity other than administration.’ Progress after the war, however, was at best patchy, not least because of the continuing deterrent, in terms of recruiting and retaining those with potential, of female staff often being compelled to spend up to five years in the Issue Office examining and counting used notes – tedious, much disliked work. Tom Courtis, in charge of exchange control at the Bank’s Glasgow office, saw the bigger picture when in April 1946 he wrote to the chief of Establishments in London:

By adding up various opinions and conversations heard from time to time I get the impression that many girls regard the Bank merely as an interlude (pleasant or unpleasant according to taste) between school and matrimony and that this state of mind arises because of the relatively few good jobs open to women in the Bank by comparison with the numbers employed.

Do you think perhaps that the application to some extent of the doctrine of equality of opportunity as between men and women might be in the best interests of the Bank?

Specifically, suggested Courtis, ‘if more good jobs were available, then a large majority of the women in the Bank would do better work’.

In practice, the most positive step taken in these immediate post-war years – during which the existence of the Hump, by now an almost ludicrously big middle-aged cohort, largely blocked progress for everyone else – was the removal of the marriage bar in 1949, three years after the Civil Service had done so but ahead of most of the clearing banks. The change was broadly welcomed, at least among the women, with some 75–80 per cent of female clerks at the Bank having in a recent internal ballot voted for removal ‘because they considered that the individual should have the right to choose whether she should continue to work after marriage’. The main dissenting voice, in public anyway, came from L. J. Filewood, who was secretary of the Midland Bank Staff Association and whose daughter was a probationary clerk at the Bank of England – which, he claimed in a letter to the Manchester Guardian, ‘has taken a step which benefits the exceptional minority presumably on the grounds of current theories of sex equality’, despite such theories being ‘psychologically and biologically mischievous’. No doubt he would have taken some comfort from statistics produced in 1952 about the three years at the Bank since the removal of the bar: 723 female staff had married, of whom 252 had left the Bank immediately; while, of the 471 staying on, 279 had done so for less than a year – and all but six for less than three years.9

‘Men were definitely the favoured species, and women either did filing, typing or counting notes,’ recalled Anne Skinner some four decades after joining the Bank in 1955 as a 3rd-class clerk (woman). ‘I thought that was quite normal.’ That same year, though, saw a significant development, with a Special Committee on Women’s Work (chaired by the director in charge of Establishments, the formidable Sir George Abell) concluding that a ‘gradual integration of the male and female staff of the Bank is practicable and desirable’, thereby ensuring that ‘women should have the opportunity to graduate from [women’s] work to the work done by men and be promoted in competition with men, after an initial period of five years of their service, until age twenty-one or twenty-two, employed on routine work as at present’. It would, emphasised Abell, be gradualist reform rather than sudden revolution. ‘Most of the difficult technical and administrative work would probably always be performed by men,’ he told (reassured?) the male-dominated Council of Directors and Staff soon afterwards, ‘but women would find their own level and there need be no formal limit to their eligibility for promotion’; indeed, ‘until the final run-off of the “hump” the amount of progress which could be made might prove to be disappointing’.

In fact, on paper anyway, progress was quite swift. In 1957 – at which point still only about one-quarter of female staff were married – a detailed assessment produced an illuminating breakdown of the 3,880 jobs done by clerical staff (excluding shorthand typists) below administrative rank: 500 were properly the domain of men; 1,900 were properly the domain of women; and 1,400 could as well be done by men or women. Crucially, of those 1,400 ‘common jobs’, 79 per cent were currently being done by men. The upshot was the 1958 Scheme of Classification, described by Elizabeth Hennessy (in her authoritative domestic history of the Bank between 1930 and 1960) as ‘the first step towards complete integration of the sexes’, meaning that the highest category – Classed Staff, as opposed to the two other categories, the Staff of Women Clerks and Shorthand Typists – would ‘consist of men and women working alongside each other under similar conditions of service’. For some female staff, even so, the scheme involved a painful downgrading; while on the pay front the only commitment was that women were to receive not less than 75 per cent remuneration in comparison to men of the same age and seniority.

The issue of equal pay was never likely to go away, notwithstanding Abell’s reported response to the news in 1962 that member-countries of the EEC (which the UK was applying to join) had agreed to implement an equal-pay policy by the end of 1964: ‘Let us duck our heads until the storm is passed and then survey the landscape!’ Britain of course was temporarily thwarted by General de Gaulle’s ‘Non’, but in 1964 a new Scheme of Classification made the first move towards the introduction of equal pay, which from 1968 was phased in over the next four years. By then, there was an exemplar to all women in the person of Aphra Maunsell: the news in February 1967, thirty-one years after she had arrived at the Bank as an eighteen-year-old Irish girl, of her appointment as deputy chief of Establishments, the highest position yet for any woman, received front-page treatment in The Times.10 Nevertheless, few indeed of the 2,700 or so women on the staff in the late 1960s could realistically have hoped for similar promotion or anything like it. The Bank remained, like corporate Britain as a whole, fundamentally a man’s world; while the notion of a female director, let alone a female chief cashier or a female governor, was still strictly for the birds.

More generally, recruitment was a significant problem through these post-war years, not helped by high levels of employment in the outside world and a growing aversion to working on Saturday mornings (when the Bank still had a statutory obligation to be open). Abell, moreover, pinpointed in the mid-1950s the underlying fact of life at the Bank that the staff ‘in the main is required to do comparatively uninteresting work with practically no chance for women of achieving real responsibility and only a somewhat hazardous chance of doing so for the men’; accordingly, ‘men of the type we should like to recruit are not prepared to run the risk of wasting many years as routine clerks when there are more certain and immediate opportunities elsewhere for advancement to interesting and remunerative work’. Handsome career brochures made some difference, as to a greater degree did advertising in the press, introduced in 1958 after agonising internal debate, but at all levels the problem far from disappeared. ‘Typewriter manufacturers have succeeded in giving a modern image to electric typewriters,’ noted a 1969 report recommending a move away from manual, ‘and there are indications that firms are using them as bait to attract typists in these days of shortage of applicants.’ There was also the diversity – or lack of it – aspect. Of the fifteen boys’ schools visited for recruitment purposes during the year ending August 1963, all were private (apart from two direct grant), ranging from St Paul’s to Chigwell; and it was as late as June 1966, some eighteen years after the Empire Windrush had started significant non-white immigration after the war, that a note recorded that ‘Miss B. Z. Alladin, the first coloured entrant, will be starting work in the Dividend Pay and Loans Office.’11

What about graduates? From soon after the war, four decades after the failed pre-1914 recruitment experiment, a systematic approach was introduced, so that by the end of the 1950s there were almost a hundred graduates – predominantly Oxbridge, predominantly generalists, often Greats men – at the Bank. The training programme they received tended to prove a sad disappointment. ‘Most of the graduates thought it was pathetic and inadequate,’ recalled Pen Kent (who arrived in 1961):

It consisted really of doing a relatively fast track of what the Bank’s own induction process probably had always been, which was a six months spell doing transfer deeds in registrar’s department, then moving on to something called chief cashier’s school where you learned to do mechanical cash management in an ordinary banking way. It was only after that, that you got posted to a department where you could, if you like, start to use intellectual skills. And that took a whole year to get to, which against graduate training expectations then, was already pretty disappointing and off-putting. A lot of people I think left in frustration. And the senior management of the Bank was not very sensitive to the demands of the new kind of intake that they were having. I can remember having a discussion with Cromer as it happens, just by happenstance that he and I found ourselves in Basle sitting at a coffee table, and he actually said, to my amazement, ‘I spent the first six months of my career counting drawing pins in Barings and it didn’t do me any harm.’

Things did start to change, though, in the course of the 1960s, partly as times changed and partly because of the impact as it worked its way through of the Radcliffe Report, with its demand for greater economic sophistication giving birth to what has been described as ‘a whole range of new analytic “policy-related” jobs and associated “middle management” opportunities’. In 1966, by when there existed an advanced training scheme, about a quarter of the total intake were graduates; and by the end of the decade the Bank was taking each year some twenty-five to thirty male graduates and some five to ten female graduates – still a telling discrepancy – in addition to fifty to fifty-five boys and twenty to twenty-five girls straight from school with ‘A’ level qualifications. ‘Will a feature of your work in the future be recruiting mature specialists rather than trying to train people internally in the Bank?’ the SCNI asked O’Brien in March 1970. ‘In some spheres undoubtedly,’ he replied. ‘Indeed, we have for some years past increasingly recruited mature specialists, particularly in the economics sphere. The number of economists in the Bank now is large and they come at various stages of maturity. We shall have to do the same, I think, in the computer sphere and in financial control …’12

For many years, against a background of the Hump and the general policy of overmanning in order to cover against emergencies and seasonal fluctuations, the opportunities for promotion were relatively limited. ‘We had the regular pantomime called “Black Thursday” aka “The Feast of the Passover”,’ remembered J. D. W. Raimbach, mainly in the Accountant’s Department from soon after the war. ‘The Court of Directors assembled on the first Thursday in the month, when promotions, if any, would be announced. This was a sure trigger for the disenchanted to repair to the bar and drown their sorrows, or go sick, or break down in tears … and that was just the men!’ Was the Bank a meritocracy between the 1940s and the 1960s? Leaving the Court aside, as well as gender, Forrest Capie argues that it was, citing the examples of O’Brien and Hollom as evidence that it was ‘possible for any male clerk to rise to the top’. Some support comes from the recollections of John Taylor, according to whom most staff were interviewed at least once a year in the Chief of Establishments Office, told about their reports (following consultation with the principals who had signed them) and ‘asked from time to time which parts of the Bank appealed to them most’ – though naturally ‘they were not always sent there’. But according to another witness, Tony Carlisle, the reality was rather different, mainly because of the division of responsibility between Establishments and individual departments. This was fine if they co-operated but pernicious if they did not, in which case, ‘by denying movements in or out, a department could frustrate the development of its own staff and at the same time, or on other occasions, staff of other departments’; more broadly, in terms of career development, it was not until the 1970s that (in Carlisle’s words) ‘people were for the first time told frankly how they were getting on and what the future might hold for them, and were consulted about their careers and not merely told to report to a new office on Monday’. As to how objective assessments were (whether secret or revealed), it is impossible to know. In September 1963 four teenage girls on probation were being considered for the permanent staff. One, ‘alert and resourceful’, did not ‘allow herself to be put off by difficult work’ and attended ‘meticulously to the mechanics of filing’; a second was ‘interested, keen and remarkably sensible in her approach to the more advanced work’; a third had ‘a tendency to get flustered when pressed’. The fourth, ‘employed on Certificate and Fanfold typing’, was on the plus side ‘enthusiastic and keen’ and ‘a very fast worker’, but against that with ‘accuracy inclined to suffer at times’. Still, as a daughter of Lord Kindersley’s chauffeur, perhaps she had the edge.13

That same year, as the Beatles became a national phenomenon, a future chief cashier arrived. ‘What a strange place, looking back, the Bank of 1963 was,’ recalled Graham Kentfield. ‘In some ways it was like stepping back into what I imagine the world in general was like pre-war: stiff, hierarchical and of course heavily dependent on clerical labour. But at the same time, it was a very easy life, with offices staffed up for peaks which only rarely occurred.’ Relevant here is the American social psychologist Douglas McGregor, who had recently identified two distinct management styles, Theory X and Theory Y: the former was authoritarian and assumed that people, with their inherent dislike of work, require a combination of carrot and stick to do it; the latter, assuming the existence of a psychological need to work, was participatory. No one could doubt which style of management the Bank traditionally practised. ‘I am sending this to you,’ began Courtis’s postscript to his 1946 letter to the chief of Establishments, Eric Dalton, about the limited motivation of his female staff, ‘because I conceive that it is a Principal’s job not only to work on orders from his Chiefs but also to convey to them his impressions of the trend of thought of his own subordinates.’ Dalton’s reply was to the point: ‘I much appreciate your continued desire to help. I hope you will not weary in well doing but on this occasion you have added nothing to the knowledge of this Department …’14

If one figure exemplified the Bank’s continuing adherence (if unconscious) to Theory X, certainly the stick aspect, it was perhaps Percy Beale, chief cashier during the first half of the 1950s. ‘A rather unpleasant and authoritarian man who could make or break a man’s career in the blinking of an eye,’ recalled Guy de Moubray:

This happened whilst I was in his office. Every Friday there was a strange ritual of the Treasury Bill tender. Accepting Houses, or indeed anyone with £5,000 cash in hand, could apply for Treasury bills. If one bid £5,000 for a £5,000 bill one was obviously going to get no interest when the bill was paid off 91 days later. So tenders were invited with the highest bidders receiving their application in full. Tenders had to be received at the Chief Cashier’s Office no later than 1 p.m. on a Friday. The Chief Clerk, in his case, would ring the recorded time number on the telephone and when it said, ‘At the third pip it will be one o’clock precisely,’ he would wave his hand to a clerk standing at the door of his case; this clerk in turn would wave to another clerk standing at the office door who would then with a flourish close the door and lock it. On this occasion, however, a messenger from Hambros Bank had still not reached the door when it was locked. So Hambros were denied any bills in that week’s tender. But the Chairman of Hambros, Sir Charles Hambro, was the senior non-executive Director of the Bank of England and immediately rang Percy Beale in a fury. Beale not only caved in and allowed their application to be accepted, but sacked the clerk on the door from his office instanter. The poor man had until then a promising career. Now he was finished.

‘“Sir” was the order of the day in speaking to one’s line supervisor,’ and all the more so to ‘anyone more exalted such as a Deputy Chief Cashier’, remembered John Hill about joining the Bank in the early 1960s. ‘Dress was of paramount importance. To approach one’s principal without a jacket would have been unthinkable. Shoes were of a strict standard and hair, both length and style, was controlled – shades of the military …’ That military element could even be explicit. ‘In my new rank I discovered that I was now an alternate member of the Senior Officials’ Mess and was allowed to attend for lunch whenever [Guy] Watson or [Roy] Heasman were lunching out,’ recalled de Moubray about becoming in 1960 assistant chief of the newly created Central Banking Information Department:

The first occasion was taken very seriously and one of the senior officials introduced me to the others … The procedure was that one helped oneself to a drink (gin & tonic, Bloody Mary or whatever) and then went to sit at one of the three tables. It was strictly laid down by the President of the Mess, Leslie O’Brien, the Chief Cashier, that people should seat themselves in the order in which they had arrived, no doubt to avoid too much chumminess. I soon discovered that it was wise to go to lunch rather later than had been my habit. When I arrived early, I found myself seated at the top of the far table with Douglas Johns, the agent of the Law Courts’ Branch, who had some way to walk to the Bank and always arrived first. He was on the verge of retirement. Very often O’Brien would also be there and a few other elderly gentlemen; their conversation seemed to be entirely devoted to golf and to pensions! There was always wine to drink and cigars with the coffee; in later years I was to help myself to a cigar every day, but in 1960 you could not have a cigar unless the Chief Cashier offered you one.

Of course, as in the world beyond Threadneedle Street, things were slowly changing or about to change. ‘Responsibility was already being devolved in 1964,’ reckons Carlisle, ‘so that it was no longer necessary – as it had been some years before – for every communication from the office – letter, memorandum, even a telephone call – to be closely regulated by the most senior people there.’ Even so, not only did clerks during the second half of the 1960s still refer to each other by their initials, but as a vivid reminder of traditional authoritarian, top-down ways, there persisted the ritual of the Governor’s Charge, in which probationers were paraded in front of Court to hear the Charge read out. The message itself was by now somewhat toned down from its Victorian stern morality (‘you are warned against contracting habits of dissipation’, and all that), but the ceremony itself – ‘with its marshalling, dress rehearsals, dress inspections and rigid formality’, in the words of John Footman – felt increasingly out of place in civilian Britain.15

Institutionally speaking, labour relations continued to be conducted after the war through the Council of Directors and Staff (the qualifying word ‘Advisory’ being dropped in 1950), with both Catto and Cobbold successfully resisting attempts by the Bank Officers’ Guild (later the National Union of Bank Employees, NUBE) to secure a foothold. Notwithstanding some notable individuals being involved – including by the 1960s Jack Davies (long immortalised for having as a Cambridge undergraduate bowled Don Bradman for a duck) as staff director, Ken Andrews as chief of Establishments, and the leading trade unionist Lord (Bill) Carron who was a non-executive director on the Court – it was not all sweetness and light. In 1957 the Council was criticised by staff generally as ‘unduly ponderous and secretive’ and failing to ‘move with the times’; while 1968, that year of the street-fighting man, saw an eloquent memo submitted by the eight elected staff representatives on the Council:

We are now faced with criticism of the present system from all sections of the Staff and certain constituencies have made it abundantly clear that they would not be prepared to return a candidate to represent them on Council in any future election unless an investigation takes place.

Among other things, it has been said that –

1 The present system is too ponderous and secretive. There appears to be a lack of true negotiation.

2 The present system must be held largely responsible for the loss that has occurred in the Staff’s comparative standard of living.

3 To undertake representative duties is detrimental to an individual’s career.

The third charge was especially serious; but the following spring a detailed report by a Council sub-committee found that, in practice, ‘service on the Council is not damaging to a person’s career’ – and that indeed ‘we are convinced that in the long term no one would suffer if he or she decided to stand for the Council’. Where ultimately, however, did the whip hand lie? ‘The other day you invited our comments on the special pension offer,’ noted an August 1970 memo entitled ‘Some Views of the Council Representatives’ and sent probably to Davies. ‘We left that meeting with the feeling that it had been the first attempt by the Bank at “Management by Consultation”; it appeared to be the first occasion on which our opinions had been deliberately sought before a firm proposal had been put to us.’ And after citing two recent significant episodes in which ‘we have been faced with a virtual “fait accompli”’ and in which ‘it was clear that the Bank would not move far from their proposals’, the memo expressed the hope that ‘this first glimmer of joint consultation heralds the dawn of a new era of Staff relations’.16

Of course, the other side of stick (and limited consultation) was paternalistic carrot. Shortly before, one of the SCNI’s Labour MPs, Russell Kerr, had quizzed O’Brien:

From your remarks it would appear that, despite lack of assistance from the NUBE, a relatively happy set of industrial relations have existed over the years. To what extent would you think that has been due to what I would guess to be a fairly generous wages and salary policy as a result of the Bank having a lot of money lying around? – I do not accept the last phrase.

In the literal sense, I am sure you do not? – It is true that the Bank pay well … It has been the basis of which we have maintained the higher standards of efficiency and performance in the Bank than one would be likely to see in most other financial institutions in the City. I say this without any disrespect.

The governor also acknowledged that, in the context of the Labour government’s incomes policy, ‘the Bank staff at the present time do not feel that that differential is being anything like maintained’; but essentially, in relation to the previous quarter of a century as a whole, he was correct, albeit with a fluctuating differential in comparison to the clearing banks. In addition, pension arrangements were reasonably well safeguarded from the ravages of inflation, especially after the decision in 1966 to compensate for three-quarters, as opposed to the previous two-thirds, of the rise in the cost of living since retirement. But it was in fringe benefits that the Bank really scored. These included the Housing Loans Scheme, introduced in 1945 and limited by 1969 to three increases per person during a Bank career (in order to encourage ‘careful thought before purchasing a property’); the Educational Loans Scheme, inaugurated in 1957 and disbursing loans over the next fifteen years of nearly £700,000, enabling some 800 children of Bank employees to be privately educated; the handsomely equipped and maintained Sports Club at Roehampton; and active support for a range of officially encouraged extra-curricular activities.17

‘Ladies of Threadneedle Street Are Right on Their Toes’ reported the Evening News in February 1956:

When work is over at the Bank of England on Wednesday evenings a group of 20 young girls meet at the Bank Club in Tokenhouse Yard. They go by lift to the third floor and into an improvised dressing-room to change. When they emerge they have all the radiance of a ballet chorus. This is their dancing night. The Bank provides professional tuition for them.

They appear at Bank concerts and are rehearsing for a revue which is to be presented in April. Senior girl of the troupe is 24-year-old Paddy Salter of Harrow. ‘I would have taken up dancing seriously but for the war,’ she said. ‘I joined the Bank instead and now I derive all the enjoyment from dancing as well as having a good job.’

Just around the corner from Tokenhouse Yard, in King’s Arms Yard, there was from 1962 a wholly new, purpose-built staff club, which included the now modernised Tokenhouse Yard premises and on any one day could provide over 2,200 subsidised lunches as well as other facilities. ‘Each day,’ recalled Willie Osborn in 2000, ‘there was a ritual in the Chief Cashier’s Office’:

I refer to the distribution of Tea Tickets which took place around eleven o’clock. One of the ‘girls’ from Counter, which also served as Staff Post, would come round the office with the largest-size bulldog clip bursting with blue Tea Tickets. ‘How many would you like?’ she would ask. The innocent would whimper that one would suffice, but the cognoscenti would bid for six or more; and a handful – not necessarily counted out – would be duly handed over.

A Tea Ticket was a sort of luncheon voucher that entitled the bearer to a variety of goodies available during the tea break over in the Bank of England Club. Appropriately the goodies included Jacobs Club biscuits, Penguins, more boring specimens like digestive and rich tea biscuits and – the ultimate gourmet experience – poached egg on toast. The value of a Tea Ticket must have changed over the years but I seem to remember it as about 1s 6d. Up to two Tea Tickets could be exchanged in any one transaction but, as there were three floors serving teas in the Club in those days, the bold would visit all three floors and cash in six a day. Why go to Sainsburys to stock up the biscuit tin when you could do it at the Club?

Paternalism took many forms, including ‘Sunny Offs’, introduced by O’Brien as governor towards the end of a long, cold summer. ‘He decided that provided the sun shone, and only then, staff who could be spared should be given an afternoon off, in turns,’ remembered Dorothy Binns. ‘This was presumably to build up our strength for the coming winter.’ Accordingly, ‘around 12 o’clock, the principal would personally decide whether or not the sun was shining, and word would go round as to whether the selected few would get their Offs or not’. And unsurprisingly, ‘one had been glancing out of the window occasionally with more than casual interest from 11.30 am onwards’.

Intrinsic to paternalism was the fundamental fact that only a tiny proportion of the staff – say two dozen out of a total banking staff of well over 4,000 – had a major decision-making role to play. This meant that the day-to-day work for the overwhelming majority was essentially routine, largely repetitive and often boring. ‘Desperately dull’ was how de Moubray in the early 1950s found work in the Drawing Office, with it being no more enthralling (‘deadly dull, processing exchange control applications’) when he moved on to the Securities Control Office.18 Yet, if much of the work was tedious, not only did the deliberately powerful element of benevolent if strict paternalism help to ensure a generally strong sense of esprit de corps, but there still existed many old-style Bank ‘characters’ to help enliven the atmosphere – arguably the last generation of such characters, before computers replaced clerical grind and the management consultants and the ‘study group’ arrived in numbers.

A trio of reminiscences gives us a final glimpse of the pre-1970 Bank, not so unfamiliar to the pen-pushers of a century or even two centuries before. Michael Pickering, joining the Bank in 1947, was settled by the early 1950s in the Consols Office – that part of it called the Balance Section, where the changes in stockholders’ details were recorded on ‘balance slips’:

Winstanley [a principal] subsisted mainly on gin and chocolate buns, both of which he consumed in the office. He had a habit – which caused at least one nervous breakdown on the passing section – of standing over people and snorting as they worked; indeed, it wasn’t until I encountered him that I realised that people actually did say ‘Pshaw!’ Sometimes he would bellow a comment, and shouted ‘That witness won’t do!’ and jabbed an indignant forefinger at the transfer under scrutiny. He was once holding a chocolate bun in his hand and the wretched passer had to spend 35 minutes scraping the transfer clean before it could be returned whence it came for the error to be corrected.

There were two first-class clerks called Doak and Pendleton; both were very tall and thin, both had lugubrious countenances, both were susceptible to draughts, and both hated each other. One afternoon they had a furious row about the positioning of a draught screen and Winstanley looked up from his desk to observe them engaged in a frenzied tug-of-war. He leapt into action. ‘All right, Pendleton,’ he yelled. ‘If you want the draught screen, you have it!’ Whereupon he seized the screen, which was of the flexible sort, wrapped it round Pendleton and secured it with tape, thus obliging his subordinate to stand rigidly to attention for the rest of the afternoon like a bemused umbrella stand.

The superintendent of the passing section was Cruickshank. He had white hair and a petulant face and didn’t like people. He reserved an especial venom for a perfectly harmless first-class clerk called Budgin and persisted in telling him he smelt; the fact that none of the rest of us noticed anything made no difference to Cruickshank, who, if he was in a more than usually foul mood, would make Budgin sit outside on the window-sill dangling his legs over Finsbury Circus …

Christopher Bell towards the end of the 1950s was likewise on the Balance Section, by now located in New Change. There, he encountered ‘many men talented in directions far removed from central banking’:

One such, a very dapper old Harrovian, was heavily involved with racing, and I particularly recall a quiet and scholarly man whose daily task was of a mind-numbing routine nature, but who devoted his time – and part of his working day – attempting to prove that Bacon wrote Shakespeare … Some, of course, merely took solace in more down-to-earth pursuits such as worshipping at the shrine of Bacchus. One man on an adjacent Section would arise from his desk at 11.30 every morning and announce, in stentorian tones, ‘Off to the Halls of Mirth!’ It was some time before I discovered that ‘The Halls of Mirth’ were synonymous with ‘Ye Olde Watney’, a famous hostelry just a hundred yards or so from the office door and the venue for his morning ‘coffee’ break.

Also to be found on the Balance Section at that time was an aged First Class Clerk who was inclined to fall asleep at his desk after lunch. His spectacles would invariably slip from his nose and remain dangling from one ear. A little later, the Superintendent would return from his lunch and be confronted by this sight. The balance slips were stored in metal boxes, each about the length of two shoe boxes, with heavy metal lids. It was the sleeper’s misfortune to have his desk situated close to some of those boxes. And so, inevitably, the Superintendent, on his return, would lift the lid of the nearest box and drop it forcefully. The effect on the sleeper was, of course, dramatic, and the same routine was played out regularly. All very entertaining to the young and impressionable onlookers …

As for Threadneedle Street itself, the recollections come from Paul Tempest, a member by 1962 of the Overseas Department, comprising about a dozen groups of four to eight men (each with an adviser and an assistant) and situated in a ‘long, low side-lit room on the Third Floor overlooking Bartholomew Lane’:

The office was supervised by an elderly superintendent who sat in a glassed-off ‘case’, gazing gloomily down the long strip of carpet, looking for any sign of disorder. He was flanked by one or two girls plucked regularly for their promise or aspiration from the filing room upstairs or the typing pool downstairs … Women were, however, in short enough supply for the call ‘Murphy’s (or Mitchell’s) balance’ to be still in widespread use throughout the office. This century-old Bank traditional signal – more subtle than the paper dart – attracting general attention to a likely pair of legs or other part of a passing anatomy without giving offence had its own particular variant in Overseas where Group One would call out ‘Zwei millionen’, to be agreed less coarsely by a francophone ‘Trente-huit, vingt-deux …’, the Kremlin would chirrup ‘Niet, niet, niet’ to the alert of the Arabs or the Hispanics, as the visitor passed by them down the full length of the carpet …

Humour in Overseas was, in that large open room, more often than not, pure Theatre. For the captive audience, the action unrolled constantly before them down that long central strip of carpet. Initiation horse-play took several forms. A favourite was, once everyone had been alerted, to ring up the newcomer on his first morning from several desks’ distance. The voice was made to sound immensely old, senior and Governor-like. ‘Is that you, Jones? Welcome to Overseas. Would you care to come in, please?’ The speaker’s receiver would be put down sharply, with a crisp clip. At the other end, Jones would generally spring to his feet before realising that he had not the slightest idea where to go or who had spoken to him …19

Probably the sternest internal critic in the late 1960s of the Bank’s organisation was James Selwyn, justifiably disappointed in 1965 not to become head of the newly created Economic Intelligence Department and by now an adviser to the governors. ‘Labour in the Bank’ was the title of his January 1968 memo for O’Brien, arguing that in four main ways the Bank was ‘inefficient’ in its use of human resources:

(i) Small volume of output resulting chiefly from frequent breaks (coffee, lunch and tea) and a leisurely attitude when on the job.

(ii) Work being done by people of higher calibre than necessary.

(iii) Work which serves little useful purpose; i.e. contributes little to the fulfilment of the Bank’s operations.

(iv) Increased work and/or hindrance to the smooth flow of work because of unsuitable organisation (e.g. inadequate decentralisation of authority).

The upshot, influenced partly also by the desire for cover against potential criticism from the SCNI, was the appointment later in 1968 of the American management consultants McKinsey & Co. The serious investigative work began in February 1969. ‘I think it would be right to offer them some limited lunching facilities on the 4th Floor,’ Fforde informed a colleague earlier that month about the two members of the six-man team who were partners in the firm. ‘I will therefore tell them we would be pleased to see them at lunch from time to time and will add, tactfully, that we would not expect them to lunch with us every day they are working in the Bank.’

In the event, although the key recommendation by McKinsey – involving much enhanced executive responsibilities for the so-called executive directors, thereby reducing the power of the chief cashier and departmental heads – was blocked by O’Brien at an early stage, some other recommendations fared better. These led early in the new decade to various changes, of which probably the most important were the creation of a Management Services Department charged with providing computer and general managerial services; the appointment of a financial controller to ensure budgetary control; the start of a separate research division, the Economic Section, in the EID; and the initiation of a Management Development Division with a view to enhancing performance appraisal, career planning and management training. In the round, though, it was far from a revolution. ‘McKinsey’s general conclusion is that the quality of the Bank’s work and the calibre of the Staff is high,’ reflected the Bank itself in January 1970, while soon afterwards a press comment was that McKinsey’s had ‘discovered some rusty or obsolescent machinery, but no actual corpses buried in the courtyard’.20 Even so, management-speak had now arrived at the Bank, and there could be no going back.

Undeniably, the Bank during the 1970s as a whole became a significantly more modern institution. The lengthy postal strike of early 1971 may have temporarily led to stockholders or their agents once again personally collecting the dividend warrants, but the general direction of travel was emphatically towards the future, not the past. That same year saw not only the end of the Governor’s Charge but the opening of the handsome Reference Library three floors below ground level, and in 1973 the time-honoured Bank Picquet was finally put at ease. Graduate recruitment doubled between the early and mid-1970s; increasingly, in the not altogether gruntled words of John Hill, the Bank looked ‘to recruit staff who had been taught the new maths and/or computer studies’, meaning that ‘the place would never be the same again’; and across much of the Bank, what were known as Clerical Work Measurement (CWM) systems were installed, with those carrying clipboards and stopwatches nicknamed only quasi-affectionately as ‘Gerry and the Pacemakers’. That pace of change, though, can be exaggerated. Management as a whole was still relatively unsophisticated, with Eddie George, in the context of his 1975 review of the EID, referring to ‘matrix management’ as ‘apparently quite common’ in the outside world; Anne Skinner, from 1974 a junior manager in the Accountant’s Department, would recall resistance among men to working for a woman (‘trying to cut you out, not telling you what the job involved’); through the decade, a battle for control of staff continued to be waged between Establishments and the other departments; and in 1977 the recruitment at an unusually senior level of David Walker from the Treasury involved the governor eventually overcoming stiff, outspoken resistance from the chief cashier and some of the chiefs of departments, with John Page insistent to the end that ‘the Bank is not that sort of place’.21

The Bank’s own finances entered a new era in the 1970s. Published annual accounts, the Treasury scrutinising the Bank’s efficiency, profits largely going to the Treasury – all these flowed directly from the SCNI’s 1970 report, while from McKinsey’s came much tighter budgetary control. A by-product of the new arrangements were moments of distinct Bank/Treasury tetchiness, including at one point some seven or eight months when Richardson as governor simply ignored a formal request from Wass at the Treasury to be informed of the exact details and extent of the Bank’s operations in relation to the Lifeboat and other support initiatives, prompting Christopher Dow to reflect that ‘no doubt the central bank has to be left a large discretion’, but ‘it would have cost us nothing to have made a show of telling the Treasury the essentials’. A further source of potential tension were those quite frequent phases during which the Bank, being in the public sector, was expected by government to moderate pay settlements, even as the Bank sought to ensure that its pay levels were kept competitive with those of the clearing banks. ‘We had always paid, and would continue to pay, full regard to official policy but the fundamental position was that we had authority under the Bank Act to run our own affairs,’ recorded the note of O’Brien’s ‘very plain’ speaking to a Treasury mandarin in March 1971. ‘It seemed that civil servants concerned with incomes policy felt that they could dictate the entire detail of our negotiations with the staff. The Governor was not prepared to accept this for a moment.’22

More generally for the Bank’s employees – 7,200 by 1979, of whom 4,600 were banking staff, compared to 7,400, of whom 4,450 were banking staff, in 1970 – it was a decade of some austerity, especially as wage levels gradually slipped below those of the clearers, with Richardson perhaps less inclined than O’Brien had been to insist on operational autonomy in this sphere. Even so, the fringe benefits remained enviable and, prior to a certain tightening in 1978, largely untouched: not only subsidised lunches and the Housing and Educational Loan Schemes, but also interest-free loans to meet commuting expenses and unsecured personal loans for ‘approved purposes’. Paternalism, in short, still broadly flourished. ‘The Governor is very pleased with Tennant,’ was the word one crisis autumn about the governor’s chauffeur. ‘He has remarked particularly on his patience and fortitude during a period when he has had excessively long hours both of waiting and of driving. The Governor welcomed the idea that Tennant might receive some extra reward for his efforts.’23

In the world at large the 1970s were of course the decade of sharply deteriorating labour relations, and the Bank could hardly expect to be immune, not least given those eroding differentials with the clearers. In February 1973, after years of increasing dissatisfaction with the Council of Directors and Staff, the banking staff overwhelmingly voted to have their own internal representative body to negotiate direct with management; and by the end of the year the Bank of England Staff Organisation (BESO) was up and running, with the Court palpably relieved by the staff’s decision not to seek representation through a national trade union. BESO’s regular newsletters soon, though, had a notably sharp tone. ‘Well, so what?’ asked its general secretary, John Ward, in April 1974 in the context of the Bank having in 1972 fully implemented equal pay for women but continuing to refuse to make housing loans available to married women – on the grounds (in the Bank’s words) partly that ‘despite some erosion by current social trends, responsibility for providing the marital home still rests primarily with the husband’, and partly that ‘if all married women took advantage of the Scheme, the additional capital commitment by 1986 would be some £4.5 million’. Ward himself was adamant: ‘The Bank can afford it. There may be some employers in the City who cannot afford principles but the Bank is not one of them.’ Two years later, in a symbolic action, BESO moved its offices out of the Bank; while by December 1978, during Britain’s winter of discontent and with staff temporarily refusing (following a pay claim rejection) to co-operate on efficiency and productivity schemes, the recently appointed chief of Establishments, Rodney Galpin, was looking quite darkly through the glass. ‘The present dispute must be seen as an indication that staff relations are in disrepair,’ he observed to George Blunden (now the executive director in charge of staff matters), although he still believed that ‘there remains amongst the staff a basic loyalty to the Bank’. And Galpin went on:

Staff at all levels in the Bank are, I judge, to varying degrees now –

(a) demotivated and disillusioned with their lot while blaming it on the Bank;

(b) uncertain of the commitment which the Bank feel to their staff; and consequently critical of the Bank’s staff policies;

(c) anxious to be further involved.

More serious action was averted, but by spring 1979 there existed, according to the veteran staff representative Paul Clayton, ‘a small but powerful and vociferous group’ within the staff who wanted BESO to join forces with the national union, NUBE. ‘As much as these people are sincere in their views they are courting disaster,’ warned Clayton in the Old Lady. ‘In a large Trade Union our small numbers would be swallowed up and we would have little influence in our own future.’ Accordingly, he counselled ‘extreme caution when dealing with “Trade Unions bearing gifts”’.24NUBE was soon renamed the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union (BIFU), and within a few years had succeeded in absorbing BESO after all.

The employment situation inevitably varied between departments: whereas staff working in Exchange Control increased from some 500 at the start of the decade to some 700 by the time Clayton was writing, those in the Accountant’s Department declined from around 1,300 to barely 1,000 – the latter change almost entirely the result of continuing computerisation. Computers themselves were at the centre of an invidious decision in 1971, ahead of their much greater use in the banking offices: in essence, the choice between the politically favoured ICL (British) or the technologically favoured IBM (American). ‘Sir Eric Roll suggested that the timing of a decision in favour of an American supplier would come especially ill against the Common Market background and wondered if we should not delay for two or three months,’ noted Jasper Hollom in July 1971 after a discussion with that non-executive director. ‘When I suggested that only a delay of two years or more would help ICL to compete more effectively he was half inclined to jump at such a prospect.’ The outcome the following month was a nicely judged compromise. After explaining to ICL’s Sir John Wall that the Bank was ‘reluctantly’ unable to alter its view that IBM were ‘better equipped to satisfy our computer needs at the next stage’, O’Brien went on:

However we had also to take account of Government policy in this field and of the national interest in developing a U.K., or perhaps later European, firm as a real rival to I.B.M. The Governor and the Court had given the matter the most careful consideration and had finally decided on a two-centre solution, entrusting the Accountant’s Department to I.C.L. and the remainder of the Bank’s needs to I.B.M. This roughly 50/50 division would, we hoped, spur I.C.L. to make every effort to prove themselves truly competitive and no one would be better pleased than the Bank if they succeeded.

Sir John expressed his gratitude for the line the Bank had taken …

As for IBM’s reaction, further noted Hollom after their man had called on the governor, ‘they were grateful to us for deciding to entrust to them the more complex part of our programme’. More generally, technology mattered ever more. ‘Telephones had been giving trouble in the dealing area and this created grave problems,’ John Fforde was reported as admitting in February 1974 after visiting the Gold and Foreign Exchange Office. ‘Moreover, there was a considerable delay before new direct lines could be installed. He [Fforde] had been told that Post Office engineers had intimated that a £200 bribe could expedite matters.’ ‘If this were in fact true,’ added that most austere and upright of men, ‘it was a serious situation.’25

Later in the decade Fforde contributed to the Old Lady’s regular ‘As I See It’ column. ‘Is the Bank’, he wondered at the end of some stimulating if tortuous reflections about how society had changed so much during his lifetime, ‘an institution that tolerates dissent, fosters an experimental freedom tempered by effective self-regulation, and prefers a persuasive leadership that proceeds by consent?’ To which he answered: ‘I think it is.’ The previous issue’s column, earlier in 1977, was written by Tony Carlisle. Focusing almost throughout on the Bank itself, and comparing it with the Bank of the mid-1960s, he was inclined to accentuate the positive: more delegation (partly reflecting the growth in the overall volume of work) and more personal involvement; lower barriers between different types of staff (‘it would have been rare indeed fifteen years ago for the most senior people to join the most junior in the bar to celebrate a birthday or a wedding or a change of work, but this is now common practice’); and discrimination against women ‘now a fading memory’. But although relaxed about changing sartorial standards (‘white collars, once de rigueur, are now a rarity’, likewise ‘waistcoats, braces, and shoes with laces’) as well as hair styles (‘it is pleasant to see full scope given to individual choice’), Carlisle did have three gripes: ‘idiosyncrasies of spelling’; ‘the practice of knocking on doors, wholly unknown here until a few years ago’; and the tendency of specialist recruits (as opposed to ‘aspiring central bankers’) to be ‘sometimes slow to develop a corporate spirit, hitherto one of the Bank’s great strengths’. Those were two contemporary assessments in the Old Lady. A third, also in the magazine but not until 1985, was more retrospective:

I have always had the feeling [wrote the editor, David Pollard, who had been at the Bank since 1965] that the Bank was far too slow, particularly in the late ’60s and the ’70s, to react to the needs of a workforce which was increasingly volatile, drawn from an ever-widening social spectrum, and threatened by the march of technology. My impression was that, bearing in mind the considerable resources devoted to ‘man management’, the Bank was surprisingly unprofessional in its approach to that particular task. It often seemed that the Staff Principal, instead of being selected on the basis of a natural talent (which some have, but most don’t) for staff work, and specifically trained as a specialist in that field, was either a technician who had to do a ‘staff job’ before moving on to higher things, or just a ‘nice guy’ …26

Hidden from the pages of the Old Lady, and perhaps consciously or otherwise responding to the wider national mood, an agenda for fundamental institutional change emerged during the second half of the 1970s.

Christopher Dow set the ball rolling in April 1976 with a paper on ‘Possible Future Lines of Development for the Bank’. In essence, he wanted the Bank to attain ‘a role as an adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer separate from and roughly parallel to the Treasury’ – in effect, ‘a claim to “parity of esteem” with the Treasury’. This would involve not only building up greater economic expertise, but also cultivating a more modern public image. ‘Even small questions of appearance matter,’ insisted Dow. ‘It is worth asking whether the Court Room is a good place for a business meeting to take place; whether indeed the Court should be called the “Court”; whether messengers should wear pink coats. The Bank could benefit from a phase of aggiornamento.’ Further aspects of helpful change might include ‘the Bank “distancing itself” somewhat from the City’; a more balanced Court (‘Perhaps a possible formula would be three City and Business; three other “rightish”; three TUC and other “leftish”; and three “independent”’); the Court itself being ‘used more explicitly as an Advisory Council’; generally, ‘more frequent, more extensive and more formal meetings with industrialists’; and even the establishment of ‘a formal Industrial Advisory Committee’. In the fullness of time, it would become clear that Dow’s was a vision that, taken as a whole, anticipated much of what lay ahead. But in 1976, although Richardson apparently told Dow that he went ‘a long way’ with the paper, that was less immediately apparent; and with Dow himself, conscious of the waning influence in the Bank of his Keynesian views, letting it be known that he hoped to go to the Treasury but vexing the governor by failing to tell him to his face, his paper failed to build up the necessary head of steam, even after it turned out that he was in fact staying at the Bank.27

The next initiative came from Kit McMahon. ‘Externalising the Bank’ was the title of his June 1977 paper, written in the context of an ongoing internal debate about how – in the wake of the troubles of 1976 – the institution should improve its hitherto not particularly impressive communication skills. There were, he argued in typically robust fashion, seven main reasons why in recent times the Bank had been ‘subject to abuse, misrepresentation, belittlement, etc’:

(i) Misunderstanding about our aims, activities, our intellectual quality, the kind of people we are, etc.

(ii) Actual mistakes, bad decisions, bad handling of situations, etc.

(iii) The implementation of decisions of policies which may be appropriate or indeed very desirable on general grounds but which adversely affect vocal individuals or institutions.

(iv) The rise of an extremely vocal and opinionated strain of extreme monetarist thinking.

(v) The now rather widespread view that any obvious manifestation of the Establishment has an inherent tendency to be ridiculous, stuffy, overbearing, well-off, etc.

(vi) Straightforward hostility from the Left to the Bank based on the feelings mentioned above, together with race memories of Montagu Norman, hostility to the City and indeed almost everything to do with finance other than receiving it.

(vii) The failures, apparent or real, of British economic performance and of the authorities’ capacity (in the most general sense) to overcome them.

As to what to do about all this, McMahon had a suggestion:

We tend to play our news management extremely straight. Naturally there are very good arguments for continuing to do so but it is a rough world and a gentleman among a lot of players is apt to appear wet and stuffy. We could simply put up with this stoically and perhaps this is what we should do. If, however, we were prepared to be a little more calculating, a little more ‘political’ in our off-the-record comments, letting journalists know what we were going for and where we were finding obstruction, I think we might find it possible not only to change our image and get ourselves more space in the press and more respect as a motive power in policy; we might also enhance our ability actually to influence policy.

In short, it might be time to start exercising the dark arts. That was indeed the way the world was going; and in the event, it was not long before the Bank’s press office started to become far more professional and systematic in its approach.

The third initiative was, in its internal implications, the most important. It began with a memo on ‘Organisation’ that George Blunden sent to Richardson in August 1978, almost certainly following conversations between the two men about the desirability of a major restructuring. At the heart of Blunden’s analysis was the identification of a series of shortcomings. ‘On many matters,’ he argued, ‘Governors and Executive Directors have to rely on “grape-vine” methods to keep themselves informed’; budgetary control had become ‘highly centralised under the Deputy Governor’, with heads of departments ‘inadequately involved’; the chief cashier’s role ranged ‘too widely to fit effectively in the Bank of the 1970s’, with one man being unrealistically expected to be ‘deeply involved’ in ‘the detailed work of credit and monetary policy and in the conduct of monetary operations’ at the same time as being ‘chief administrator of the Bank’; whereas, by contrast, at least three of the four executive directors ‘do not have clear-cut executive roles’ and ‘tend to form a separate little pyramid under the Governor parallel to the larger one going down through the Chief Cashier and other Heads of Department’. To remedy the situation, Blunden proposed an essentially twin-track remedy: on the one hand, in a clear echo of McKinsey a decade earlier, giving the executive directors proper and meaningful executive job descriptions; on the other hand, seriously reducing the chief cashier’s responsibilities. Given that the chief cashier (then John Page) had been at least the third most important person in the Bank for virtually three centuries, this was – as Blunden well knew – potentially incendiary stuff.

Richardson’s next step was to commission a more detailed report on the Bank’s organisation from Lord Croham, who as Sir Douglas Allen had been head of the Civil Service and who joined the Bank in 1978 as a special adviser. In early April 1979, he sent his draft report to the governor. Pointing, like McKinsey and Blunden, to the long-run failure to integrate the executive directors into the Bank’s management structure (‘policy co-ordinators without managerial responsibilities’), Croham asserted that ‘there is a general feeling in the Bank that the present management structure is unclear and frequently leads to delays in decision making and a misdirection of the efforts of higher management’; and he called for ‘an organisation in which the lines of command ran through Executive Directors to areas for which they were responsible for both policy and general management’. Just over a fortnight later, having discussed possible policy options with the governor, Croham in his amended report came up with a solution remarkably like Blunden’s twin track. It was not yet, however, a done deal; and in the meantime, there was the small matter of a political and economic revolution for the Bank to handle.28

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