Our history in the West Midlands

Business historian Professor Leslie Hannah talks about Barclays' long history and its role in society during this time.

In 1916, Barclays acquired the United Counties Bank, thereby securing a substantial presence in the Midlands. This was one of the more significant of a rapid series of acquisitions made by Barclays between its formation as a limited company in 1896, and the check on banking mergers declared by the Treasury in 1920. These acquisitions enabled Barclays to become one of the ‘Big Five’ clearing banks, with national coverage.

By 1916, United Counties had itself gone through a number of mergers and name changes, and could trace its origins from the Birmingham Town & District Banking Company, formed in 1836 as one of the new joint stock banks then springing up around the country. Its Head Office had moved from temporary premises to a permanent home in Colmore Row (known later as Birmingham’s ‘street of banks’), and in 1916 it became a Barclays Local Head Office.

Going further back, the Birmingham Town & District had absorbed the Dudley & West Bromwich Banking Company in 1874, reflecting its policy of expanding beyond the city to include the West Midlands region. The Dudley bank could trace its origins to 1797. The combined company ‘went public’ in 1881, and continued to acquire smaller banks in the region, such as the Wolverhampton & Staffordshire Banking Company in 1889, which brought in the substantial business of Wolverhampton Queen Street (founded in 1797 and still an important Barclays branch today).

Birmingham High Street escalator branch

Birmingham High Street 'escalator' branch

The name of the combined bank was changed to Birmingham District & Counties Banking Company Limited, and further acquisitions brought in branches as far away as South Wales and Yorkshire.

On taking over the United Counties in 1916, Barclays appointed Local Directors to manage the new Local Head Office in line with their policy to devolve management to the districts. Because the United Counties had been a joint stock bank rather than a private partnership, most of its former directors were also prominent businessmen in the Midlands.

Since the usual Barclays practice was to appoint men who could attend daily at the Local Head Office, and six of the new Local Directors were busy with their own affairs (two of them – Sir James Smith and Sir Hallewell Rogers - had also been mayors of Birmingham), a local full-time Managing Director was appointed for the Birmingham District.

The obvious man for this job was the existing General Manager of the United Counties, Herbert Roper.

He guided the bank through the early period of absorption by Barclays, retiring in 1920 to be succeeded by Edwin Fisher, who had previously been Barclays’ Company Secretary and rose to the top, becoming Chairman of the Bank in 1936.

Early Local Directors at Colmore Row included men who subsequently became very senior board members in Barclays. William Goodenough (son of Barclays’ charismatic Chairman Frederick Goodenough), was appointed in 1926, and went on to become Chairman himself in 1947. A C Barnes subsequently became a senior manager of Barclays’ important Egyptian business. Prominent local businessmen who served as Barclays local directors included Sir Edward Thompson, chairman of engineering firm John Thompson Limited of Wolverhampton. Sir Edward was also appointed to the main board of Barclays.

In 1916 Birmingham Local Head Office controlled over 100 branches, and by 1952 managed Barclays’ network across Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire. By 1979 there were some 200 branches and in 1986, it was recognized as the largest of the UK Districts in terms of lending and staff numbers, with a reputation for resilience during periods of national trade depression, notably the 1930s and 1980s. World War Two (1939-45) also stimulated banking business through local manufacturing industries, though Barclays premises in Birmingham (as in other cities) were hit by enemy action, notably High Street branch, which was completely destroyed by bombing. In 1958 this branch reopened in the redeveloped city centre (known as City Centre House in the ‘Big Top’ development), being the second of a series of ‘escalator’ branches opened by Barclays in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s [see scan of article in Architecture and Building, 1958]. Although it was at the centre of a highly industrialised region, Birmingham LHO also served a significant rural hinterland with significant farming accounts in some of the branches [see scan of articles in Spread Eagle, 1956].

From the 1970s onwards the role of local head offices was reduced, with many of their functions being centralised or automated. Birmingham LHO became part of a new West Midlands Regional Office in 1988, and regional offices themselves ceased to exist from 1999. Birmingham also formerly had a branch of Barclays Bank International, a regional Barclaycard centre, and a branch of Barclays Merchant Bank (later absorbed into BZW and then Barclays Capital).

In 1997 Birmingham was selected as one of four locations (London, Manchester and Leeds being the others), for Barclays Ventures, a division of the bank established to provide equity capital (between £250,000 and £2m) for small businesses [see scan of press release 1999 about Robert Prettie & Co.]. In 2000 the Import Transactions section of Barclays Trade Services was moved to Birmingham, and in 2003 loan servicing work was transferred to Birmingham from the London BLSC. In 2001 one of the new Barclays University Metro Centres was opened in the city for staff training. In 2006 Birmingham became one of the four Internal Account Support Units (formerly Reconciliation Teams). In 2008 the new ‘flagship’ branch in Colmore Row was opened by the city’s lord mayor and Mike Amato, chief distribution and product officer. In the same year new offices were announced for Barclays in the new Snow Hill development, for up to 1,000 Commercial Bank sales and operations staff in the region – also to be the location for the Birmingham branch of the Latitude Club, introduced by Barclays Commercial Bank to provide local business customers with key connections in first class surroundings, a virtual club, exclusive events and special offers.

Recent sponsorship and community initiatives in the city include: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, one of the world’s major orchestras and a jewel in the crown of the region’s cultural and educational life (Barclays Wealth announced a new three year deal in 2007 enabling the creation of a CBSO boys’ choir; sponsorship renewed 2011). Barclays Spaces for Sport in 2007 contributed to football and other sports in Aston, supported by Aston Villa F.C. In 2005 the Ackers Adventurous Activity Site in Sparkbrook and Small Heath received a £600,000 donation from Barclays and the Football Foundation. In 2011 staff enabled 800 sick and disadvantaged children to enjoy a day out, by volunteering to support the Mad Hatters children’s charity.

An example of a recent corporate deal is the investment management company W P Carey and Company, which in 2011 secured an £8.3m loan facility from Barclays Real Estate to refinance the newly built National Express HQ and coach terminal in the city.