Greenwich Building Society
I came across this little pamphlet recently and couldn’t decide whether to be excited or just plain depressed. It was written in another Jubilee year, 1977, but in very different times – times when mutual building societies were still something to be proud of. The past 35 years have seen them asset-stripped by the greedy in the 1980s – first demutualised, then sold, and now, in Greenwich’s case, closed.
It’s all a far cry from the spirit in which this booklet was written, which in its turn was created as an update to a previous volume, written twenty five years before that - Greenwich Building Society – The First Hundred Years.
The author, Gerald Brown, the society’s Chief Executive weaves the Greenwich institution’s history around a more general history of the Building Society movement, dating back to the earliest one in Birmingham back around 1775. They started as small thrift-clubs to help members – well, build houses, actually. They were fixed-term – designed to stop after all the members had paid back the money they’d used to build specific houses, but around 1840 the first ‘permanent’ building societies were born, more like those (few) we have left today.
Greenwich was amongst the first towns to join the building society bandwagon. The first Society in London was the Greenwich Union, though the only records about it are court reports of a member being sued for non-payment, and his accusation that the Society was an illegal and mischievous institution. Had the member won that particular case, the whole Building Society movement would have been dead in the Thames. He lost.
The Borough of Greenwich Building Society, came into existence in 1843. At the time of writing, they still held the minute books from 1852-5. I don’t know what happened to them; I hope they’re safe somewhere. Several founders of that institution were also responsible for the Industrial Building Society in 1852, which eventually became the Greenwich Building Society.
Keeping up? I’m not convinced I am, but hey. It’s further complicated by the fact that societies were all organised on a part-time basis so was quite normal for people to be on the boards of several building societies and even do each other’s books.
The trustees were local community worthies. Here’s Dr. Prior Purvis, Chairman of the Board for 47 years:
He was on the board of several societies and a trustee of the Literary Institution in Royal Hill (where The Greenwich Society for the Acquisition and Diffusion of Useful Knowledge met…) and at least three building societies met there too.
Now Harriet, are you sitting comfortably? Because I’m about to mention your great, great grandfather. For those who don’t know who Harriet’s great great grandfather was, and who know about my pathological aversion to family history of all kinds, I made an exception in the case of Harriet’s great, great grandfather Henry Richardson because he was such a character and seems to have had a finger in just about every 19th Century Greenwich pie. This document seems to also have him as an insurance agent, as well as printer, stationer and historian:
Building Societies were just another Greenwich pie to him. He was Treasurer of the Society until a rather public spat broke out where both he and Dr Purvis were forced to resign over letter-of-the-rules stuff, though I suspect that he still made some money since both sides of a weirdly vicious-but-at-the-same-time-punishingly-dry argument went on to have their own set of amended rules printed, presumably by Richardson. The opposition was led by local ironmonger, gas fitter and bell-hanger, Josiah Haycraft.
The spat ended at a meeting in the Concert Room in Royal Hill, on 20th April 1865, when the members voted in favour of Purvis and Richardson. Richardson didn’t re-take his position but Purvis did, and stayed there ’til he died. I assume Haycraft went back to bell-fitting.
The real power behind the throne, though, seems to have been this slightly scary-looking chap:
This is Peter Blake (obviously long before he went onto Sgt. Pepper fame and fortune…) Local schoolmaster (at Maze Hill, Drapers and Church Fields) turned estate agent, Blake set up a network of agencies, and presumably had good reason to encourage building societies. To his credit, he did press for a series of regulatory laws, and his evidence at a Royal Commission helped lead to an Act in 1874.
By 1873 the Society had more than 450 borrowers and by 1886, £207,000 of assets. But much like today, the markets fluctuated and the crash of the (fraudulently managed) Liberator Building Society in 1892 was a serious blow to establishments like the one in Greenwich. It took until the turn of the 20th Century for things to right themselves, but the big expansion was still to come.
The inter-war years of the 1920s and 30 saw a huge boom in building – and funds for building societies. I note from the lists of people involved one F.J. Simpson, Town Clerk of Greenwich on the board. I’m sure I’ve seen his name somewhere. Is it on the plaque inside the Arches leisure centre?
In 1935, the Lecture Hall in Royal Hill was to be demolished for the Borough Hall, and they needed new premises, which they found in Greenwich High Road. They bought the place for £1600, and one of the partners’ brothers Mr P.B. Dannatt, a local architect responsible for some of the Roan School buildings, did the modifications.
On 24th January 1945 two partners, Mr Dannatt and Mr Jackson were both injured by a doodlebug at their own offices in Nelson Road. Thankfully for them, it wasn’t too serious, but the Westminster bank building was badly damaged and I suspect that’s the bomb that did for Richardson’s shop, too.
You would have thought that after the war, building societies would have done very well, given the amount of homeless people, but homeless also often meant jobless and although there was a massive fund in the building society, there were few loans being made.
When the author joined the Industrial Building Society in 1952, he was worried about the negative connotations of the name, thinking that people might think they only lent money for industrial buildings. It had come for two reasosn – 1) that the word Greenwich was already in use by another Society and 2) it referred to the ‘industrial classes’, but the world had moved on.
After a series of unsuccessful merger talks and half-name changes, the Greenwich Building Society was finally renamed a hundred years after it was formed.
The 60s saw mergers a-go-go, with the Greenwich Building Society subsuming pretty much all comers. It seems to have been a bit cutthroat, even then. At the time of writing, Gerald Brown is proud to say that the Greenwich Building Society was always the larger of whichever two companies were merging. This was not always to be the case.
P.B. Dannatt’s son remodeled the Society’s offices in modern style in the 1970s – I think it’s pretty obvious where they are, in case you weren’t sure before:
So what went wrong? Well, I guess it continued to be a dog-eat-dog world and eventually, after having swallowed up so many smaller fishes in a relatively small pond, the Greenwich Building Society finally found its pike. The Portman, one of the few mutuals left in the 1990s, took it over in 1997 and swam around in a slightly larger pond for a while before finding a pike of its very own. The Nationwide stepped in and – well, if you don’t know that sorry story, I am sure Darryl at 853 will be only too happy to enlighten you..
Just one last thing.
Right at the very end of the book, Mr. Brown mentions his personal wine cellar, situated in the basement of their extended offices, a perk of which I wholeheartedly approve. He points out that the building was, after all the Three Tuns public house, so it’s only right and proper. He mentions that on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the company’s founding, he’ll be taking out a bottle of 1961 claret, imported by Lovibonds and, ‘politicians permitting, drink the health of the Greenwich Building Society.
I wonder – what happened to that wine cellar? Did Mr Brown drown his sorrows in claret to mark the passing of the company five years short of 150 years since its founding, in 1997? Did he hold out for 2002 and make a fist of remembrance with those who knew it – or is it still out there?
It would have been 160 years old this year. If it’s still unopened, now’s as good as ever. There’s probably not much hope in holding out for a return of a building society…
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