Working Lives

Banking in the 1970s (1972-1985)

Location: Birmingham

Jan describes her career with the Municipal Bank in Birmingham and the changes she saw over 35 years.

The local branch in 1970s

I joined the Municipal Bank in Birmingham as a cashier in 1972. The bank was part of the council and our branch was in a tall building opposite the Hall of Memory. It had huge beautiful counters which were at an angle so you could work on them.

I’d left school and done some different jobs before coming into the bank .But the bank seemed like a different world, it was like a library, you weren’t allowed to talk and there was no laughing. It was all really serious and if you made a mistake with a customer, they’d call the manager. The manager was there in his office, ruling everything. We all had to be smartly dressed, girls were not allowed to wear trousers and some of the older women wore overalls so they didn’t snag their clothes on the counters.

When I first joined, I had to go on a six week training course at the head office on Broad Street. We had to do Maths tests, there were no computers, of course, in those days, so at the end of the day, you’d have to work out everybody’s interest from charts, then you’d write it all down on the individual customers’ cards and file them all away. So when somebody came in, you’d go and get their card. The cards wee A4 sized, all filed away in numerical order, with their name, address and account number together with their balance and their interest. Seems crazy, doesn’t it!

Customers had little pass books. They did have cheque books but we didn’t deal with cheques, we didn’t even clear our own cheques. At the end of every day, someone would have to take them up to the Midland Bank, who used to be the clearing bank.

The bank’s opening hours were nine o’clock till three o’clock, then bizarrely on a Thursday, we’d close at three, we’d have a hours tea-time break and we’d open again between four and five. It was very strange. Once a year, at the end of the tax year, we had to do all the accounts, then you had to stay until ten o’clock at night although you had to be over 17 to do that.

Our branch didn’t do standing orders or direct debits, people would have to go to head office where they also did mortgages and loans. Working class people didn’t use banks much, they had tins for their money – one tin for bills, another for holidays. You had to sort your own cash out. It was mainly men who did the banking, people did have joint accounts but more men came into the bank than women and you’d not see young people at all.

A terrifying experience

We were robbed once, it was the day before Christmas Eve and it was a Thursday, a late night. A man came in and went to up this lad serving at the counter and said ‘I’ve got a gun. Give me all the money out of your till. The lad just froze. He said later, “it was like everything had stopped – I didn’t know what to do.’

Obviously, you’re told – give them whatever they want, don’t put anybody’s life in danger.

We had ‘bait money’ in each till in those days – all the numbers on the notes were recorded so the cash could be identified. This guy obviously wasn’t a seasoned robber – on the way out, he dropped half the money on the floor and fled over the road. But the cashier was really quite shaken with it. Nowadays, we’ve got CCTV cameras and robberies don’t happen as often. You get more small frauds – stealing identities or cards or forging signatures.

Opportunities for promotion

When I first worked at the bank, there were a lot of job opportunities in different areas, you could get up to manager’s grade but nowadays, that’s not so easy. The opportunities don’t seem to be there now, they bring people in from outside and people who have been with the bank for a long time don’t seem to get the same opportunities.

I set up one of the service centres. That was really interesting – setting up a whole new thing and helping to organise it. It was really good – just to get out of the branch network and do something entirely new. Then they closed down the centre and moved it into another part of Birmingham so I went back to the branch again.

How banking has changed

Once you got used to the atmosphere of quiet, the work could be quite fun but it has changed now. We’ve become sales people. Everything is sales-based – targets, pressures. Customer service is out the window. The attitude is – if people want to come into the branch and queue, they’ll have to queue. We’re dealing with sales here. There are minimal people on the counter to service customers in the branch, which is bad.

I think a lot of staff feel like that, it’s not a job I like anymore. It’s too much hard sell for everybody and the pressure brought to bear is unbearable sometimes. You have individual targets to achieve which is very stressful for everybody.

Knowledge of maths isn’t necessary any more – it’s all worked out for you. You don’t really have to think about it. As long as you are careful, you can’t really go wrong on the counter. People are needed to serve customers but sales are far more important to the management now.

I worked in the bank for thirty five years but I don’t feel that my experience and expertise is appreciated, all the management want is for you to sell something.

Jan S talking to WISEArchive in 2008.

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