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The First Seventy Years: 35 Drama In The Basement

Continuing his life story Eric Biddulph tells of the day when cash remained locked in the bank strongroom.

1965 proved to be a pretty momentous year. During the previous year a new strongroom door had been fitted. It was opened by means of two dials. Each had a combination of four sets of double digits. Each was under the separate control of the manager and the second officer. Each had backup, another member of staff who was party to the double digit code.

These codes were changed periodically. There was a standard procedure to be followed whenever a code was changed. Any change made would entail the relief being told the new number orally. Such number changes were made whilst the strongroom door remained open. It could then be checked by both parties to ensure that it had been set properly. Several changes had been made by both men with the relief holders providing a backup check.

One day the manager changed the code and advised his relief of the new one. He did not however, have his relief carry out a check. At the end of the day the cash and documents were locked away. The grill gate was locked, followed by the strongroom door. The end of a normal working day in an ordinary suburban branch.

The following morning the second officer duly performed with his dial until he had completed his sequence of numbers. The manager's relief usually opened up in a morning. He now stepped forward. Turning his dial the requisite number of turns to the right and turns to the left, he sought to engage his four double- digit numbers in sequence. It was to no avail. He tried again; then again.

He left the basement to check his numbers with the manager. Yes, they were correct. He tried again, then again and again. The manager arrived on the scene. He made several attempts. It was all to no avail.

By this time we were only thirty minutes away from opening time. We had no cash and, just as important in those pre-computer days, no customer account records. By this time the manager had revealed the code to anyone who was prepared to have a go at cracking the safe. A telephone call to higher authority was inevitable.

Ten o'clock arrived and the public was admitted. "There's a fault with the strong room door," we told those who streamed into the banking hall, knowing of course that there was no fault - just one almighty cock-up.

A senior member of staff from regional head office was soon on the premises. Only those customers who wanted to pay funds into their accounts could be serviced at this early stage. An urgent request was made to the main branch in the centre of Nottingham for a supply of cash. This duly arrived and we were able to provide something of a skeleton service.

In the meantime, all the drama in the basement continued unabated. Around 11 o'clock a decision was made to call in an expert from the manufacturers of the strongroom door, Chubb. An electronic stethoscope was mentioned as the means by which it would be possible to identify the number sequence secrets that were held in the door. If the expert from Chubb could identify them, hey presto, it would be a piece of cake.

There was a problem; the expert was in another part of the country and could not get to Nottingham for several hours. In the meantime endeavours continued in the basement to identify the evasive numbers. Around lunchtime the futility of the exercise hit home. The most senior person present ordered a halt. We would await the arrival of the expert and his electronic stethoscope.

He arrived at 3.30 pm. Absolute silence was required. He was left alone in splendid isolation. Around 5pm someone went to see how he was getting on. No progress. Around 6.30 pm another visit was made. No change.

At 7.30 pm with no progress a radical change of direction was ordered. A firm of civil engineers were brought in with instruction to knock a hole in one of the side walls of the strongroom. As each wall was about half a metre thick this was no small operation. There was only a small space to work. As the wall also contained reinforced steel rods, it would be necessary to bring oxyacetylene cutting equipment on site before a hole could be made which would be big enough for a man to climb through.

The drilling began around 9 pm. At 9.05 pm there was a gathering of irate local residents outside the branch. The police, who had been advised of what was happening, were left to apply a good dose of public relations charm on behalf of the bank. The noise was horrendous. It went on until the small hours.

All male members of staff had been instructed to remain in the branch. Our suits began to take on the appearance of the guys who were creating all the racket. Amongst all this mayhem our electronic stethoscope expert continued to apply his skills in coaxing the strong-room door to reveal its secret. Around 3.30 in the morning entry to the strongroom was gained through a hole in the wall.

It was about ten minutes later that the expert with the electronic stethoscope calmly announced that he had located the number sequence and had managed to unlock the combination. Silence is the best way to describe the atmosphere in the branch for the next few minutes.

The hole in the wall had to be repaired complete with replacement reinforced bars. This was going to take several hours followed by fresh cement. I had to remain on the premises whilst it dried.

Would anyone believe such a catalogue of events ever happened?

A young girl in her late teens joined the bank around the same time as myself. She was always made up to the nines and wore clothing that many bankers of the old school would consider to be out of keeping with the image of the bank which they sought to project.

We learned after a few weeks that she participated in dancing competitions. Her skill as a dancer was revealed when she appeared on our television screen as a participant in the old tyme dancing section representing the East Midlands in BBC's 'Come Dancing'. Needless to say, she did not stay long before seeking pastures new.


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