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The First Seventy Years: 36 – A Difficult Decision

Eric Biddulph’s plans to work in the banking industry in Nigeria are thwarted by a civil war.

In August 1964 Jane was born in Nottingham City Hospital. I was present at the birth, an experience I would not have wanted to miss. I was not able to be in attendance at Paul's birth in 1969 owing to the difficulties Mary went through.

By mid-1965 I successfully completed my banking studies and was awarded the Banking Diploma by the Chartered Institute of Bankers. I had begun to get itchy feet by this time and applied for a job with the Bank of West Africa. I was accepted and told that I would be posted to Lagos in Nigeria.

I managed to go to London for the interview without the Midland Bank becoming aware of unfolding events. Mary and our one year daughter travelled to London for our medical examinations and injections.

The Midland, meanwhile, decided to transfer me to Granby Street Leicester branch, a move that would entail selling my house in Calverton. It was time to tell Mr Pain of my intention to resign from the Midland.

A few days after I told him civil war broke out in Nigeria. Christians living in the Northern Region of the country were killed in their thousands by those who were followers of Islam, who were in the majority. A steady drift of Ibos from the Christian dominated south east of the country to the north had resulted in many senior positions in the civil service and much of the private sector being occupied by them. Hundreds of thousands of Ibos fled southwards in the face of the widespread slaughter.

Would civil war sweep the country and embrace the relatively peaceful capital, Lagos? Would expatriates be safe? I had a cycling friend who had been working as an accountant in the country since 1953. He lived in Kaduna, a large predominantly Islamic city in the Northern Region. I sought his advice. The position was very unstable, he told me, and it was too early to know how things would turn out. He advised me not to leave the Midland Bank.

I duly told the Bank that I did not want to resign immediately. Surprisingly, I was told to remain at the Nottingham branch for the time being. I was acutely aware that my non-appearance at the Leicester branch would leave it below strength.

The crisis presented me with a monumental dilemma. I monitored the situation daily. The weeks past by and there did not seem to be any discernable sign of improvement in Nigeria. I knew that the bank would not permit me to continue to occupy no-man's land indefinitely. In retrospect, I am amazed that the Midland did not once attempt to put pressure on me.

On 2 February, 1966, I made what remains one of the most difficult decisions of my life. I would give backword to the Bank of West Africa.

The next day saw me boarding the early morning train for Leicester at the now demolished Victoria Station. My six years’ experience with the Midland in Nottingham had not been a happy one. The next three-and-a-half years serving in three different branches in Leicester did not prove to be any more satisfying.

Granby Street was the second largest branch in the country with a hundred members of staff working in its cathedral-like Gothic structure. Stained glass windows added to the feeling of an ecclesiastical inspired atmosphere. I spent some considerable time in the foreign department and a few weeks in the securities department.

Twice a year, in late May and late November, I was placed on the Balance Team. This consisted of twelve members of staff who had been taken off their normal duties in order that the half-yearly interest and commission charges could be calculated for every customer account held by the branch. In the days when the magical qualities of the computer had yet to penetrate the banking industry it was a three weeks job to complete this mammoth task. Mistakes were legion. Even though all calculations were checked by another member of the team, huge mistakes were made.

On one occasion, a major commercial customer was overcharged £100,000 in respect of a loan facility; this is close to £1 million at today's value. Amazingly it went un-noticed, and because of the value of the account to the bank it was discreetly handed back six months later under cover of reduced overdraft interest.

The team was required to work until 10pm. It was the long hours over an extended period that gave rise to these mistakes. A customer's interest charge might only add up to £10, but general fatigue would sometimes give rise to a mistake in the calculation and a £ 15 charge might result. The general policy was to let such mistakes stand unless the customer complained. Very few ever did so.

It was similar with commission charges. Many customers had been charged too much commission for years. Never having lodged a complaint, they continued to pay grossly excessive charges.

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