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Feather's Miscellany: Bington Building Society

...I could go on at length about the staff at Bington Building Society, later the Binghop Bank, who apparently went about their work amicably with well oiled precision, but on closer examination weren’t so amicable – and sometimes not so precise. Behind the scenes as in all big establishments lurked lust for power and greed, resulting in stress, turmoil and hurt...

John Waddington-Feather’s story reveals a seething sea of emotion behind those respectable building society walls.

Often, inside institutions like banks and building societies, which outwardly seem tranquil and in full control, are relationships of stress and turmoil. The same is true of the world about us. Folk appear calm and balanced, but inside they are at odds with themselves and the world about them.

I knew a man who was the life and soul of every party with a great sense of humour. He always had a smile on his face and lifted the day wherever he went. One day he suddenly disappeared. They found his body floating in the river days later and at the inquest it all came out. He’d been suffering from chronic depression for years, but told nobody. Outwardly he was at peace; inwardly he was in hell.

You couldn’t have had an outwardly more stable staff than those who worked at the old Bington Building Society. Yet behind those bland, smiling counters and polished doors there was mayhem, as personality clashed with personality, as people chucked their weight about and made themselves unpleasant.

Dictators come at every level and not only in politics. There were bullies in the Bington Building Society from the lowest, green-toothed clerk to the managing director. Give some men and women a taste of power and in their own tiny sphere of influence they become little Hitlers. Many of the world’s tyrants began at the bottom and as they worked their way up, boot-licking and fawning, they became more and more power-drunk. In the end they became megalomaniacs. They’re still in power in various parts of the world.

These mini-dicatators were there in Bington Building Society, which started life modestly in the nineteenth century in the middle of Bington, then a market town but expanding rapidly like its neighbour and rival, Keighworth. Bington had a more upper-crustian history with medieval roots, so its citizens tended to look down on scruffy Keighworth, which was a parochial place. Keighworthians tended to work and live in Keighworth all their lives. But as they expanded in size and wealth, both towns founded building societies which flourished. An expanding middle-crustia paid their pounds week by week into them to buy their own houses while the under-crustians, the labouring class, continued to rent their tiny terrace houses.

However, whereas Keighworth grew as a workaday place, Bington housed more and more professional people who commuted down the valley by train to the cities of Bradford or Leeds. They earned good salaries and as Bington moved into the twentieth century and grew so did its building society.

It had started off modestly enough in a building set back from the main road. The pub next door lowered its tone somewhat, but it wasn’t a rowdy house and sometimes office staff would drop in there for a drink at lunchtime. A quieter place was the town’s mortuary just behind it.

Came the twentieth century and the building society began to expand even more. The original building became too small so it was knocked down like the mortuary behind and a new building society was built over both sites. However, when the new building came into use, employees said they went cold whenever they had to go into the basement to bring up files and some said they heard strange noises – like coffins being moved around. One swore she saw a ghost in the basement and the tale stuck. Ever after, juniors, especially girls, were loath to go down alone.

All building societies flourished in the palmy days of affluence at the back end of the twentieth century, and they rode the crest of a wealthy wave till they collapsed – along with the banks – in 2008. But in its heyday, Bington Building Society was re-built yet again, this time on a vast scale to reflect its wealth. It was indeed a Temple of Mammon, built like an ancient ziggurat, mounting in a succession of terraces to the sky and dominating the whole town. It was Bington’s monolingual Tower of Babel and the talk inside was all about money and finance. Some years later an extension was built, a mile or two down the valley; another gigantic office block twinned with the one in town.

And what of the people, the priests inside these temples? In public they were models of efficiency: polite at the counter, deferential in discussing business with customers, apparently smoothly going about their daily work and smartly dressed. All that building society and bank staffs should be. However, what went on behind those counters and in those expensively furnished offices was another story. The daily running of those temples of wealth was left to over a thousand staff in each; two thousand very different individuals. Abroad lived most of the directors, ex-patriot tax-dodgers, adding yearly to their millions with hefty self-given bonuses – till the crash of 2008.

But of those working inside the buildings was the leading man, the head manager, Derek Plumton, a tall, willowy man, going bald and constantly wearing a worried look at work. He had an uncertain temper and cracked the whip with those under him, but with the directors he was all smiles and positively grovelled whenever any of them dropped in from their villas abroad.

The junior clerks were terrified of him – all except young Birksted, another Billy Liar, with a great opinion of himself. He wanted to become a film-star and Hollywood was his goal. He looked at himself incessantly in a little mirror on his desk which he hid whenever Plumton showed up. He was good-looking and had all the office girls after him; and he’d have gone to the top had he not been so wayward. He didn’t answer letters, missed phone calls because he was outside chatting up his birds on the pretext of work, and binned items he later claimed he’d dealt with. It all caught up with him when dear Barbara Clapham, his overseer, became very worried and stayed behind one night to comb through his desk. In his waste-bin she found letters and redemption statements he’d ignored and which were used in evidence against him at the subsequent tribunal. He was suspended immediately and given the hoof at the end of the month. He never made Hollywood either.

One source of satisfaction for the staff at Bington was when it swallowed up Keighworth Building Society in a take-over. As a result several of the Keighworth staff travelled to Bington each day. One of them was Clifford Lambley. He’d gone into Keighworth Building Society straight from school and worked his way up. By the time he was fifty he was in charge of the title deeds, stored in the cadaverous basement. After the move, he swore he felt ‘cold spots’ each time he went down there to recover deeds. He was a bit of a creep and snitched on his colleagues to his superiors, and, like Derek Plumpton, threw his weight around with those under him. He liked to frighten the life out of new youngsters by sending them down for deeds after telling them about the old mortuary and the ghost seen down there. They didn’t hang about down there, which I must say helped efficiency.

Another strange guy was Roy Giddes, promoted when Bington Building Society was ‘de-mutualised’ and became a bank like many other building societies in the 1990s. Types like Giddes were well suited for the change. They sucked up to management like mad and worked all hours. Promotion and its attendant power were the goals of their lives first and foremost, so it didn’t surprise anyone when his wife divorced him. He used to pour out his troubles to Barbara Clapham, who had a motherly ear for all; then later he shopped her for some minor error. He was that sort. He rose high and became Chief Auditor when the building society became a bank. His salary soared with him and after several clandestine affairs with young women in his department, he re-married, twice.

Then there was Rosie Bell, who also worked in the Deeds Department. She was known as the “Bington News” she was such a gossip and knew everybody’s business. The juicier it was the more she tittle-tattled, relaying half-truths about staff throughout the entire building. Her husband was well off and ran some financial business and she’d really no need to work, but she lost her job, like many others, when the bank went bust and was nationalised following a government bail-out.

I could go on at length about the staff at Bington Building Society, later the Binghop Bank, who apparently went about their work amicably with well oiled precision, but on closer examination weren’t so amicable – and sometimes not so precise. Behind the scenes as in all big establishments lurked lust for power and greed, resulting in stress, turmoil and hurt.

Perhaps as a footnote I ought to tell you what eventually happened to Bington Building Society/Binghop Bank when the bank went bust and the Government took over. All the business was transferred to the second building out of town and the old building society was converted into apartments. Then, indeed, it looked like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, for rows on rows of window boxes appeared full of trailing flowers which burgeoned colourfully along its terraces in summer, transforming the centre of Bington.

Yet deep in the not so colourful basement, where the deeds were once stored and where the apartment manager had his lodgings, it was rumoured strange noises were heard, the sound of boxes being slid along slabs; and the manager was always complaining about the cold down there. He just couldn’t get the place warm.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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