The Bank of Tring

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Once the Bank of Tring.

THERE were a large number of private banks in England in the first half of the 19th Century.  Set up by local businessmen — such as merchants, manufacturers, brewers, lawyers, etc. — these private banks played an important role in the local economy at a time when the Bank of England and other London-based banks rarely stirred outside of the capital.  Because many of the bankers who ran them were originally engaged in a business, for which banking was a sideline launched to fund their activities, they were knowledgeable about their borrowers and the trades in which they were engaged, and many kept customer accounts and issued their own banknotes.  Most of these small banks were closely linked to at least one London bank or 'agent' that invested their customers' money and settled payments to other banks.

    However, the existence of many small banks empowered to issue their own banknotes caused serious stability problems, and during the period 1809 to 1830 alone, over 300 of them failed. The Bank Charter Act of 1844 created the supremacy of the Bank of England and put in place the process that would lead to its eventual monopoly of the issue of banknotes in England and Wales (but not in Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands).  This monopoly did not take full effect until 1921, when Lloyds Bank took over the last private bank of issue, the firm of Fox, Fowler and Company, who had conducted a banking business at Wellington, Somerset, since 1787.

    So much for the background.

Tring High Street during the Edwardian era.  The edifice of Butcher's Bank — on the right behind the lamp standard — presents an imposing structure, exuding solidity and prudence in financial matters (do these qualities still apply?).  The metal railings fronting the present building are but a poor excuse for the fine iron railings shown here in an age when corporate and civic pride were more apparent.  The shop of antique dealer John Bly, grandfather of the television antique furniture expert, is to the right of the bank — and what an attractive high street facade is presented by the shops on the opposite side, gas-lights positioned to illuminate their wares before the arrival of domestic electric lighting.  Of course one didn't 'download' e-mail in that era — having traversed the Victorian Internet (the telegraph) the  telegram boy, seen holding his bicycle, delivered it.

Photo: Wendy Austin collection.

    Customers entering the National Westminster Bank in Tring High Street ― picture at top of page ― might not realise that this was once Butcher’s Bank, a private bank and "bank of issue" established in 1836 by Thomas Butcher in partnership with his son Thomas jnr.

    The arrival at Tring of the
Grand Junction Canal (1799) and, later, of Robert Stephenson's London and Birmingham Railway (1838), led to a rapid expansion in the town's population and a need for banking facilities in an age before the growth of today's high street banks.  Non-conformists were prominent among those who set up in business as bankers, for being barred by the discriminatory legislation of that era from a wide range of careers they concentrated their energies on trade and commerce — and the Butchers were Baptists.  They were also businessmen, dealing in groceries, tea, tallow and seeds and corn, and so an extension of the family's business activities into banking was not unusual at that time.

    During the period 1844-56, Butcher's bank appears to have grown steadily under the prudent and close attention of its partners, which later included Thomas junior's sons, Frederick and George.  The business became known as "Thomas Butcher & Sons"; it was also known as "Tring Old Bank" and was represented at Aylesbury and Chesham on market days.  The bank later became the "Tring, Aylesbury & Chesham Bank", opening branches in Aylesbury (1837), Chesham (1840) and Berkhamsted (1900) — it is said that local farmers and merchants used to accompany the partners conducting business in other towns back to Tring, acting as their escorts.  By 1898 the firm comprised George, Francis Joseph and Walter Butcher, who ran the branches at Aylesbury, Chesham and Tring respectively.

    Thomas Butcher & Sons was eventually taken over by its London agents, the bankers Prescott, Dimsdale, Cave, Tugwell & Co (est. 1766), which in 1903 became Prescott’s Bank and in the same year amalgamated with Union of London & Smiths Bank.  Following further mergers, the business was absorbed into the National Provincial Bank in 1918 and became part of the National Westminster Bank in 1970.

    According to the surviving records, Thomas Butcher & Sons issued bank notes between 1836 and 1900, the known denominations of banknotes issued being £5 and £10.  In 1844 the total recorded circulation was £13,531.  A 19th century ten pound note issued by the Tring, Aylesbury and Chesham Bank, unsigned and undated, was recently offered for sale at £250.

    Signing and dating?  Banknotes were originally hand-written, although from about 1725 onwards they were partially printed, but cashiers still had to sign each note and make them payable to someone.  The ‘£’ sign and first digit were printed, but other numerals were added by hand, as were the name of the payee, the cashier’s signature, the date and the number.  Although early banknotes could be for uneven amounts, most were for round sums.  By 1855, banknotes had become entirely machine printed and payable to ‘the bearer’ (i.e. whoever possessed it).


A view (ca. 1870) in the opposite direction to that above along Tring High Street.  Butcher's Bank is just visible on the left.
 Photo: Wendy Austin collection.

Since the following was written, the Chesham has lost its place as the UK's oldest building society, having been absorbed by the Skipton Building Society in 2010.  The following remains as a  footnote on the Butcher family . . . .

    Although Butcher’s Bank is long gone, another organisation that grew out of a suggestion by Thomas Butcher Jnr. is thriving; indeed, it’s the oldest building society in the world.  Not the Halifax or the Abbey National, as you might think, but the Chesham.  When founded in 1845 it was not the first building society, but earlier societies have since gone out of business or merged with others (the earliest known was Ketley's Building Society, named after the landlord of the Golden Cross Inn in Birmingham, where it held its meetings).

    At that time the people of Chesham lived mostly in and around its centre.  The town had long-established industries based on local products; the beech woods gave material for making essential implements, the river Chess provided power and water for mills as it had since Saxon times; there were tanneries, breweries, paper-making and other trades; straw-plaiting was a cottage industry for women and girls; and the boots and shoes made here were already supplying the London market.  Bricks and tiles were staple products.  As industries developed, they employed a greater proportion of the local population.  They started to earn more money and began looking for a secure way to invest it.  Thomas Butcher Jnr., who lived in the town, suggested to a group of influential local men that a building society could operate successfully in Chesham.

    Both Thomas Butcher Jnr. and his son Frederick were among the Society's trustees, while among the early directors was one Arthur Liberty, whose business later grew into the internationally famous Regent Street department store.  All of gave their services free; in the Society's early days, only the Secretary received payment.

The Village Hall, Cholesbury.

    Another legacy of the Butcher family is the Village Hall at Cholesbury near Tring.  Built in 1895 on land given to the people of Cholesbury by Frederick Butcher, a grandson of the Bank’s founder Thomas, it’s an attractive Victorian building situated at the Buckland Common end of Cholesbury.  Originally just a "parish room" it was soon taken over by the Men's Club, which charged 1p a week membership and did its best to exclude rowdies from the neighbouring villages.


Acknowledgements: I am grateful to the Archivist of The Royal Bank of Scotland, of which Butcher’s bank is a constituent, for providing much of the information on this page about the Bank and its notes in circulation, to the Secretary of the Chesham Building Society for information about the Society's early years, and to Wendy Austin for the use of photographs from her collection.


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