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Carve its name with pride…

Image © Martins Bank Archive Collections


2013 Exchange Flags Wartime Gold Memorial MBA Ref 1405-007The pride with which this carving is placed outside Martins Bank’s Head Office Building is completely justified.  Personal thanks from the Governor of the Bank of England himself are praise indeed for the role that Martins Bank plays in the protection of our country’s reserves of gold during the Second World War.  The story has been told many times - in fact we have two slightly conflicting versions here – and from this we find it impossible to say whether or not the entire gold reserves were held in the vaults.  The truth itself may still be a secret – judge for yourself from our feature below…


1946 03 MBM.jpgIn the gloom of the blackout, towards midnight on an evening in May, 1940, a small group of bank officials gathered on the platform of Lime Street Station, Liverpool, to render a national service which the tragic collapse of France had made a regrettable necessity. For the Bank of England, too, had its Dunkirk, and the heavily laden train which drew up along­side the waiting officials was the first of three special trains bearing a part of the gold reserve of the Bank to a place which seemed less vulnerable to the threat of air attack and possible invasion. That place was the strongroom of our new Head Office building. Built upon rock, with walls and ceilings nearly a yard thick, made of concrete reinforced by interlaced steel bars, equipped with doors each weighing nine tons, our strongroom accommodation was adjudged by the Bank of England bullion officials admirable for storing a considerable portion of the gold reserve.  


1932 Facade of Building to Exchange Flags (Barclays 1990s) PAAccordingly, preparations were made with as much secrecy as could be observed by vacating our Treasury and Branch Security sections and crowding the contents into the Bond and Custody rooms. The problem of getting the heavy loads down to the basement had to be solved as our bullion lift could not cope with a job of this magnitude, and moreover, trucking would have been required from the only entrance on a street level. An examination was made of the escape hatches opening from the air-raid shelters, and by good fortune the only one operating to the street in a manner suited to our purpose was found to give access to a large room convenient to the strongroom corridor. We then borrowed from a customer a long wooden chute used for warehousing butter and cheeses, and fixed it to the hatch with its lower end anchored on a strong steel cupboard. When the first train arrived on the night of May 22nd the boxes of gold were loaded on to lorries and brought through the streets under police protection to the bank. Every box was lettered and numbered as its contents and value were exactly assessed and it was required of us that they be accessible for delivery to a pre-determined plan. The boxes containing the gold bars and bullion had been hastily made and banded with iron strips. Each one weighed about 130 Ib. and was as heavy as a strong man could carry for a few Steps. As they came down the chute the corners bit into the wood and gradually tore it to shreds and wore out the sides. A few boxes crashed to the floor and one containing coin burst open, but by a little coaxing of the contrivance it was made to last out the night and a new chute was acquired for the next consignments. Strongly-built platform conveyors, each capable of bearing 20 to 24 boxes in stacks five or six high and weighing 1¼ tons, were supplied by the Bank of England.  


1940 22nd May Britain's Gold Reserves leave Bank of England for Martins HO MBM-AU46P26A special type of trolley was run beneath the platforms to lift them from the floor so that they could be manoeuvred into position for Storage, in spite Of their weight the piled boxes were not very secure when in motion and one load capsized and injured a man who could, not jump clear in time. He was taken to hospital and happily soon made a recovery. To hold the Stacks more securely for movement we invented an adjustable iron collar, and this was later presented to the Bank of England and considered a useful gadget. The work continued throughout the night and finished in time for breakfast and a clean-up before the next day's work began. A similar operation was undertaken two nights later and a third consignment arrived on May 3ist. By this time we had received 4,719 boxes weighing about 280 tons and all our space was packed. The following letter was received from the Governor of the Bank (now Lord Norman) after the second consignment had been handled. Dear Mr. Chairman., We here have been so impressed by the helpful attitude adopted by Martins Bank in connection with the recent storage of a large consignment of boxes of unknown content that I feel impelled to write and express my appreciation and gratitude for all that has been done. I understand that your principals as well as their staff have all given their utmost assistance, both by day and by night, and that your bank has gone so far as to express a desire that the expenses incurred should be regarded as a contribution to National Service. For this, for the hospitality extended to certain members of the Bank of England staff, and for all the other evidences of your co-operation I am indeed grateful and I hope you will see fit to convey an expression of my thanks to those who have given such willing and efficient service. I am, Yours sincerely, M. Norman'.


2009 Front door was soon realised that the boxes would have to be taken out some day—perhaps at short notice—and that the problem would present greater difficulties than that of getting them in as the force of gravity would be against us instead of in our favour.  The bullion lift (Shown here, left) could not deal with such a weight in a single day. Other lifts had to be made available and this involved breaking down a wall dividing the bank basement from the rentable portion of the building so as to bring into use the two-ton capacity service lift. This was done and a steel door substituted for the wall.  We also had constructed a ladder with roller sleeves over steel spindles, so that the boxes could be passed through a ground floor window for loading direct on to lorries. The wisdom of these preparations was manifest when a month later a decision was taken to remove the gold hastily to Canada and all hands were required to load up the convoy of lorries to take it to the docks for shipment—this time in daylight. It reached its war-time home safely, and all that was left to us was a sense of pride at being, if only for a short time, custodians of the gold of the Bank of England.

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All that glisters…

In 1993, a fictional account of this wartime escapade - “The Bullion Boys” - is made by the BBC.  Not for the first time in its life, Martins Bank’s wonderful Head Office building is used as the film set, this time to re-create an event that actually took place there. The background to the relocation of the gold reserve is told in this extract from Four Centuries of Banking:

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Four Centuries Cover{When the Germans advanced across Europe and invasion seemed imminent, the cabinet instructed Montagu Norman, later Lord Norman, to transfer the gold reserves from the Bank of England to a safe place in the provinces, whence they could be quickly moved again if necessary. It was decided that the strong room of Martins Bank Head Office was a suitable repository.  The gold was despatched on three trains on three separate days. Each consignment was approximately 100 tons. As it would have taken a long time to unload the gold by wheeled truck, a chute was installed leading to the vaults used as air raid shelters in the Bank's basement.


The first con­signment arrived on No. 8 platform at Lime Street Station on 22 May 1940, just before midnight. It took nearly three hours to transfer the gold from the train to the lorries. In all, 4,719 boxes, weighing about 280 tons were transported. Each box contained about 130 Ibs of gold in either four bars of solid gold or sovereigns. The only chute available was borrowed from a firm who used it for cheese and butter. It was, therefore, not strong enough to stand the weight of gold. Its wooden sides cracked, and some boxes fell to the stone floor. The Bank also held the dollar securities in transit to Montreal.  The gold bullion was in store about a month and was then shipped to Canada, where it arrived safely. Montagu Norman wrote to the Bank thanking it for its services and for its desire that the expenses be considered a contribution to national service.}

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2013 MAY 14 Room where WW2 Gold Reserves entered MS-BGA.JPGThen  and now…

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This photograph of a room in the basement at 4 Water Street was taken on 14 May 2013, and with its gaudy yellow décor, and peeling wall coverings, it is very hard to imagine that such a historic event might ever have taken place there. The room is however situated directly below the point where the Country’s reserves of gold bullion were dropped into the basement of the Bank, and was the scene of one of the most secret wartime activities that Martins was involved with. In May 2013, on a joint visit to Head Office at 4 Water Street with our friends from Barclays Group Archives, we came across the basement room into which the Wartime gold reserves were placed using a chute from the ground floor level outside.