Henry Norris at the Stepney and Suburban Permanent Building Society
Last updated: July 2008
In all my researches into Henry Norris I have never found him either working or living in Stepney. However, for five years at the end of his life, he was a director of Stepney’s local building society.
Apart from two minute books from the early years, at the local archiv,e there are no records of the Stepney BS in the public arena. This potted history is based on those minute books and the coverage of the AGM in the East London Observer. The Stepney and Suburban Permanent Building Society (which I shall call Stepney BS) was founded in November 1864 as the Stepney Permanent Benefit BS. It was a very local concern. The earliest annual report, from January 1874, shows all its directors to be resident either in Stepney or in London’s north-eastern suburbs. By 1902 it had changed its name to the one it still had when Norris got involved with it. However it was still at its original offices at 527 Commercial Road East. In 1910 it moved a few houses down the road, to 519 Commercial Road East, and was still at that address in the 1930s. It was a corner property but not a large one. The Stepney BS had agreed a 40-year lease with the freeholders, the Mercers’ Company. The buildings society’s offices were in the basement and ground floor; and its secretary lived on the top two floors. The AGMs were held on the premises, so I assume that there were not more shareholders than could be accommodated in the equivalent of a large drawing room. Although it was a small affair the Stepney BS had a great feeling of continuity about it: in 1910 the chairman, Mr Hallett, had been a shareholder for 40 years and the secretary, Mr Doublet, was still in his post in the 1930s.
MEETINGS 1869 TRI EVE ONCE A MONTH
From his work with the Allen and Norris partnership Henry Norris had developed the kind of expertise that a building society might be happy to draw on. However, with no connection at all to the area, there had to be another reason why Henry Norris might have been asked to be a director. And when I looked at the report of the AGM for 1910 in the East London Observer I found it. Edwin Evans had recently joined the Stepney BS’s board: Henry Norris’ estate agent friend. How Evans got involved, I couldn’t work out: his estate agents business was based in south London and, at least at this time, concentrated on property development on that side of the city. Evans missed the AGM of 1911, so I couldn’t tell from the report on that whether it had been Evans who had introduced the Stepney BS to William Gilbert Allen; but Allen attended his first AGM that year. The meeting went through the formality of electing Allen to the board of directors. He was nominated by a Mr Ashbridge and described as someone operating “a large business” (which was certainly true by this time) in the building trade and someone who would make “an efficient and useful director”; his election was seconded by a Mr Keen. Allen was elected unanimously by the shareholders who were present.
In the account of the rest of the AGM of 1911 I noticed something which (reading AGMs through to the 1930s) was typical of the Stepney BS’s attitude to its task. There was mention of “the depression in the property market”. However, in its past year the Stepney BS had been doing good business: with more applicants than could be covered by the money it had available. The annual report mentioned the decision the directors had come to about their happy situation of demand exceeding supply: they had resisted the temptation (which other buildings societies had not) to borrow money from banks in order to grant mortgages to more house-buyers. An interesting parallel, I think, to the lending situation of the past few years in the US and the UK.
The years went by. World War 1 came and went. Mr Claus continued as chairman (in 1929 he’d been on the board for 30 years), Evans and Allen continued to serve without interruption on the board of Stepney BS; and Norris was nowhere to be seen. Although in 1930 the local paper described the Stepney BS as one of the most progressive in east London, there had not been any changes in its policies, and no great expansion of Stepney BS’s work; on the other hand, there had been great continuity of personnel through very difficult times. Then came the 64th AGM, still at its offices at 519 Commercial Road on Thursday 7 Feb 1929, the day after the disastrous end of Norris’ libel case against the Football Association. This was the first such meeting Henry Norris attended and no doubt he had informally been told he would be elected as a director and had committed himself to attending board meetings which were held (if arrangements were the same as in the Society’s earlier history) once a month on Friday evenings.
Stepney BS’s AGM was the first after the death of Sir Edwin Evans. Another director, Mr Lloyd, had also died; and Henry Norris and a Mr Titford had been chosen from several suitable candidates to fill their places, under Stepney BS’s Rule 16. Mr Titford was also an estate agent, a partner in Waterer and Dickins, based in Bromley. It’s possible William Gilbert Allen and Henry Norris knew him from Kinnaird Park Estate Company which had been building in Bromley for many years. Norris’ election as a director was formally proposed by a Mr Campion but in his acceptance speech he made it clear he owed the directorship to his friendship with Edwin Evans, who had often talked abt Stepney BS and said he’d put forward Norris’ name as a suitable director when a vacancy arose on its board. Norris said how sorry he was that it had been Evan’s own death that had caused the vacancy he now filled. Despite the trauma of the last few months, Norris had done at least some homework on the institution he was now a part of; and I presume he had done the share-buying that made him eligible to stand as a director. He described Stepney BS’s motto as ‘safety first’: it was not amongst the largest building societies, but its financial position was very sound.
The 65th AGM of Stepney BS, was held on Thursday 30 January 1930. Henry Norris didn’t attend it; nor did he send apologies. This was the last AGM attended by both Mr Claus and William Gilbert Allen and of course it was the first to take place after the Stock Market crash in the United States. By the 66th AGM, probably held on Friday 23 January 1931, Mr Claus had retired as a director though he continued as a trustee; he was in poor health and perhaps felt that the task of guiding Stepney BS through the difficult times ahead should go to someone better able to face it. Charles Bracey Forbes had been elected to the board of directors in his place; a partner in Messrs Mark Liell and Sons, estate agents with branches in Bow and East Ham. And Henry Norris had taken over as chairman despite his short time involved with Stepney BS. 1931 was his first AGM in charge. William Gilbert Allen didn’t attend and didn’t send apologies; within a few weeks he was dead.
As chairman it was now Henry Norris’ job to make the speech urging the shareholders to adopt the Annual Report. He described the Stepney BS’s financial state as “highly satisfactory”, although he did add that if it had had been able to attract more lenders, its assets could have been used even more profitably. He assured those present that the Stepney BS was not going to reduce its interest rates to lenders from the current 5%. He paid tribute to the Stepney BS’s staff, not something he had ever been wont to do in making speeches like this at other institutions of which he was chairman. He said that there were not many of them but they were all very careful of the interests of Stepney BS’s investors. He ended by showing that although he was a newcomer, he was aware of the Society’s history: he welcomed to the meeting a Mr Hort who was a grandson of one of Stepney BS’s first members and son of its first secretary. Mr Hodsoll was Norris’ deputy-chairman at Stepney BS; he had been a director for over 25 years. At the end of the meeting there was another break with the past. For the first time in all the AGM reports I’d read, a motion was passed that Stepney BS’s directors be given 100 guineas to be shared between them as they saw fit. Henry Norris then rounded the meeting off with some comments more telling to me than they probably were to his listeners that day: he said how pleasant it was, working with the members and staff of Stepney BS.
Henry Norris’ second AGM as chairman of Stepney BS took place on 28 January 1932 and had as its theme ‘safety with profit’. The original William Gilbert Allen’s eldest son, also called William Gilbert, attended it, and was elected to the board to fill the vacancy left by the death of his father. The annual report acknowledged how difficult the last twelve months had been; however it described the Stepney BS as having made “safe and steady” progress, so that its current financial position was “unimpaired”, unlike many of its rival building society’s who had been more adventurous when the going had looked good.
Norris had begun his speech urging the adoption of the Annual Report by the shareholders, by regretting William Gilbert Allen senior’s death, describing him as “mourned, not only by the members of this board, but by all who appreciated his worth as a man”. On the economic situation, Norris spoke of the “national crisis through which our country is passing” but said that he felt optimistic about the future: “that the country will eventually be restored to its old prosperity I, personally, have not the slightest doubt”. About the way in which Stepney BS had made yet more “steady progress” through these very choppy financial waters, Norris made some remarks that encapsulated Stepney BS’s policies since its beginning: it didn’t spend much money on advertising; and unlike some other building societies they would not be lending borrowers as much as 75% of a property’s purchase price; on the other hand, though, Stepney BS wasn’t going to follow the example also set by other building societies of cutting the interest rates it paid its lenders. Mr Hodsoll’s speech as vice-chairman, seconding adoption of the annual report, dwelt on how English the concept of a building society was.
This year Norris had to stand for re-election to the board of directors. His re-election was proposed by Councillor Edser and seconded by a Mr Hands; and went through without argument as these things usually did. Replying to the speech of thanks to the chairman, Norris again stressed to the shareholders the cautious approach Stepney BS always took, especially to lending; he said that none of its members were likely to lose any money while such an approach continued. And again he made a reference that speaks volumes to me about how he now remembered meetings at - say - Arsenal FC: he said how very easy it was to chair a meeting at which “everybody was satisfied with what had been done”.
Henry Norris chaired the Stepney BS’s 68th AGM was held on Tuesday evening, 31 January 1933. During the past twelve months Stepney BS had been coping with changes in income tax legislation, which had trebled the liability of all building societies. Despite this very large new outgoing there was still a reasonable sum in the reserve fund. However, the increased taxation had prompted the directors to recommend the first change in Stepney BS’s rules for many years. All the shareholders had received a copy of the proposed new rules with their annual report. Those present at the AGM would be required to vote on whether to adopt them.
In his speech urging adoption of the annual report Norris didn’t sound as optimistic as he had done in previous years. He spent a lot of his speech explaining to his listeners the effects of the tax increases introduced in the 1931 budget. He described the last twelve months as “trying”, with building societies having to live with high unemployment, what he called “high taxation with its crippling effect on industry” and the the lowering of the base interest rate interest on War Loans from 5% to 3½%. Despite these handicaps, though, the Stepney BS had actually increased the amount of its capital in the past year. Applications for mortgages had remained steady through the year. On the borrowing side, the Stepney BS had continued with its policy of favouring small investors and that had paid off, there had been an increase in the amount of money coming in from lenders. However, Norris issued a warning that the Society might not be able to continue paying them 5% for much longer. And he seemed to feel that Stepney BS needed to get more investment: he urged those at the meeting to make the Society more widely known; no chairman had done that in his speech since about 1911. In particular he wanted Stepney BS’s members to counter the widely-held impression that it would only lend money on property in Stepney. Norris said that, on the contrary, Stepney BS was happy to consider lending on properties elsewhere in London and in the Home Counties. It was not keen on lending on properties further away because it lacked the local specialised knowledge it thought was required. I get the impression from this speech of 1933 that Norris was more worried about Stepney BS’s future than he was prepared to give voice to at a public meeting.
Once the business of the AGM was over, a separate special meeting was held to vote on the proposed changes in the Society’s rules. Norris spoke in favour of the change, saying that this would be the first such change since 1905. Many of the rules were now obsolete and others needed to be revised to reflect current conditions. He urged the shareholders to agree to the changes that were being proposed; and the motion was seconded by a Mr Philips. It was carried unanimously - the meeting was very short - and Norris signed off by mentioning yet again that Stepney BS’s meetings was so very easy that it was a pleasure to chair them.
After these changes had been enacted the Stepney BS had another good year and was in what the annual report described as “a strong financial position” when Henry Norris chaired its 69th AGM on Wednesday 31 January 1934. So strong were the Society’s finances that it had been able to increase the amount of money it held in its reserve fund. In his chairman’s speech Norris spoke of the difficulties of money management in such uncertain times; maybe he was not just thinking of economics when he said this - Hitler was already in power in Germany. However, he said that unlike many other building societies, the Stepney BS was still issuing shares and whereas some societies had felt obliged to drop their interest rates during the last twelve months, Stepney BS had not needed to do so. Norris ended his speech stressing the need for the directors and the members of the Society to work together to see Stepney BS through these hard times.
And he mentioned a result of his plea the year before to make Stepney BS wider known: they had since been contacted by someone living in Rio de Janeiro!
The AGM of 1934 was Henry Norris’ last, of course. The City and East London Observer of 4 August 1934 had a short notice of his death, saying that in his brief time as chairman he had
“done a great deal towards the continued expansion and success of the Stepney Building Society” - without going into any details. I have not been able to trace what happened to the shares he must have owned in the Society. I assume they went into the pot held by the trust fund Norris had set up for his daughters. William Gilbert Allen junior continued as a director of Stepney BS and in due course his position there was inherited by his son, who supervised the takeover of the Society by the Vigilant Building Society, some time after the end of World War 2.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE SOURCES OF ALL THIS INFORMATION, SEND ME AN EMAIL AND I’LL SEND YOU THE SOURCES FILE.
Copyright Sally Davis July 2008