Tuesday, August 4, 2015
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
British banking expanded in the Victorian period, and it wasn’t just a matter of high finance. In the 18th and early-19th centuries there was a dearth of places where people on low incomes could save on a modest scale, putting away a small amount of money for hard times and unforeseen needs. Local savings banks were one answer, and such banks spread widely after the success of one founded by the Rev Henry Duncan in Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, in 1810. It’s said that such a bank was started in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, in 1816. Thirty years later it was large and well enough established to move into these premises in Crown Street.
Lewis Cottingham, a Suffolk-born architect who established his office in London and became well known as a Gothic-revival specialist, was the designer of the bank. This commission came at the end of Cottingham’s life – he had developed a successful career as a repairer of churches and cathedrals (and was the restorer of the Norman gate tower next door to this site), and a builder of houses large and small. For the savings bank he chose neither straight Gothic, nor the classical style so often used for banks, but a red-brick ‘Tudor-Gothic’ style with stone mullioned windows, prominent gables, and tall, ornate chimneys. The brickwork has diaper patterns, which the Victorians sometimes used on their more decorative buildings, from humble cottages to William Butterfield’s vast Keble College, Oxford.
The result is impressive, making good use of the corner site, but not grandiose. There’s a domestic feel to the building, and the look of the date, picked out in dark bricks, is more like something you’d see in homespun by a builder than on an architect-designed bank. So much so indeed that I took it at first glance to be a group of almshouses, in which the large door led to a courtyard. But a bank it was, and it served the people of Bury in this way until 1892. I’m told the building is now divided into apartments, and must also serve its residents well with light, attractive, and central accommodation.