Do you remember your first ever piggy bank, the first time your parents, grandparents or local bank gave you a box to put your pocket money or loose change in?
Because it, or something at least a little like it, might be on display in an attic room in a new build house in suburban Essex which is the current unlikely home of England’s first ever ‘Museum of Savings’.
Here, a collection of more than 400 money boxes, piggy banks, fliers, adverts, books and other assorted objects dating from the start of the 20th century to the early 2000s have been carefully curated and arranged in four glass cabinets and on a smattering of shelves and side tables.
Squeezed into the attic room of a house in suburban Essex is a 400-strong collection of piggy banks, money boxes and other items forming England’s first ever ‘Museum of Savings’
The project is a collaboration between James Blower, founder of The Savings Guru and an adviser to challenger banks, and his fiancée Tanya Burrage, who spent close to 10 years working for Norfolk Museums Service in Norwich.
It began as a hobby, with James purchasing a piggy bank from the 1980s in an antique shop, and around 40 other objects, around four years ago.
Since then, the collection has multiplied tenfold, but, Tanya says, ‘We had no idea until lockdown we were going to do this, and then I said I would catalogue them.’
She adds: ‘I did this and my family tree. That was my lockdown.’
Most of the collection stems from antique shops and eBay or have been gifted from people aware of the project’s existence.
Aside from family and friends, I’m the first person to actually see the project, which James calls the first of its kind in England, and possibly the UK.
The project is a collaboration between savings bank consultant James Blower and his fiancée Tanya Burrage, who has more than a decade of experience in the museum industry
There is the Bank of England museum, and a museum about the history of savings banks in Dumfries, Scotland, where the UK’s first savings bank began in 1810, but, James says, the collection is unique, dedicated as it is to the history of the savings habit.
Arranged chronologically, Tanya begins our tour a century ago, with the creation of the first home money boxes in the UK.
‘These boxes started in the early 1900s in a bid to make saving accessible to working people’, she says, ‘before that people kept money under the mattress. Prior to 1921, when the first patent was filed in Birmingham, they were made in the US and imported.’
The collection begins in the early 20th century with home safes where the bank would hold onto the key if savers want access
The first tins are essentially that, fairly primitive metal boxes, where banks would actually keep the key and savers would need to visit to get the money out. Some of the earliest saving tins were even opened by can openers, you can see the line around the rim.
Researching the early history of these home safes ‘has been quite tricky’, Tanya says, but most of the information has been found through internet searching and ‘doing plenty of reading.’
From the 1930s onwards things get a little more sophisticated and a little more aesthetically pleasing, with book boxes displaying the crests of various banks and building societies.
In the 1930s banks and building societies began offering savings book money boxes
Some may be defunct, others are still around in some form, Midland Bank is now HSBC, the Post Office Savings Bank now National Savings & Investments.
‘These are my favourite things’, Tanya says, ‘you get the variety of designs and covers and attempts to give them unique names. I want to know which accounts these banks gave out these money boxes for, hopefully people will be able to tell us.’
The advice hasn’t changed much in all this time, a nearly 100-year-old advert from Lloyds Bank which came with one of its home safes states: ‘Make a habit of saving a small sum weekly: you will be surprised and pleased to find how much you can accumulate’.
Although some of the language around saving hasn’t changed in nearly 100 years (top), the rates on offer (bottom) certainly have
However, the rewards on offer to savers certainly have. An advert for NS&I’s investment account from May 1982 advertises a now inconceivable 13 per cent interest rate. The same account currently pays just 0.01 per cent.
Some of these tins, like one from the Bank of Liverpool and Martins, Barclays since 1969, inviting savers to save three and then six pence, became redundant after decimalisation in 1971.
And it was after that, and in the 1980s in particular, where Tanya says the modern idea of the piggy bank first began to emerge.
Much of the credit for that can be laid at the door of NatWest, represented on a side table by several piggies, of which one is part of a limited edition set of just 75, I am told.
NatWest was behind the dawn in the modern piggy bank in the 1980s. They were so popular they sold 200,000 in a fortnight
‘In the 1980s banks went from attracting parents to attracting the kids’, Tanya says, ‘I think they realised the power of marketing directly to children.’
The NatWest pig was perhaps an early introduction to behavioural economics. Open an account and save £25 and you get a baby pig, then another after holding it for six months and saving a certain sum, and so on.
It proved phenomenally successful. The bank had to pivot from the original designer to someone who could mass produce them, and even then, they sold 100,000 within a fortnight.
Banks and building societies used characters from children’s books to market savings accounts to kids
Other banks and building societies followed suit, using popular children’s characters like Paddington Bear and the Mr Men as the face of their savings accounts.
Similar, and even wackier, things populate the top of the four glass cabinets. There is Pudsey, eagles from Barclays, the Lloyds black horse, a penguin from Loughborough Building Society, and even a toy featuring Howard, the famous man from the Halifax adverts from the 2000s.
The early years of the 21st century is where the collection tails off. Tanya believes the trend of livening up banks’ savings offers died out a bit ‘because everyone lost their imagination’ after the 1980s, with unique designs replaced by identikit piggy banks.
‘Everyone lost their imagination’ in the 2000s, Tanya suggests, with the rise of identikit plastic piggy banks, Child Trust Funds and digital savings apps
The Government set up Child Trust Funds and Junior Isas, with the state in 2005 taking responsibility for child saving, while James believes ‘the focus has also shifted towards longer-term investment saving’ for younger people.
And the recent trend towards digital money management apps and piggy banks like GoHenry also raises questions for the pair, both as curators of a collection of physical savings boxes and as parents trying to teach children about money.
How do you teach the value of saving, or spending, it is often said, if money exists only as numbers on a screen?
James and Tanya are looking for a bigger space to house their collection, rather than leaving it in their attic
‘I think we will see a bit of a renaissance because of wanting to teach people about physical money’, Tanya says. ‘Things like credit cards are a bit meaningless. Kids don’t really use physical money anymore, especially with coronavirus.’
And at the very least, a collection of pocket money cards makes for less of a spectacle.
The collection, despite its impressive layout, arranged into eras and packed with information on sheets of printed paper, is in temporary premises at the moment, as I discover for myself tiptoeing around a large drum kit in the middle of the room to take a closer look at some of the cabinets.
Assorted memorabilia from what is now National Savings & Investments, including an advert for inflation-linked savings certificates, which still exist but are no longer on-sale
‘We’re definitely not keeping it up here’, Tanya exclaims. The pair are on the lookout for a larger space, perhaps a shuttered bank branch somewhere in the east of England.
The museum wouldn’t fill it by itself, but they’d be keen to find somewhere they can offer other things too, perhaps a place to get financial advice, to teach kids about money, or even a bank hub of the type being trialled elsewhere in Essex and in Scotland.
‘We’re having to think about all different ideas if we wanted to make it viable’, James says.
But the need for bigger space is certainly pressing, not least because the 400-strong collection isn’t finished just yet.
‘There’s still a wish list of we’re trying to acquire’, he adds.
Tanya continues: ‘It would be really nice to do a pre-bank, pre-money box age and look at that, perhaps at what the Victorians did, and then bring it all up to date to where we are now.’