Since Victorian times, building societies have played a key part in the provision of housing for the people of Britain. Societies have enabled millions to buy a home that could have taken a lifetime to save for, also paying interest to those who entrust their savings to them. At the heart of the building society movement, since 1869, has been the Building Societies Association (BSA).
Although the first building society had been started in 1775, it was many decades later that a group of building society chiefs came together and created their trade association. Until the 1830s, only local societies with limited membership existed, to pool resources and provide homes for the members, before being terminated. Then a major development changed that.
A law enacted in 1836 gave official recognition to building societies and paved the way for their expansion. The next decade brought forth ‘permanent’ building societies able to accept savings from, and in suitable cases lend money to, a large roll of members and continue accepting new members rather than terminating. More societies sprang up across the country.
By 1860 there were some 2,750 building societies, overseen by a government-appointed Chief Registrar. Leading figures got together and in 1869 a trade body initially called the Building Societies Protection Association was formed to safeguard the movement’s interests. Societies became bigger but fewer; by 1910 there were 1,723 societies with 626,000 members.
Though impacted by two World Wars, societies expanded during the 1960s/70s and several giants emerged. It was all-change when demutualisations turned members into shareholders. First, Abbey National became a plc in 1989; Halifax, the ill-fated Northern Rock and many others followed. Today, with Nationwide the largest of 43 societies left, the 150-year-old BSA serves a downsized movement.
Banks and alternative mortgage lenders now stand alongside building societies in the marketplace we know so well.