On history and breaking into your own bank

The technology start-up story is a well-told one. Maybe two friends with an interest in tech start work in a parent’s garage. A few years later, after adding a little venture capital and a big idea, a multi-billion dollar organisation like Microsoft or Apple emerges.

Like such oak-tree-from-acorn (or unicorns as the case may be) companies, ANZ had humble origins and faced some very real challenges in getting started – including some as simple as the locks.  

Locks were a problem faced by David Charteris McArthur, Superintendent of the Bank of Australasia (an ANZ forebear) and one of the bank’s earliest leaders.

" I effected an entrance by means of having the locks of one of the back doors picked." David Charteris McArthur.

Expanding a successful business in the boom years of colonial Australia was no easy task – particularly overseeing the new Headquarters of the Bank of Australasia in Melbourne following the chaotic goldrush years.

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Melbourne during the goldrush years.

While the population numbers for existing indigenous Australians were not accurately recorded, government records show in the two year period following the discovery of gold, the measured population of Victoria increased from 77,000 to 540,000. Over that period, the recorded population of Australia tripled between 1851 and 1871 from 430,000 to 1.7 million – an increase greater than over the previous 70 years.

The rapid growth meant services and infrastructure were slow to keep up, which presented challenges for Charteris when taking possession of the bank’s new headquarters. 

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David Charteris McArthur (pictured in 1884).

At the time, the bank was located in the modern Treasury on Collins building on the corner of Collins and Queen Street, Melbourne.

“Some difficulty was experienced in obtaining possession of the building in consequence of the obstructions of the contractor who desired to retain it in his own hands until a settlement of certain charges for extras which had been challenged by the architects had been adjusted,” he noted in archival documents. 

“As however it was of manifest importance to us to be in possession as soon as possible, active under competent advice, I effected an entrance by means of having the locks of one of the back doors picked.”


Even once the new headquarters were under possession there were still challenges, as McArthur’s colleague William Rose Falconer described.

“Hardly a day passes without some forgery, fraud, or robbery being committed in the Bank, for which facilities are afforded by the crowded state of the office, so that respectable people are actually deterred from transacting their business on some occasions,” he said. 

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The former Bank of Australasia Headquarters on the corner of Collins Street and Queen Street, Melbourne. It was owned by ANZ until 1974.

This climate necessitated a hands-on approach to managing the business.  Once the Melbourne branch was established, McArthur and Falconer had the grounds around the premises cleared to give McArthur’s guard dogs (shipped over from the UK) clear run.  For weeks McArthur and Falconer slept with the bank’s cash chest between their beds.

McArthur also played a key role in expanding the bank’s presence across the state and opening branches on the Victorian goldfields.

After opening a branch in Portland, Victoria, McArthur opted to return to travel by sea. On the return journey, the ship’s captain, who had undertaken to call for them on his return from Adelaide, at the last moment demanded a surcharge of GBP 150.

Rather than wasting precious capital, McArthur responded by buying horses and rode the arduous and rugged 250 miles across country to Melbourne.


It was only once the gold rush had died down McArthur could enjoy some of the prosperity he played a key role in establishing.

Like many of today’s tech leaders, McArthur was a patron of the arts and the McArthur Gallery of the National Gallery of Victoria is named after him.

He was also a keen cricket player – playing in the first ever recorded game of cricket in Victoria and captaining the Melbourne Cricket Club.

Meanwhile, through a series of mergers and acquisitions, the business he helped to establish endures to this day. 

James Wilson is a bluenotes contributor

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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