Banking in time of war

In the two global conflicts of the 20th Century, few countries committed more manpower on a per capita basis than Australia. 

In World War One, more than 400,000 men enlisted out of a total population of less than five million. The Australian casualty rate was 65 per cent - the highest in the British Empire. In World War Two, almost a million citizens served – more than 10 per cent of the entire population.

" The Australian casualty rate from [WW1] was 65 per cent - the highest in the British Empire."

This impact was also felt on the homefront in both conflicts, including by colonial banks.

In World War One, employees from The Bank of Australasia (an ANZ predecessor) volunteered at a higher rate than the general population. Forty per cent of the company’s entire workforce – nearly 400 men – volunteered.

In World War Two the impact was just as significant. Another ANZ founding company - the English, Scottish and Australian Bank (ES&A) - had 826 employees enlisted, more than half the entire male staff.

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An All-Australian hero

One of the most notable employees to serve in the armed forces was William Ronald Phillips who served in World War 2. He joined the Bank of Adelaide (acquired by ANZ in 1979) in 1930.

After a stellar early career in banking, Phillips joined in RAAF, and graduated at the top of his class scoring 97.5 per cent in his passing out examination. 

He was then transferred to Canada where he joined the newly formed overseas fighter training program. He graduated from the program with honours and became the first ever Australian to win his RAF ‘Wings’ – qualification as a fully-trained pilot.

Phillips transferred to England and was attached to a fighter squadron no. 3, immediately joining the frontline of the battle.

On arrival in England, he was described as the “best all-round pilot of the  RAAF.”

Of this newly formed squadron, Phillips was the first to shoot down an enemy bomber. His obituary also records his success in shooting down an enemy Messerschmitt.

In a letter, held by ANZ’s archives, Phillips thanked his colleagues back home for sending out a parcel with letters and food. He also laments a difference with life back in Australia.

“We have experienced temperatures of 10 degrees below zero,” Phillips wrote.  “Personally I would prefer a decent Australian heat wave.”

On 28 May, 1941 after flying his Hurricane on an operational patrol, he lost control of his aircraft and crash landed being killed on impact. He was 26.

The home front

With so many men like Phillips serving overseas, there were significant shortages in personnel on the home front. 

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Bank of Australasia Staff in Adelaide, 1917

During the First World War, for the first time significant numbers of women entered the workforce, including into roles in banking which had previously been almost exclusively the preserve of men.

ES&A was quick to embrace the increased diversity of its workforce – having previously been the first Australian bank to employ a woman (in 1880).

It was also the first bank to employ a woman into a front line role. Former Bank Manager Percy Wallis said of Madge Mathewson, who worked in the bank’s Caulfield East branch, as the “most capable – the best teller I ever had.”

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Mary Swifte – Australia’s first ever female bank employee pictured c1900.

Elsewhere however, the transition was slower and occasionally more awkward. According to ANZ’s archives, when sporadic air raids in London began during WW1, questions of propriety in a mixed gender workforce came to the fore.

“Female employees were solemnly escorted to basement shelters when the alarms sounded, while the men didn’t think it proper to join them until the anti-aircraft guns opened up,” the bank records.  

Women played a key role in keeping banking running, not to mention playing a vital role in helping banks administer government schemes such as war time saving and rationing.

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ANZ (ES&A) employees with food parcels prepared to send to the UK, 1941 (ANZ Archive)

As Butlin describes, necessity drove significant workplace change.

“For employees holidays were a thing of the past,” Bultin wrote. “Men stayed on past retiring age and unprecedented numbers of women started working for banks.”

“They moved beyond their traditional clerical and ledger machining into roles previously occupied by men becoming tellers.”  

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World War 2 Victory Parade in Adelaide, 1946 (ANZ Archives)

The change was accelerated in the post-war years, as many banks chose to sell branches which had closed during the war as part of government rationalisation schemes.

The proceeds were invested in a number of architectural innovations, including the design of more open floor plans, drive-in branches and automation of clerical processes allowing branches to focus more on customer service.

James Wilson is a bluenotes contributor and history editor

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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