A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 10: The bank

Chapter 10: The bank

Author: Alistair Knox

When I left Scotch College in December 1927, Bradman was our national hero. He shared the honor with Phar Lap and with Bert Hinkler, the pioneer airman. The following year saw the Conservative Government lose the election, and its leader Stanley Bruce unseated. There was a general sense of unease. The British General Strike of 1926 would somehow also affect us. I applied for a job in the State Savings Bank of Victoria and was accepted. The bank was unadventurous and secure and a home for the physically and mentally lazy. I was still under sixteen as I found myself knocking at the door to begin work. I was ushered in and made to feel at home immediately. The office was situated in Bay Street, Port Melbourne. Cable cars with their carriage attached trundled up and down the street; the grip man busily rang the large warning bell between his gripping and releasing of the cable, and he warned passengers to beware going around curves. Port Melbourne was an old area two miles northwest of Middle Park. The Savings Bank office was ancient and dusty and quite Dickensian. My duties were simple and uncomplicated. When Tommy Gatliff - an old digger who was the teller - opened the strong room, I would bring out the ledgers and the registers. These volumes contained the signature of each person who had ever opened an account in that particular bank in Port Melbourne and were, in a way, a mini-history of Melbourne. In 1928 the earliest existing account holder was No. 209. This gentleman was an ageing local identity named Nott who never seemed to have travelled more than ten miles in any direction. He always managed to retain a half-inch of bristle over his face and a considerable amount of dirt on his clothes. Otherwise, he was inconsequential except for his name, which evoked a vision of times gone, of how it must have been in those more-romantic days. It is probable that nearby Nott Street had been named after his grandfather before the Gold Rush , when the locality would still have been a small settlement near the sandy beach, with just a couple of jetties and a desultory ketch or two swinging at anchor on a calm blue sea. Port Melbourne possessed the same sense of unchanging stability as nearby South Melbourne and Middle Park, but it was a combination of old industrial buildings, workers' cottages, and wooden semi-detached houses; this placed it in a lower social category than its neighbours, despite its wide main road, large grey Victorian town hall, innumerable hotels, and cable tramline which terminated at the Town Pier (the final destination of the great P & O and Orient mail steamers), which formed Australia's only point of connection to the outside world. It is impossible for words to convey the effect those ships had on my adolescent dreams. I felt that life could not really begin until one had walked up the gangplank of one of them to set out on a year's sojourn in Europe. Their almost daily arrival at such close quarters made it even worse. I felt my family's aversion to wild adventure would prevent my going, but the real problem was financial. We never talked in terms of possessions, because it was felt we were pilgrims and strangers in a dark world of sin; we were expected to forego the legitimate issues when they intervened between the Creator and His purposes for us. The Protestant work ethic was very strong. Most of my contemporaries had little more chance of international travel than I did, but they never seemed to feel it as intensely as I did. I eventually became so neurotic that I could no longer bear to see travellers off or watch the streamers break as the ship left the wharf, especially on the repeated occasions when our next-door neighbours Esther and Betty Patterson - two female artists who had a private income - sailed away, while I appeared destined to remain in the Port Melbourne or some other branch of the bank until retirement at age sixty-five.

Bank staff Staff of Prahran SSB at about this time

The bank staff was headed by our manager Alfred 'Z' Davis who, with his large-bodied and powerfully-voiced wife, and two adult children, lived in the attached residence. Z's son was a solicitor and the junior member of a promising legal firm; for some obscure reason, the staff nicknamed him 'Slasher'. Iris, Z's daughter, had left exclusive Toorak College only the year before. At odd times I used to observe Iris's dark hair and good features with considerable interest as I saw her go to catch the Port Melbourne train home from school. She was attractive and desirable, but she was some years too old for me. I made up for this loss by despising her boy friend Penfold, a Scotch Collegian, who would accompany her. He was four years older than she was, and he looked and acted like a man of property and potential destined to enjoy a privileged time on this earth - whatever his fate might be in the next. Senior bank managers like Z Davis enjoyed a quiet, prosperous existence; but it was felt that he and his wife must have had some private means as well - not only because of the schools their children had attended, and their modern motor car, but also because of the quantities of whisky Z consumed. He held the record for the district, partaking of thirty-seven nips at a single sitting. I never saw him inebriated and never smelt him free from the combined odour of an old curved-stem pipe and stale whisky. He was nicknamed 'Z' because he was always the last to pay for his drinks and other social obligations. In the end, he would pay his share, but one wondered whether Z secretly hoped that one of his drinking companions would slide under the table before his turn arrived. We all felt there was a sharper, more calculating Z Davis hidden under his crusty exterior which he concealed for the sake of a quiet life.

State Savings Band, Swanston St State Savings Band, Swanston St

This was also the year when Richmond Brewery was struggling to survive against the Carlton and Abbotsford Breweries, which had long held sway over Victoria's alcohol business. Beer-drinking was Australia's major national pastime, and the new brewery, by some original methods, was making every attempt to gain a permanent niche in that profitable enterprise. One method was to deliver to private homes crates of a dozen bottles of beer, in returnable woven-cane crates, for ten shillings a dozen, thereby undercutting the traditional price of one shilling per bottle. The front door to the bank was provided a separate entrance to the residence through a tiled vestibule. The brewery driver would arrive every second day with the customary crate or two of one dozen, and knock loudly at this entrance. The whole banking chamber would immediately be aware of what was afoot, but Z Davis would make a pretence of being surprised, as if there were some mistake. Eventually he would go to the side door of the office to let the driver into the residence; the crates were then carried down the long passage into the nether regions. Sometimes Mrs Davis's sonorous - if overbearing - tones would be overheard from this area, and Z would come back into the office muttering inarticulately about her 'peculiar' arrangements in a stealthy, half-hearted attempt to shift the blame onto her. There was no doubt in our minds that although Z enjoyed a high repute amongst his drinking mates, Mrs Davis was no slouch, either: she wore the trousers in the house.

Z Davis suited Port Melbourne as much as it suited him. Each had seen more salubrious days. Z's nose was curved to the shape of his pipe, as though they had grown together because they always were together. They were inseparable. Z's face was grey and wrinkled and not always as clean-shaven as one would have expected a bank manager's to be. His grey hair was somewhat unkempt and too long for the short-back-and-sides fashion of the period, and his suit was a little shiny and bore vague streaks of tobacco ash and other odd stains; but he still maintained a gentlemanly appearance - provided one did not examine him too closely. Z's only duty was to open the mail first thing, and then unlock the cash safe just before the bank opened at 10 a.m. so that the teller, Tommy Gatliff, could start dispensing funds. (Cash was once the sole reason for Savings Bank's existence.) We often had to call Z to perform these functions because all but one or two letters were open envelopes, which the staff itself could deal with. Z's real power rested in his having the key to the cash safe. He generally returned to the residence immediately following this appearance, advising that he would be 'back in a few minutes' - often a very long few minutes. He was seldom needed in the office, however, because there was so little worthwhile business to discuss. Savings Bank used to lack the responsibilities of all the trading banks; we neither negotiated loans nor the real business or credit. We had an account with the Bank of Australasia next door, and all cheques deposited by our clients were paid into an account in that institution; this freed o us from having to do that tedious kind of work. Z Davis's chief occupation was to fraternise with his friends, who would start calling for him most days around ll a.m., especially on pension days. I would advise him that someone was asking for him at the side counter; he was generally well aware of this on his own account, however. On being advised of who it was he would whisper to me, 'What a damned nuisance!' and then poke his head around the corner to acknowledge his crony, grab his hat, and whisper that he would be back in a few minutes. The primary reason we needed Z for most of the day was to obtain his signature on cheques or an occasional document. In such an instance, an intense search would be mounted to find out which hotel he was drinking at. He was frequently absent for well over an hour before some contingency requiring his signature would arise. I would telephone each of the hotels strung along both sides of Bay Street until I found him. Immediately on being told of the emergency, he would rush from the private bar and into the street to wait for one of the cable cars which literally passed every second minute. No self-respecting Melbournian male expected a cable car to stop to pick him up or set him down. Courage and tradition demanded that we learn to board and alight at the car's full speed of twelve miles per hour, and Z was no exception to this rule. He would drop down from the car with great style, acknowledge the waiting client with an old-fashioned bow as he strode into the office, and then sign on the dotted line. The crisis averted, he would, as often as not, reach for his hat once more and disappear outside for another short session. The next-most-senior member of the staff was Tommy Gatliff - the teller and returned serviceman - who suffered echoes of his war wounds and left half-smoked Capstan cigarettes incessantly burning; the counter around his teller's box was thoroughly charred. Colin McIness was next in seniority. He had spent most of his working life in the more rarefied corridors of the Head Office, which regarded itself as several stations above the branches - a fact I could never understand because we generally finished at 3.30 p.m. each day, while they remained until 5 p.m. Colin tried to impress this Head Office superiority on us by his dress and dignified demeanour. He had a narrow face, long nose, curly auburn hair, and pink complexion, and he carried about him the air of one who understood his social destiny; he emphasised this with his well-cut suits, hogskin gloves, long pointed shoes, and elegant Borsalino hats.

Bill Owen, the next in line, was in every way reverse of Colin. He was a real country-type man with a huge frame and a natural courtesy. He was well over six feet tall and lived in an Albert Park two-storied Victorian boarding house close to where I lived. We gradually became close friends as we walked home together each day. Bill would tell incessant stories of his boyhood in Nagambie, of shooting foxes and rabbits in the bush - the primary interest of most young boys in the country. By contrast Neville Ross, his junior, had been raised in Port Melbourne. Bill's language was typical of his domestic background; but I thought that while he was a genuine 'chap', his general demeanour was a little out of place in the bank's setting, where cultivated manners were a major prerequisite.

I had been thrown into this menage as an extra with few specific instructions, and was expected to learn about the 'intricacies' of this 'difficult' calling. My duties included getting the lunches at Brown's Ham & Beef shop, a few doors down the road. I was able to wile away up to an hour there each morning, and soon managed to get behind the counter to help the girls. There were beautiful crisp Vienna rolls to spread with butter and fill with ham carved from the bone and lavishly garnished with hot English mustard. All the meals offered seemed to be home-made and as wholesome as they were natural. I can still recollect the Keen's English mustard tingling in my nose as I bit into the crust; I was savouring the ultimate working lunch.

My introduction to work had been very convenient and easy, and in the warm early autumn afternoons I was able to get home by 4 p.m. to go swimming until dinner time. The feckless future awaiting me had not yet made its presence felt, and when it finally did I found I had no means of escape to a more dynamic and challenging lifestyle. I was pondering my limited alternatives when an enormous and most unexpected event occurred to prevent such flight: my father died suddenly and unexpectedly during the Easter of 1928. He had arrived home on the Thursday evening and had shortly afterwards collapsed from a cerebral haemorrhage; he never regained consciousness. My entire life was changed in an instant. The influence and power of his personality were no longer there to guide and teach me. Nor was there a great family fortune to fall back on because our attitudes and beliefs had precluded us from laying up treasure on earth, although there were some shares in the firm in my mother's name which gave a good return. Also, there was Uncle Bob, who had lived with us for several years. He was a bachelor, and he stepped into a helping role. He held a small amount of capital and had no responsibilities, except for two aunts in Scotland. My father's death also had a profound effect on the Melbourne business circles of which he had formed a part. He was regarded very highly because his word was his bond and also because of the great ability he had to bring his clients' insurance problems to successful conclusions. He was only fifty-two years old, and his premature death resulted primarily from overwork out of his concern for others. Just as happened to Mr Valiant for Truth in Pilgrims Progress I am certain that when my father stepped down into the Jordan and the waters went over his head, 'all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side'.

With my father's death came the realisation that my salary of £75 per annum had become even more important for the family; I was also vaguely apprehensive that an economic depression might be approaching. The early symptoms of trouble with the economy were spasmodic and not at all like those preceding the colossal Wall Street crash of 1929 - an event would alter the course of the entire world. The first 'incident' I witnessed was the wharf strike, where striking 'wharfies' attacked the great horse-drawn lorries - newly manned by scab labour - which hauled goods down Bay Street, Port Melbourne, to the ships. One day, a battle formation was pitched outside our office as stones and rocks began to fly. The horses, menaced by a large crowd, reared up; a free-for-all ensued. Into this maelstrom swept a police mobile patrol - a brand-new weapon in the form of a motorcycle and sidecar manned by a driver and passenger who both wore wind goggles, smart leggings, and caps instead of the usual helmets. They quickly bored into the centre of the action, and the sidecar officer started laying about him with his truncheon. The success of the police intervention attack lay in its novelty, its noise, and its speed. The ranks of the strikers opened instinctively as the vehicle came at them. In the centre of the crowd stood the real ringleader, poised to throw a stone as the police reached him. With one well-directed blow, however, the police overpowered him. As he staggered backwards he was quickly bundled into the sidecar, and the police turned around and led him away from the scene as quickly as they had come into it. The semi-conscious captive was just able to wave in a bewildered way to his fellow strikers as he disappeared from the skirmish; the interpolation appeared to produce the desired effect. As we watched the lorries move away from us in the direction of the wharfs, the fracas became less violent and the police soon took control. Such a disturbance was unique in the peaceful times we had been enjoying. We knew of the Great Strike in England in 1926 and the workers marching across the country, but our isolation was so complete that it had never occurred to us that we might be on the verge of the same situation. We always believed that everything would sort itself out in one way or another. Little did we comprehend just how drab and dirty Port Melbourne would become within the next few years. The whole social structure would change - from previous working-class stability to new areas of vacant houses plastered with To Let and For Sale signs. Those who had savings accounts in our bank would soon start to withdraw them to the last penny as they lost their jobs, and it was not unusual to see people get thinner and hungrier. The daily work at the bank became even easier than it had been, and the advent of hard times barely troubled those with steady employment. Middle Park was much less affected than Port Melbourne because its stable, lower-middle-class householders were predominantly office workers. During slow times at the bank we played long sessions of cricket to while away the time, using a tall ledger for a wicket, a long round ebony ruler for a bat, and balls manufactured from rubber bands and brown paper. At lunchtime, we grilled steaks on the open fire in cold weather, and then crayfish in the summertime.

The main topic of conversations we had with employees of other Savings Banks regarded the number of transactions taking place each day; and news of any slight change having occurred in the seniority list of the whole staff would spread quickly across the State as well as through the Head Office. Ambitious bank officers kept a 'doomsday book' recording the date on which each fellow officer had joined the staff. With few exceptions the officers believed they would remain in the bank's employ until they were retired on a pension at sixty-five. Their employment could not by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as adventurous or involving. The most significant event in any given year might be the untimely death of a fellow officer; this would set the keeper of the doomsday book to flipping through its pages to locate and cross out the name of the unfortunate employee who had not stayed the calendar distance. Because we felt like an extended family, we would always be concerned about the deceased and his dependents, even if he were not personally known us; but occasionally it was impossible for some ambitious brethren to conceal their satisfaction at this opportunity for promotion through someone else's death rather than by dint of their own ability. When times had been buoyant, promotion would come automatically; but because of the after-effects of the Depression of the 1890s, 1929 was a year when there was only an occasional retirement. This meant that only the odd employee had been taken in a decade, with a correspondingly small handful reaching retirement age during the 1930s. It was possible to calculate precisely when one would become a manager - rising to this position was the ultimate goal in bank employment - if things continued as they were. When I discovered that the status quo would grant me that honour ten years after the retirement age, I was both relieved and thankful: becoming manager of a bank was my lowest priority, especially because of I saw daily what it did to many of those who achieved it. In addition, I was totally unsuited by nature and by desire to repetitive clerical work. There were no adding machines in the bank's branches, and the sight of those innumerable sheets of figures, forty to a sheet, which had to be added and balanced three times each year became the stuff of nightmares to me. My secret hero among my twelve hundred fellow employees was an odd man named Freddie Stocker, who was regarded by many as an eccentric; but he did have the ability to add up all the money columns at one time - instead of doing the pence column first, followed by the shillings, then units, tens, hundreds, and thousands of pounds. Freddie would fly up the sheet, adding pounds, shillings, and pence simultaneously, and he never made a mistake. By comparison, it sometimes took me nearly half an hour to balance a single sheet. To make it worse, even those I did do were not infrequently 'faked', which meant they still retained errors when they were added to the total result. This difficulty with simple arithmetic became a nemesis which haunted me in the bank until the day I left in 1948. I could never come to terms with the low opinion many fellow officers had of me because of this problem, particularly when I knew I could outdo most of them in every other mental task. I realized my sole contribution was as a nuisance or entertainer, so I tried hard at the latter. I always volunteered for any dirty work that came up. I filed old records and correspondence in the strong room - an activity the aspiring bank officer felt was beneath his dignity. I mowed the lawns of the manager's attached residence to avoid the office humdrum. A day spent in the bowels of the musty strong room became the next best thing to a public holiday.

< Previous Book
< Previous Chapter  :  Next Chapter >
Next Book >

©Mietta's 2024