"WITH FAITH AND COURAGE"
The Bank of Adelaide 1865 - 1965
(Written by the Late Ron A Potter)
Chapter 6 : "The General Superintendent"
With the difficult years of the mid-eighties behind him, Wilkinson's sights were now set beyond the borders of the State. In July 1988 at the instigation of the Board he communicated with his counterparts in Melbourne and Sydney seeking their help in recommending a good man for the Adelaide management which would be left open upon his elevation to the position of General Superintendent. In his letter to Dibbs of The Commercial Banking Company of Sydney Ltd. he wrote, "to set me free for extending our business my Board have decided on appointing a Manager for this place and they wished me to write and ask you if you would kindly mention the matter in Banking circles and more especially to any suitable man. My Board will not be illiberal to a good man. We have had under discussion the extending to Melbourne and Sydney but this will not be settled until I return about March next. Then we may find Adelaide smelling as sweet as heretofore and all our resources engaged, but we cannot discover the future. It certainly has not been very sweet of late and with wheat at present prices a large class can do no good".
Wilkinson visited both Sydney and Melbourne seeking a Manager and was greatly impressed by the progress of the former city. "I like Sydney more now than when I saw it before and it looks to me that it will beat Melbourne altogether. Melbourne men are so fast". It did not however prove easy to find the right man. A number of names were put forward and rejected. In one instance the candidate was already known in Adelaide, where his father was a "very decent fellow for a Publican", but in Wilkinson's experience he had "seldom known much good from such a quarter". By the end of the year the search had spread to New Zealand and Wilkinson wrote to his director, Henry Scott, asking him to look up a Mr Churton in Dunedin whose name had been favourably mentioned to him.
In March of the next year Churton was in Melbourne and Wilkinson invited him to Adelaide for an interview but he did not fill the bill. "It is so difficult to get really first class names to put before you", he complained to a Sydney banker. "I want particularly to have a first class man and would not hesitate to take another journey if I could find one really up to the mark". By May however the right man had been found in John Shiels of Ballarat whom Wilkinson invited to meet his new Board. John Shiels was about to embark for a holiday on Thursday Island with his wife but both came to Adelaide on Wilkinson's invitation.
The Board was satisfied that John Shiels (pictured left) was the man for the job and upon receiving
assurance that Wilkinson's return from England would in no way affect his status,
Shiels accepted the position at a salary of £1,750- a year with no allowance or per-
quisites, and undertook to report for duty on August 1st. His immediate task was
to take over the reins from Wilkinson to enable the latter to prepare for his visit to
England. The Board was unable at the time to determine in which colony Shiel's
future services could best be utilized. W.B. Heath of Goulbourn whose application
was also under consideration was informed of the Directors' decision to appoint
"a Victorian gentleman to fill my position in this Bank". John Shiels had already proved himself to be an exceptionally able and experienced banker. Born in East Lothian in 1842 he was only eleven when he arrived in Melbourne, but like many of his fellow-countrymen became in exile almost more Scottish than the Scots. He joined the Union bank of Australia Ltd in 1858, was appointed Accountant at Ballarat in 1866 and four years later, Accountant at Melbourne. When the Mining and Agricultural Bank of Australasia Ltd was formed in Ballarat in 1881 Shiels was appointed its Manager. The name of the Bank was shortly afterwards changed to the Joint Stock Bank of Victoria Ltd., although its business was largely connected with the mining interests of Ballarat and district, where it had a number of branches giving Shiels the administrative experience necessary for his new position.
With the South Australian business in such capable hands Wilkinson was at last in a position to set sail for London in October 1889, armed with a power of attorney from the Board of Directors "for the purpose of arranging the establishment of the Bank in London" expenses of which were "to show a considerate saving on the £2,000- a year which is the maximum amount we look to until our operations extend". Wilkinson arrived in London early in December suffering from a heavy cold but spared the influenza epidemic which was currently raging in Europe. A sum of £50,000- had been remitted to the credit of the Bank in London to meet the requirements of the projected branch and English deposits were expected within three months. On New Year's day the Register announced that a Branch had been opened at Gresham House in Bishopgate Street, St. Swithin, a premature statement, as Wilkinson would certainly have wired Adelaide before taking such a step. In any event it was necessary to select a London Board whose appointment had to be sanctioned by the Adelaide directors and could not be left to Wilkinson, even with the help of Messrs. Scott, Barr-Smith and Fisher who were on hand to advise and assist him. Further-more there was the question of the "selection of a capable and suitable Manager" which was safe in Wilkinson's hands. Shiels recommended "that for a business like ours, which will be small for some time to come, an intelligent, well trained young man would be most suitable - such a one would be less expensive at first and his remuneration could grow with the business".
It was March before the question of the London Board was settled by the appointment of A.G. Anderson as Chairman and William Lund and Percy Arnold as co-directors, the latter also being London Manager, a position he was to occupy for 35 years until his retirement in 1925 at the age of seventy one. Arnold had been employed in the London Office of the Colonial Bank of New Zealand formed in Dunedin in 1874 and absorbed by The Bank of New Zealand in 1896. John Shiels thought "the billet must be a pretty good one involving very little work - at least for a time - and pretty good pay", viz. £700- per annum with yearly increases of £100- to £1,2000-.
London Office opened for business on the 24th April 1890 at 79, Cornhill with a staff of three. The premises of two small rooms were expensive and inconvenient. Not only was there no lavatory, but no strong room, everything of value having to be carried back and forth daily from the Adelaide's London bankers, the Union Bank of London Ltd. to whom the Bank's account was transferred from The Commercial Banking Company of Sydney Ltd. upon the establishment of the London Office. The Union Bank of London Ltd. today forms part of the National Westminister Bank Ltd. with whom an account is still maintained.
Upon opening, the London Office shared the South Australian Government's account proportionately with other members of the Associated Banks, to whom it was transferred from the National Bank of Australasia Ltd., previously the Government's sole bankers. In 1893 the Bank became sole banker to the State Government and continued as such until 1915. The account was to prove a source of income to London Office, although from time to time it had to be expected that the Government would overdraw substantially in anticipation of fresh loans to be floated in the London Market. With London Office successfully launched Wilkinson sought a "spell" in the old country after all the work and worry he had undertaken. By the beginning of 1891 he had decided to leave the service and Shiels cabled Arnold "would your Directors like him as a colleague we think it a compliment due him?".
Wilkinson accepted a seat on the London Board and while Anderson was still alive harmony was preserved, but on his death Wilkinson found it hard to work amicably with William Lund of the Blue Anchor Line. Word of the disagreements reached Adelaide and Abraham Scott, whose brother Henry was a director in Adelaide, was selected to fill the vacant position and to preserve the peace, but before Scott could take his seat Wilkinson had already stepped down. He had steered a Bank through what was to be perhaps the most difficult decade in its history. During his regime, it had changed in character from virtually a city bank to a state wide institution, throwing its resources behind the development of new areas. Its horizons had expanded with the opening of London Office and its sights were set on further expansion, which was to be delayed but not denied by the financial collapse which struck the eastern states in 1893. Losses had inevitably been incurred, and the Reserve Fund was reduced in 1891 by £50,000- to provide for contingencies, after long discussions as to the power of the Bank to take such a step. The sanction of shareholders at a special general meeting had to be obtained, but it was readily forthcoming, as the only alternative was to declare a loss and to forfeit the payment of dividends.
Despite the losses the Bank was strong. It had seen two local rivals fall by the wayside in an era when commercial practice was often both reckless and immature. One Adelaide company which survived the eighties to become under new ownership a leader in its field and a household name throughout Australia only took stock "once in four or five years" and it was impossible for the Bank to know whether payments were being made from stock or profits. A major contractor for government tenders was regarded as a "blundering idiot - though honest", "a balloon to be pricked" who when the pinch came was found to be "feathering his nest" and had had to be "kicked out". In the age of the Kelly gang a banker had to be wary indeed to protect himself from losses and far-sighted to see where the prospects of future development lay. Public probity was often at a low level. The Government was seeking in vain for its Public Receiver who had decamped with £6,000- and another man's wife to the United States.
Wilkinson possessed the qualities of tenacity and vision. He knew the pitfalls of speculation in mining and land and constantly steered his clients away from such ventures. Those who lost money received little sympathy from a man whom Shiels described as "a plunger" and who had personally suffered the ups and downs of the market. Such losses he believed fell mostly on the saving element in the population who could best afford to bear them. Perhaps his own words on the occasion of his retirement from The National Bank of Australasia Ltd. serve best as a measure of the character of the Bank's first General Superintendent. "If there has been any success attending my efforts, it has been by trying to do what was right, both by doing that which was disagreeable as well as at all times doing that which was agreeable when possible".
NEXT CHAPTER 7 : "A VICTORIAN GENTLEMAN"
OR RETURN TO CHAPTER 1