As Johannesburg celebrates its 130th birthday, so does Standard Bank’s first Johannesburg-based branch. Being only a week younger than Gauteng’s provincial capital, the branch is also the city’s oldest, having developed in tandem with its economy.
Born the same year as what was once a frontier mining settlement, Standard Bank’s first ‘branch’ in Johannesburg commenced business when DP Ross opened the flaps of his tent at Ferreira’s Camp, a diverse collection of 70 to 80 erections, iron and reed “shanties” which housed a couple of hundred inhabitants who sold drink and other commodities to the surrounding diggers, in October 1886. According to a witness, “The Standard Bank is a very small marquee tent, which holds the manager, the safe, the table, the iron box, and the one customer who occupies the spare chair… A piece of paper pinned to the flap is an intimation of the hours at which the front strings will be untied.”
From November, the branch rented a single room in the only brick building in town. Yet, despite its modest accommodation, the demand for the bank’s services - mainly accepting gold against advances - was immense, and a month later it boasted a handsome profit. As business grew, the bank relocated to a newly built, imposing building on Erf 506.
During late 1887, business soared: ‘Share mania’ was rife at this time, and T Henderson (who succeeded Ross as manager) granted many advances against the security of shares during the 1888 boom. Though he allowed for a 50% fall in prices many of the branch’s advances ended up as bad debts when the share bubble burst a year later.
Despite this, the branch still outgrew its accommodation. In September 1890, it moved into a new building on Commissioner St. Modern for the time, the premises were fitted with electricity throughout.
The advent of the South African War in 1899 stalled most of South Africa’s burgeoning industries. Yet, Standard Bank survived, though its operations were muted. Servicing both Boers and ‘Uitlanders’, the bank remained neutral – and open – throughout the conflict.
The end of the war in 1902 saw business pick up, and the bank was able to buy four stands fronting Commissioner, Harrison and Fox Streets. Designed by Stucke & Harrison, the impressive building erected on the site featured one of the largest banking halls in the world. The building was completed in 1908 and was a symbol of the bank’s confidence in Johannesburg.
But another conflict would soon disrupt the bank’s equilibrium: WWI led to staff shortages as employees left for service. The bank had no choice but to employ women for the first time, and, in December 1915, 34 ‘lady clerks’ were appointed to the branch.
After the 1930s, Johannesburg became the country’s most important commercial centre. Inevitably, the bank moved its head office there in 1959. However, the Commissioner St branch couldn’t accommodate its entire staff, so, in 1962, the bank decided to build a separate, prestigious office in Fox Street that opened in 1970.
Since the 1970s, the Johannesburg branch has been extensively modernised, yet its original splendour has been deferentially maintained. This reflects Standard Bank’s approach to its operations today: The institution’s 154-year-old experience, 130 of which were in Johannesburg, is combined with world-class technology and processes to ensure that it makes progress real for its clients – not just in modern Johannesburg, but throughout Africa and the world.