Any organisation that has stood for almost two centuries would have fascinating stories to tell – many locked away in archives, but most kept by the people who walked its halls. At 155 years old, we are one of South Africa’s oldest banks, having witnessed multiple wars, major political upheaval, economic turmoil and, of course, thousands of people walk through its branch doors.
Often, when considering an old or significant institution, one wonders, if these walls could talk…? If the walls of Standard Bank’s many branches could talk, they may reveal tales like the following:
- Our first Johannesburg branch was established in 1886, the same time as the iconic city. Nothing more than a 4m-by-3m marquee tent, the branch served the army of fortune seekers who flocked to Africa’s Wild West from around the globe, and boasted assets of £1 000 in notes, in gold and in silver. Early Johannesburg was a rough, tough, lawless place to do business, and branch managers noted the corruption of their young staff: “In a community such as this where … home comforts and restrictions are absent, where money changes hands very rapidly and temptations abound, and where a passion for betting on every conceivable occasion …. exists… a certain extra latitude has to be permitted”.
- Our security wasn’t always as thorough as it is today. In the late 1800s, the bank would transport gold via mail coaches from its Johannesburg branch to its Cape Town one without escort. Though the journey was treacherous for a number of reasons – for passengers and cargo alike – robbery was the most pervasive one. However, after the Bank’s Potchefstroom branch was robbed by the “Irish Brigade” in 1889, security was stepped up and its officers in the Transvaal were “suitably armed”.
- South Africa fought on the side of The Allies during WW2. Like most young men at the time, 17-year-old bank employee Bert Cook volunteered to fight. He was captured at Tobruk in North Africa and thereafter shipped to Europe where he spent time in forced-labour camps in various countries, freed only at the War’s end. Throughout his war years, Standard Bank made up the difference between his paltry army pay and his salary, for which he is still sincerely grateful.
- Up until the mid-1900s, staff had to receive the Bank’s permission to marry. This rule was intended to prevent the (at the time, mostly male) staff from living beyond their means. The instructions were clear:
“No application for permission to marry will be entertained when the officer’s salary, irrespective of allowances, is under 240 pounds per annum, unless it can be proved to the satisfaction of the General Manager that the parties interested have adequate private means.”
- An employee, Denise Ann Durvall, was the donor for the world’s first successful human heart transplant, performed by Dr Christian Barnard at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital. Denise worked as a waste-machine operator and enquiry clerk in a Cape Town branch from 1960 until her death in 1967. She was hit by a car at just 27 years old.