Big Four — WBC, ANZ, NAB, CBA — and Background in Australia

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Prior to 1985, the Australian payments system was pretty much a "closed shop", dominated by these four banks. It was a time when banknotes and coins were king, when customers used an open cheque or a savings passbook when withdrawing funds. Cash machines were fairly new, the first one in Sydney in 1969 was fairly manual, you could only receive $25 at a time, then your card was withheld checked and sent back to you later. The first proper ATM in 1977 was the Queensland Teachers Credit Union, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane. A more popular alternative, in 1974, was the Bankcard, a mass-market Australian credit card with a standard $300 limit with interest-free days. Issued by the major banks, it rapidly became acceptable in department chains everywhere. And you could even draw down cash with it, though whoops, they charged you interest from day one.

Cheque clearance was effected through the Clearing House. Between 1924 and 1959, the Commonwealth Bank who was then the banker to the Australian Govt, and then responsible for issuing Australian banknotes, performed this role. After 1959 it became the task of the Reserve Bank, with each member bank holding Exchange Settlement Accounts. Small banks and building societies and credit unions had no direct access and could only provide customers with agency cheques via an arrangement with a major bank.

In 1985 there was massive deregulation. That year sixteen foreign banks gained access to the system, followed by many more.

Click here for the latest APRA report (available as a PDF file or an Excel spreadsheet) showing current banking statistics for all Australian banks.

In August 2021, Liabilities of these banks to the general public from funds on deposit totalled: $2.496 trillion.

Assets (residential) totalled: $4.760 trillion, made up of

Now for the timelines of the "Big Four".

CodeWestpac — The "Convicts" Bank



Bank 1. Started in 1817 in Sydney as Bank of NSW, the first bank in New South Wales, with Edward Smith Hall as its first cashier and secretary. Edward was the son of Smith Hall, a London bank manager, and a close friend of William Wilberforce. Eventually opened branches in Brisbane in 1850, in Melbourne in 1851, and in London in 1853.
Bank 2. Started in 1866 as Commercial Bank of Australia (CBA) in Melbourne (Chinese backed, with Chinese text on its banknotes). Merged in 1982.
Bank 3. Started in 1841 as Savings Bank of South Australia. In 1896 a separate State Bank of South Australia opened, its business at first restricted to long term loans. In 1984 both banks merged but in 1991 they collapsed with $3 billion worth of debt to the government. In 1995 the "good bank", the saleable portion merged with Advance Bank as Bank SA. Lastly, purchased in 1997 by St George Bank which in 2008 became a subsidiary of Westpac.

CodeANZ — The London Bank



Bank 1. Started in 1835 as Bank of Australasia in London having a royal charter from the Bank of England. The governing Board of Directors was British, but local boards were appointed at each branch in every state, with appointments sought from government officials and respected merchants, to give the bank a high standing in the community and to contribute a local knowledge to its operations. Became ANZ Bank in 1951.
Bank 2. Started in 1837 as Union Bank of Australia in London. A venture of British shareholders, it was managed and operated by colonial residents. The company officially opened its first branch in Launceston on 1st May, 1838. Merged in 1951.
Bank 3. Started in 1852 as English, Scottish & Australian Bank (ES&A) in London by royal charter. Opened its first branch in Sydney in 1853. Merged in 1970.

CodeNational — The Melbourne Bank



Bank 1. Started in 1858 as National Bank of Australasia in Melbourne. Opened branches in Adelaide the same year, London in 1864, Perth in 1866, Sydney in 1885, Brisbane in 1920.
Bank 2. Started in 1886 as Royal Bank of Queensland. Merged in 1922.
Bank 3. Started in 1888 as Bank of North Queensland. Merged in 1922.
Bank 4. Started in 1872 as Queensland National Bank. Merged in 1948.
Bank 5. Started in 1865 as Ballarat Banking Company. Merged in 1955.
Bank 6. Started originally in 1834 as Commercial Banking Company of Sydney (CBC). Merged in 1982.


CodeCommonwealth — The Federal Bank



Bank 1. Initially known as the CSB (Commonwealth Savings Bank) and CTB (Commonwealth Trading Bank).
  1. Started in 1911 as First bank to be owned and thus guaranteed by the federal government. In an agreement with Australia Post, it also traded through post office agencies, competing with the State Government banks.
  2. Opened its first branch in Melbourne in 1912, and by 1913 had branches in all six states. In 1916 it moved its head office to Sydney. In 1920 it took over Australian bank note printing from the Commonwealth Treasury. All banks had to deal with the Commonwealth Bank, now Australia's Central Bank, for banknotes.
  3. The Commonwealth Banks Act 1959 and the Reserve Bank Act 1959 later removed this central banking function. The Reserve Bank of Australia was established on 14 January 1960 as the successor in law of the Commonwealth Bank, assuming control of all central banking activities.
  4. Privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank then began in 1991, and by 1996 the CBA was fully privatised with its own shareholders and management.
Bank 2. TASMANIA Started in 1882 as Post Office Savings Bank of Tasmania. Merged in 1913.
Bank 3. QLD Started in 1865 as Government Savings Bank of Queensland incorporating Moreton Bay Savings Bank (1856), Ipswich Savings Bank (1861), and Toowoomba Savings Bank (1862). Merged in 1920.
Bank 4. NSW Started in 1832 as The Savings Bank of NSW which incorporated Campbell's Bank (1819-1833) and Port Stephens Savings Bank (1830-1832). In 1871 a separate Government Savings Bank of NSW was established through the NSW Post Offices. This Government Savings Bank was incorporated as a separate entity in 1907 and took over the operations of the Savings Bank of NSW in 1914. Merged in 1931.
Bank 5. WA Started in 1863 as Post Office Savings Bank of Western Australia which became the Government Savings Bank of WA in 1906. Merged in 1931.
Bank 6. VICTORIA Started in 1842 as The Savings Bank of Port Phillip. In 1852 it became the State Savings Bank of Victoria having numerous branches, each one a separate institution. In 1865 the Post Office Savings Bank started. In 1896 the unifying Savings Bank Act came into effect and in 1897 this Post Office Savings Bank merged with the State Savings Bank. The State Savings Bank became the State Bank of Victoria in 1980 and then collapsed over the following decade. Merged with the Commonwealth Bank in 1991.
Bank 7. TASMANIA (2) Started in 1835 as the Launceston Bank for Savings, with a separate bank, the Hobart Savings Bank, starting in 1845. In 1971 this Hobart Savings Bank renamed itself as the Savings Bank of Tasmania. In 1991 the two banks merged, together with a significant injection of state government funds, forming the Trust Bank of Tasmania. However, this Trust Bank could not sustain a competitive position in the Australian capital market, given its smallness, and its assets were purchased by the Commonwealth Bank in 1998.
Bank 8. NSW (2) Started in 1933 as the Rural Bank of NSW. Owned by the NSW State Government, primarily to lend to and deal with farmers. Renamed as the State Bank of NSW in 1982. Incorporated in 1990, temporarily sold to Colonial, a financial services company in 1994, and merged with the Commonwealth Bank in 2000.

Click here for further background to this period before today's "big four", with links to photos of early coins and banknotes in Australia.


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