Research Guide: Hugh Traill Armitage CMG
Hugh Traill Armitage began his career with the Commonwealth Bank on 11 November 1912 as the Bank’s accountant. Denison Miller, the Bank’s Governor, had persuaded Armitage to join him at the Commonwealth Bank, having been associated with him previously and convinced he could contribute positively to the new Bank. In 1916, Armitage was promoted to Chief Accountant, before becoming Secretary in 1921 (while also continuing in his role as Chief Accountant). He became Manager of the Sydney Office in 1924 and Chief Inspector in 1925. In 1927 he was appointed Deputy Governor and in 1941 Governor of the Commonwealth Bank.
Prior to the Commonwealth Bank, Armitage worked for the New South Wales Mortgage & Loan Company, which he joined in 1896 straight from school. In 1897 he began working for the Bank of New South Wales (BNSW) and remained at the bank for 14 years, working in Sydney initially before moving to Perth in 1909 to be the branch accountant. On his return from Perth, he left the BNSW and joined Miller at the Commonwealth Bank.
Armitage was hard working and early in his career he was described as being exceptionally intelligent and an officer with the ability for high position. At the Commonwealth Bank he was regarded as fair and efficient by Bank staff. As the Bank’s accountant, and later Chief Accountant, Armitage was at the forefront of the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank as a successful and viable financial entity. He worked alongside Denison Miller, supporting him to further the progress and stature of the Bank.
With the advent of the First World War in 1914, and the need to assist the government in raising money to finance the war effort, Armitage played an important role in the management of the War Loans, and later the Peace Loans, schemes. During this time, Armitage developed a close working relationship with Miller, who consulted Armitage on policy matters often in preference to the Deputy Governor, James Kell. This close professional relationship saw Armitage take on more secretarial functions for the Governor, although the position of Bank Secretary did not formally exist at the Bank until 1921 when Armitage was appointed to the newly created role. After the banknote issue was transferred from the Commonwealth Treasury to a newly established Note Issue Department under a Notes Board, Armitage was appointed Secretary to the Board. He held this position until 1924, when he became the Manager of Sydney Office and then Chief Inspector.
Armitage travelled widely in the service of the Bank. He visited the London Office of the Bank in 1922, and was instrumental in establishing the New York Agency of the Bank, along with colleague Alfred Mason, in 1927.
Following the retirement of Governor James Kell in 1927, Ernest Riddle was appointed Governor and Armitage became Deputy Governor. Both these appointments were for a five-year term and took effect from 1 June 1927. Armitage was re-appointed Deputy Governor on 1 June 1932 for a further seven years, which was extended again in 1939.
Governor Sir Harry Sheehan died on 26 March 1941 and Armitage became Governor of the Bank on 1 July 1941 for a three-year term. He was succeeded as Deputy Governor by Gordon Murray Shain. Armitage was re-appointed Governor for a further two years from 1 July 1944, one year from 1 July 1946 and a final period of 18 months from 1 July 1947 to 31 December 1948, after which he retired after 36 years of service to the Bank. Hugh Traill Armitage died on 17 October 1963 at his home in Cremorne in Sydney.
Early life and career
Hugh Traill Armitage was born on 17 February 1881 in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He was one of four children of Charles Cyrus Armitage, a merchant, and Dora Elizabeth Robertson. Armitage’s mother was an exceptional woman. Born in the United States, and educated in England, she was forced to support the family on more than one occasion due to the precarious financial position of her husband’s business ventures. Returning to England after her husband’s business folded in Ceylon, Dora learnt to type to support herself and her children. After re-joining Charles Armitage in Australia, where he had set up a new business that would also fail, she began teaching typing to other women, to great success. Her Ladies’ Typewriting Association was awarded a prize at the Exhibition of Women’s Industries in Sydney in 1888, and Dora would go on to be the Honorary Treasurer and then Secretary of the National Council of Women of New South Wales from 1896–1899.
Armitage was largely educated in Sydney at St Philip’s Church of England Grammar School and Fort Street Model School. His banking career began in 1896 when he joined the New South Wales Mortgage Loan & Agency Company. In 1897 he moved to the BNSW, where he remained until he was appointed Accountant of the newly established Commonwealth Bank of Australia in November 1912, under the management of the Governor Denison Miller.
Having joined the Bank five months after it was officially established, Armitage occupied many important positions throughout his 36 year career. In the early days of the Bank, he was often the very first appointee to a role, including Commonwealth Bank Secretary in 1921.
Armitage became a close and trusted confidant of Denison Miller, who sought his opinion and advice on many occasions. Along with Miller, Armitage was tasked with raising money for Australia’s war effort, loan commitments and the payment of Australian troops stationed overseas – all within only a few years of the Bank’s establishment. While Miller was central to the success of the War and Peace Loans schemes and was the public face of the campaign, as the Bank’s accountant, Armitage worked behind the scenes to ensure success.
The Commonwealth Bank Act 1920 established a Note Issue Department of the Bank, to be managed by a Notes Board comprising the Governor of the Bank as ex officio Chairman and three other directors. Armitage was appointed Secretary to the Notes Board, which met for the first time on 17 December 1920. He would remain in this role until the Notes Board was disbanded in 1924, after which the note issue was transferred wholly to the Commonwealth Bank.
In January 1921, the role of Secretary was created, with Armitage as its first incumbent. Armitage continued in the role of Chief Accountant, while also taking on the additional duties that came with being Bank Secretary. As Secretary, Armitage issued circulars with instructions to branches and assisted Miller with policy matters and advice.
Armitage made several trips overseas on banking business. In 1922, he visited the Bank’s London Office and met with industry, finance and banking leaders. In May 1927, the Australian Loan Council resolved that it was desirable that a branch of the Commonwealth Bank be opened in New York, for the purposes of raising money for the Commonwealth and Australian states. Previously the Bank had always raised capital through the London markets. However, with the increasing importance and growth of New York, the Council had thought it prudent to establish an early presence there. In order to investigate the viability of a branch of the Commonwealth Bank in America, Armitage left for the United States on a fact finding mission, accompanied by senior staff member Alfred Mason. After weeks of discussions with financiers and bankers, Armitage cabled an enthusiastic report to Head Office and on his advice an agency of the Bank was opened in New York in December 1927. Alfred Mason was appointed the Bank’s Agent. The Agency would close in June 1929 after encountering difficulties with operating licenses and lack of government business.
Deputy Governor and Governor of the Bank
When Ernest Riddle succeeded James Kell as Governor in 1927, Armitage became Deputy Governor of the Bank for a five-year term from 1 June 1927. His reappointment as Deputy Governor continued until he was appointed Governor in 1941.
During his term as Deputy Governor of the Bank, and possibly because of his work in the raising of money for the government during the First World War and as secretary of the Notes Board (both seen as the function of a central bank), Armitage grew more interested in developing the Commonwealth Bank’s central banking role. He established a close relationship with the Federal Treasurer, Edward Theodore, who shared the same views, and he assisted Theodore in the unsuccessful Central Reserve Bank Bill of 1930. As the Bank’s Deputy Governor, Armitage was also appointed to investigate the ongoing viability of the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales, which was suspended from trading due to the worsening conditions caused by the Great Depression. Armitage was critical of the role the Board had played with regard to the bank, feeling it could have done more to protect it. In his report, Armitage recommended that the Savings Bank Department of the bank should be transferred to the Commonwealth Bank.
While Ernest Riddle was overseas from June to December 1932, Armitage acted as chief executive officer of the Bank. When Riddle retired early in February 1938 due to ill health, he was succeeded by Sir Harry Sheehan, who at the time was the Secretary to the Treasury. While Armitage had been thought the natural choice of successor, in the end the Board recommended Sheehan for the role, with Armitage re-appointed as Deputy Governor for a further period.
On 1 July 1941, and in the midst of the Second World War, Armitage succeeded Sheehan as Governor of the Bank. In the same year he was appointed Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) by King George VI.
Shortly after Armitage became Governor, John Curtin’s Labor Government came to power and introduced the National Security (Wartime Banking Control) Regulations. These regulations gave the Bank increased central banking powers and responsibilities. Armitage and the Board Chairman, Sir Claude Reading, were in constant contact with Ben Chifley, the Federal Treasurer, on matters relating to war finance and the economy more generally. The burden on the staff of the Bank, largely depleted by enlistments of male officers, was very heavy. Armitage and Reading tried unsuccessfully to delay until after the war the establishment of a Mortgage Bank Department within the Commonwealth Bank, which the Labor Government was keen to promote, and the department commenced operations in September 1943, despite their appeals.
In 1945, a new Commonwealth Bank Act was passed by the Federal Parliament. The Act repealed all former Commonwealth Bank Acts and abolished the Board. Management of the Bank was restored to the sole control of the Governor, who was to be assisted by an Advisory Council. The Bank's General Banking Division was to compete vigorously with all other trading banks for business. An Industrial Finance Department was established and statutory recognition was given to the fact that the Bank was a central bank.
While the last period of Armitage's career was impacted by bank nationalisation, which was still unresolved at the time of his retirement, he left the Bank in possession of wide central banking powers, with a number of specialised departments and as an active competitor of the privately owned trading banks.
Retirement and personal life
After retirement Armitage joined a number of company boards, including as Director of the Telephone and Electrical Industries and of Allied Investments Limited.
In 1961, he was invited back to the Bank (now the Reserve Bank) to celebrate his 80th birthday, where he was welcomed by then Governor Dr HC Coombs and other senior staff. Given his role in actively supporting the creation of an Australian central bank, it was seen as a fitting tribute.
Armitage had married Edith Jane Callow on 24 February 1906 at St John’s Anglican Church, Darlinghurst. They had four children, two of whom died in infancy/childhood. Edith died in 1947. On 6 August 1953, at the Registrar’s Office, North Sydney, Armitage married his widowed sister-in-law, Edith’s sister Margaret.
Hugh Armitage died on 17 October 1963 at his Cremorne home and was survived by his second wife Margaret and his son and daughter from his first marriage.
This information is drawn from records held by the Reserve Bank of Australia and the following external sources:
Hill MR (1993), ‘Armitage, Hugh Traill (1881-1863)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 13. Available at <https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/armitage-hugh-traill-9382> (accessed 29 July 2021).
Commonwealth Bank of Australia (2017), ‘From the Archives: Our First Sydney Branch’. Available at <https://www.commbank.com.au/guidance/newsroom/our-first-sydney-branch-201708.html> (accessed 29 July 2021).
Personal records relating to Hugh Traill Armitage can be found in the Bank Governors & Senior Personnel Series of records (prefix GHA).
The following materials are not currently available on this site, but are available on request. To request to view these materials please contact the Archives.
Additional records that relate to Hugh Traill Armitage and his role in the Bank can be found within the Secretary’s Department files:
- S-c-14 SECRETARY'S DEPARTMENT - Bank of England - Armitage, HT - Reports & Discussions
- S-h49-1 Secretary's Department - Governor, H.T. Armitage and Deputy Governor, G.M. Shain - Retirement - Section 1 - Printing of Notice Cards - Advices
- S-h49-2 Secretary's Department - Governor, H.T. Armitage and Deputy Governor, G.M. Shain - Retirement - Section 2 - Congratulatory Cables - Appointments of H.C. Coombs Governor & E.B. Richardson, Deputy Governor
- S-51-10 Secretary's Department - "Food for Britain" - Fund - Section 10 - Position of Honorary Treasurer - Retirement of H.T. Armitage and Appointment of Dr. H.C. Coombs
And the New York Agency records, especially:
- BRN-15-3 Commonwealth Bank of Australia - New York - General Correspondence - Establishment of Agency - 1927 - 1928
- BRN-15-4 Commonwealth Bank of Australia - New York - General Correspondence - Premises - 1927 - 1928
Personal reminiscences of Armitage by early staff members can be viewed in the following additional Secretary’s Department files:
- SA-65-76 Secretary's Department - Archives - Biographies and Reminiscences - Staff - Abercrombie, Mrs. R.B. (nee Manton)
- SA-65-81 Secretary's Department - Archives - Biographies and Reminiscences - Staff - McCourt, Miss M.E.R.
- SA-75-72 RI 5-2 Research & Information - Commonwealth / Reserve Bank History - Bank Personalities - McCourt, M.R.(Miss)
There are also two files relating to Hugh Traill Armitage in the records of Athol Lewis:
- GAL-44-2 GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Athol Lewis - Hugh Traill Armitage
- GAL-48-2 GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Athol Lewis - Hugh Traill Armitage
Bank's Aircraft VH-CBA - Inaugural Flight - Governor and Mrs Armitage with Mr A Bradbury on arrival in Perth - 3 March 1947
Bank's Aircraft VH-CBA - Inaugural Flight - Governor welcomed by Mr A Bradbury on arrival in Perth - 3 March 1947
Bank's Aircraft VH-CBA - Inaugural Flight - Governor welcomed by Mr A Bradbury on arrival - 3 March 1947
Staff - Social functions - Groups - Head Office - Commonwealth Bank of Australia - Staff reunion in honour of the return of members of the A.I.F. from Active Service held at Clifton Gardens - Mr Hulle and Mr Armitage in the golf putting competition
Staff - Groups - Head Office - Commonwealth Bank - Senior Officers of the Bank assemble in Sir Denison Miller's office to congratulate him on the announcement of his Knighthood - 4 June 1920
Staff - Groups - Governors and Ex-Governors - Dr HC Coombs takes over from retiring Governor, HT Armitage - January 1949
Bank's Functions, Activities, etc. - Note Issue - First meeting of the Note Issue Board (also known as the Notes Board) - 17 December 1920
Bank's Aircraft VH-CBA - Inaugural Flight - (L to R) Mr AW Mason, Mrs Armitage, Leslie Melville, Governor Hugh Armitage - 3 March 1947
Commonwealth Bank - Head Office cnr Pitt Street & Martin Place - Chief Accountant's Department - Mr HT Armitage in his office on the 2nd floor - 8 September 1916 (plate 766)
Commonwealth Bank of Australia - Head Office cnr Pitt Street & Martin Place - Opening Day - Senior Officers & Branch Managers - 23 August 1916 (Plate 688)
Secretary's Department - Governor, H.T. Armitage and Deputy Governor, G.M. Shain - Retirement - Section 2 - Congratulatory Cables - Appointments of H.C. Coombs Governor & E.B. Richardson, Deputy Governor - 1948-1949
SECRETARY'S DEPARTMENT - Central Banks - Federal Reserve Bank of New York - Governor to Governor - 1929-1959
Secretary's Department - "Food for Britain" Fund - Section 10 - Position of Honorary Treasurer - Retirement of H.T. Armitage and Appointment of Dr. H.C. Coombs
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Hugh Traill Armitage - Semi-Official Correspondence – Senior Bank Officials
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Hugh Traill Armitage - National Debt Commission – Minutes & Agenda – 36th meeting held 3/3/1941 & 37th meeting held 18/8/1941
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Hugh Traill Armitage - Memorandum – Scope of Functions of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.