Research Guide: James Kell
James Kell was the Commonwealth Bank’s first Deputy Governor. The Commonwealth Bank opened for business on 15 July 1912, under the Bank’s new Governor, Denison Miller. In September 1912, Miller wrote to the Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, requesting that he consider the appointment of a Deputy Governor to assist him in his duties. Out of nine applicants, Miller himself chose Kell. With his recommendation approved by the Prime Minister, James Kell was appointed Deputy Governor on 2 December 1912.
Kell’s appointment was for an initial period of 7 years on an annual salary of £1,500; less than half Miller’s. It was also less than Charles Campion’s, the manager of the Bank’s London Office, whose salary was £2,000 per year – in part due to the importance given to the London Office and its role at the centre of international banking, but also indicating that the role of Deputy Governor was seen, at this time, as a support role to the Governor rather than a role of influence or authority.
Miller delegated little to the Deputy Governor, with all decisions and oversight kept very much under his management and control. In letters he wrote and addresses he gave as Deputy Governor, Kell was always effusive in his praise of Miller and supportive of all he did, but on at least one occasion was compelled to request an opinion from the Commonwealth Solicitor-General regarding his duties and responsibilities.
After Miller’s sudden death in June 1923, Kell took on the responsibilities of the Governor. As there was no provision under the Commonwealth Bank Act for an Acting Governor, he remained in this role until being formally appointed to the position of Governor in 1924.
James Kell was Governor of the Bank until October 1926, after which he took leave due to ill health, with his official retirement taking effect on the 31 May 1927. He died in 1933 after a short illness.
Early life and career
James Kell was born at Mittagong, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, on 25 July 1864. He was the son of Edward Kell and Martha Parkinson Gilbert, both Scottish immigrants, and one of eight children. James Kell’s youngest sister Lily married James Menzies in 1906. Their daughter Jessie Menzies would later marry the cricketer Donald Bradman.
Kell’s first banking role was with the English, Scottish and Australian Bank Ltd. In April 1886 he joined the Bank of Australasia. After three years of service in Sydney, he was transferred to the bank’s Townsville branch for three years. In 1892 he returned to Sydney and in 1894 was appointed accountant. After a period as manager of the Narrabri branch of the bank, he was transferred to the Superintendent's office in Melbourne. While there, he acted as assistant to the Superintendent. In 1908 he was appointed Sub-Inspector for NSW and Queensland. He left the bank in December 1912 to become the Deputy Governor of the Commonwealth Bank.
Deputy Governor of the Commonwealth Bank
During the Bank's early years, Kell worked closely with Miller to establish the Bank, but Miller’s independent style, coupled with the Commonwealth Bank Act 1911 placing the Bank solely under the control of the Governor, meant that Kell mostly handled non-policy matters and always on behalf of Miller, whose approval was required before any decision was made. When Miller visited North America and the United Kingdom in 1918, Kell kept him fully informed of everything that was happening at the Bank, including any decisions to be made. After Miller’s return to Australia, Kell was re-appointed as Deputy Governor for a second seven-year term on 2 December 1919.
Kell visited North America and the UK in 1920, taking 12 months to travel and study post-war banking markets. Part of his time in the UK coincided with the London Manager, Charles Campion, being in Australia and Kell took over the running of the London Office, while also making useful connections in the City of London and continuing his studies.
Because his role as Deputy Governor was not as well-defined as that of Governor, and as the first incumbent of that role, Kell was largely left to find his own way and create a role for himself. In 1922 Kell, possibly frustrated by Miller’s tight control of the Bank, was informed by the Commonwealth Solicitor-General that the Deputy Governor, while responsible for advising the Governor on a range of topics, was not responsible for any decisions or actions taken. This lay solely with the Governor, who had ultimate control and management of the Bank. Despite these difficulties, Kell’s support for the Governor and loyalty to the Bank could never be questioned.
When Miller died suddenly while in office on 6 June 1923, Kell exercised the powers and functions of the Governor until he was officially appointed to the role in 1924. EW Hulle, the Manager of Sydney Office, took over the role of Deputy Governor.
Reform of the Commonwealth Bank and role of Governor
While reform of the Commonwealth Bank had been discussed as far back as 1921, it had never been seriously contemplated during Miller’s tenure. With the death of Miller in 1923 reform could now be considered. Kell was in favour of reform and favoured a system of controls that limited some of the Governor's powers. He did not advocate any increase in government or political control; rather Kell felt that a Board appointed from within the Bank to review the decisions made by the Governor and provide effective restraint, if needed, was the most favourable model.
The government agreed that Kell’s proposals had merit but did not agree with an internal review process, instead opting for a Board of Directors consisting of the Governor and Secretary to the Treasury, both ex officio, with six other members external to the Bank and representing agriculture, commerce, finance and industry. Under the Commonwealth Bank Act 1924 the management of the Bank was taken out of the Governor's hands and entrusted to the Board. The Board held its inaugural meeting on 10 October 1924. On the same day, Kell was appointed Governor for a one-year term and JS Scott, Manager of the Bank’s Melbourne Office, was appointed Deputy Governor, also for a term of one year.
In 1925, Scott's appointment as Deputy Governor was not renewed and EC Riddle, who had succeeded Scott as Manager, Melbourne, was appointed Deputy Governor on 10 October 1925 for a three-year term. Kell was also re-appointed as Governor, but for a one year term only due to his ill health and frequent absences from the Bank. In August 1926, Kell informed the Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, that on the expiration of his contract in October 1926 he did not wish to be re-appointed to the role of Governor. The Government accepted the Board's recommendation that in recognition of his long service with the Bank, Kell be re-appointed Governor until 31 May 1927, but that he be granted leave of absence during that period. James Kell left the Bank on 9 October 1926 with his official retirement taking effect on 31 May 1927.
Post Commonwealth Bank, death and legacy
In June 1927, Kell became a director of the Australian Bank of Commerce Ltd and remained a director of that bank until it was taken over by the Bank of New South Wales (BNSW) in 1931. He consulted the Commonwealth Bank Board on the propriety of his appointment, but no objection was raised. He also became a director of the Mutual Life and Citizens' Assurance Company Ltd and the Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Company (Australia) Ltd, as well as a local adviser to the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Company.
James Kell died on 4 April 1933 after a short illness. He was survived by his wife and their two sons and two daughters.
Kell was largely overshadowed by Denison Miller during his period as Deputy Governor. During his own term as Governor, much of the authority attached to the position of Governor was removed and vested in the new Board of Directors. Despite these difficulties, Kell was a highly regarded and competent banker. His speeches showed a man who was loyal and dedicated to the Bank, its staff and to the Australian people.
This information is drawn from records held by the Reserve Bank of Australia and the following external sources:
Gollan R (1968), The Commonwealth Bank of Australia: Origins and Early History, Australian National University Press (1st edition).
Mallet A (2002) In Bradman’s Band, University of Queensland Press.
Reserve Bank of Australia Museum, ‘A Family Affair’, From Bank to Battlefield, Exhibition (accessed 31 July 2021).
The few personal records relating to James Kell are contained in the Bank Governors & Senior Personnel series of records (GJK prefix).
In addition, correspondence between James Kell and Denison Miller can also be viewed within Miller’s personal files (GDM prefix).
Other records that relate to James Kell, including when Denison Miller was overseas in 1918, and when Kell was managing the Bank’s London Office in 1920, can be found within the London Letters series (To and From London). In particular see:
- S-L-7 – S-L-126 (From London)
- S-La-1 – S-La-39 (To London)
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.
- SA-65-79 Secretary's Department - Archives - Biographies and Reminiscences - Staff - Kell, James
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - James Kell - Correspondence with Solicitor - General - Duties and Responsibilities of Deputy Governor
Staff - Groups - Commonwealth Bank - Head Office - Farewell afternoon tea and presentation of a travelling trunk and rug to Deputy Governor James Kell prior to his departure overseas - August 1920
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 - Smith, OA - Prior to his departure for England with Mr Kell (at the time undertaking the duties of Governor), Mr Hulle and other friends - January 1924
Staff - Commonwealth Bank Head Office - L to R: Mark Baker Young (Commonwealth Bank's first Manager (Melbourne) and first Chief Inspector), James Kell (Deputy Governor) and Denison Miller (Governor) - Photograph taken in Governor Miller's office - c.1916
Commonwealth Bank - Staff - Head Office cnr Pitt Street & Martin Place - James Kell - 8 September 1916 (plate 728)
Commonwealth Bank of Australia - Head Office cnr Pitt Street & Martin Place - Opening Day - Senior Officers & Branch Managers - 23 August 1916 (Plate 688)