Research Guide: Sir Denison Samuel King Miller KCMG
Denison Miller was the first Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, which was established by the Commonwealth Bank Act 1911. He was appointed to the role in 1912 by Australian Prime Minister Andrew Fisher. Miller had been recommended to Fisher as a capable and highly regarded banker, having worked in senior roles at the Bank of New South Wales (BNSW), where he held the second most senior positon.
Fisher wrote to Miller on 14 May 1912 offering him the position of Governor. Miller accepted and his Commission appointing him to the role was signed on 29 May 1912. He commenced duties, for an initial period of seven years, from 1 June 1912, at a salary of £4,000 per annum and a generous travelling allowance; at the time, more than the Prime Minister earned. In the event that the new Bank failed, his salary would continue to be paid for the full period of the contract.
In order to establish the Bank on a strong footing, Miller was to be given government funding of £1 million. In the end, the authorised capital was not used as Miller relied on a short-term loan of £10,000 from the Commonwealth Treasury to cover costs. Miller set about establishing branches in each Australian state capital, and over time banking facilities throughout Australia. In 1912, he also established a branch in London, then the centre of the financial world.
The Commonwealth Bank Act 1911 gave full powers to the Governor who had sole management of the Bank. During his term there was no board of directors and Miller insisted that the Bank be entirely free from political interference.
Miller was known for his personal connections with Bank staff at all levels and paternalistic management style. The affection in which he was held in return is especially evident during World War I, when he received touching letters from Bank staff relaying to him their experiences at the front and also good wishes for the Bank, which was a new institution back home. Under him, the Bank raised considerable funds through its War Loans and Peace Loans; public subscriptions to assist Australia’s war efforts, and at the end of the war, Australia’s recovery.
On the expiration of his first commission, Denison Miller was reappointed from 1 June 1919 for a further seven years. He was knighted in 1920 for services to banking and Australia. He died suddenly during his second term in office in June 1923.
Early life and career
Denison Samuel King Miller was born at Fairy Meadow, near Wollongong, on the south coast of New South Wales, on 8 March 1860 to Samuel King Miller and Sarah Isabella Miller (nee Jones), and was the eldest son of eight children. Miller’s grandfather, Anderson Miller, had been a schoolmaster and Denison’s father, Samuel King Miller, the headmaster of Deniliquin Public School. It was at this school that Denison Miller received most of his education.
At the age of 16, Denison Miller began his career in banking. He joined the Deniliquin branch of the BNSW on 19 August 1876 as a junior, with a salary of £40 per annum. He worked at the branch for six years before being transferred, at his own request, to the bank’s Head Office in Sydney. There he gained experience in every department of banking, becoming Assistant Accountant within 10 years. Miller’s brother Aubrey and his sister Tennyson also worked for the BNSW.
In the 1880s, Miller divided his time between the BNSW’s Head Office and a variety of branches in the Sydney area. Then in the 1890s, he relieved in various positions, including manager of regional branches at Inverell and Wagga Wagga, and as an inspector of branches, including investigating malpractice by the manager of the Bathurst Branch in 1894.
In 1895 Miller became the BNSW’s principal accountant and while holding this office continued to audit and inspect branches, including in Victoria and South Australia. In 1889 and 1890 he relieved as manager of the Perth and Fremantle branches and spent short periods in Adelaide and Melbourne.
In 1899 Russell French, the General Manager of the BNSW, appointed Miller to the role of Assistant to the General Manager. In this position Miller undertook much of the work that had previously been carried out by the General Manager.
On 1 January 1907, Miller’s title was changed to General Manager’s Inspector, and in 1909 he became Metropolitan Inspector. He occupied this position until 1911, when he left Australia for a private 12-month world tour with members of his family. While overseas, he familiarised himself with contemporary banking issues. On his return, he accepted the role offered by the Prime Minister to lead the new Commonwealth Bank.
Governor of the Commonwealth Bank
Up until his appointment as Governor, Denison Miller, while an experienced banker, had not been well known outside the world of finance. His rise from a junior role at the BNSW to the second most senior position in the Bank had demonstrated initiative and perseverance. He was also known for being efficient, cautious and reflective; qualities that no doubt assisted him in the new role.
When the idea for a central bank in Australia was first raised, the Australian Labor Party parliamentarian, King O’Malley, amongst others, insisted it must be independent of government and political control. To this end, when the Commonwealth Bank Act 1911 was passed, management of the Bank, although not a central bank at that time, was solely vested in the Governor of the Bank.
Miller’s personality was suited to working independently and autonomously, and he exercised his authority on all aspects of the new Bank. He personally interviewed and appointed staff to positions within the Bank, and oversaw the move of the Bank from Melbourne to Sydney. He also championed, where possible, Australian innovation and design, including in the construction of the Bank’s new Head Office building in Sydney. Miller established branches in all states of Australia, as well as an office in London to carry on general banking business there at a time when London was at the centre of the world’s financial markets. He was also known for his paternalism towards the Bank’s staff and care and concern for them, and for his calm personality and his determination.
While the sole management of the Bank generally allowed him a free hand in terms of its running, its success or failure also rested fully on Miller’s shoulders. That he was able to establish the Bank so successfully, and ensure its profitability so early on, saw him frequently profiled in the press of the day, and he quickly became a well-known, respected and trusted figure in Australia.
World War I
The Bank had been established for only two years when war in Europe was declared in 1914. With Britain at war, Australia was also at war. The Commonwealth Bank was immediately thrust into the national limelight while still in its infancy. The Australian Government required capital for the war effort and to finance Australia’s international trade and loans. In the past, London had been the place to obtain funds at favourable prices. With the outbreak of the war, this market was not as accessible as before nor were funds as readily available. It became clear that Australia would need to raise its own money. A Commonwealth Bank campaign on behalf of the Australian Government to encourage the general public to buy a war bond and thus support the war effort proved successful and it, and subsequent loans, were quickly oversubscribed. The Commonwealth Bank’s Head Office and branches, from where the loans were managed, were the backdrop for many campaigns to sell the bonds to the general public. Often atop a replica tank, Denison Miller personally visited promotional events and encouraged the public to lend their money for the war, and receive it back with interest in a time of peace.
World War I (WWI) also saw the need to provide banking services for the personnel serving overseas or stationed at training camps. The Bank established banking facilities in Australia and abroad to ensure pay could be accessed and transferred to family at home if needed. In all these programmes, Denison Miller was front and centre.
At considerable risk to his own safety, Denison Miller left Australia in 1918 and travelled by ship to the United Kingdom via North America, to meet with leaders of industry, finance and banking. While in London he also met with service personnel and staff of the Bank, including the London manager, Charles Campion, and travelled to France to see humanitarian efforts being carried out there, including by the Australian Red Cross, Australian YMCA and Australian Veterinary Hospital at Calais, where over 1,400 horses and mules from the battlefields had been treated for shrapnel wounds in the 12-months prior to his visit. He met all those leading these efforts, and also soldiers from the front, and he was widely lauded for his bravery and the success of the trip.
Due to the influenza pandemic in 1918, on his return to Australia on the S.S. Makura, Denison Miller and all on board were quarantined at North Head in Sydney for 1 week and all correspondence at this time was sent to him via the Quarantine Station there.
During and after the war, Miller’s own profile and standing became forever linked to the Commonwealth Bank, and because of him the Bank was firmly established in the public mind as a bank for the people.
Known for his care and concern for Bank staff, and especially for those serving overseas, Denison Miller kept a paternalistic eye on many of the soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting in Europe. Some wrote to him, including from Gallipoli and the battlefields of Europe. The loss of his own son Clive in 1917 in France was greatly felt by all Bank staff, with personal messages of sympathy received from many and a fund set up to commission a portrait of Clive, which was presented to Miller. Condolences were also received from the public, government, King George V and Queen Mary.
The Commonwealth Bank’s War and Peace Loans schemes enabled the government to fund the war and its loan commitments, and reinvigorate the economy, providing jobs and training for Australians returning from the war.
The Bank also established War Service Homes for returned service personnel. On many occasions, Miller laid the first stone or turned the first sod prior to construction commencing. He was very much the face of the war effort in Australia.
The establishment of central banking functions
Under Miller, the formation of central banking functions within the Commonwealth Bank developed quickly. The establishment of a central bank grew rapidly through the raising of money for the war effort, loans and payment of troops in Australia and overseas, and then by funding the government’s post-war recovery and reconstruction.
The establishment of a Notes Board in 1920 to oversee the printing and issue of Australia’s banknotes was also seen as an extension of the Bank’s central banking functions. In 1924 the Notes Board was transferred fully to the Commonwealth Bank, cementing the role of the central bank further in the public’s eyes, although sadly Denison Miller did not live to see this.
In 1885 Denison Miller married Maude Evelyn Dean, the daughter of an affluent family who owned a large portion of Paddington. They had two sons before her premature death in 1890; both sons died in their twenties. Roy, a merchant, died in 1911 from complications due to diabetes mellitus, and Clive was killed in action at Messines, France, in 1917.
In 1895, Miller married Laura Constance, daughter of Dr JT Heeley and they had six children – four sons (John, Wilfred, Havelock (Bob) and Samuel) and two daughters (Lillian and Marjorie).
The family lived at ‘Cliffbrook’, an oceanfront mansion in Coogee on a substantial parcel of land, previously owned by the BNSW. The grounds and house became a popular venue for staff functions, including golf days and sporting carnivals.
Amongst his many charitable works, many of which he carried out anonymously, Miller was Vice-Chairman of the Executive of the Hospital Saturday Fund in New South Wales and a Life Governor of the Sydney Hospital (since 1889) and Royal Children’s Hospital. He was one of the founders of the Institute of Bankers of New South Wales and was its Honorary Treasurer for a number of years from its inception. He was also a supporter of the Barnardo Scheme, the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), and oversaw the erection of hostels for the YMCA and the Girls’ Friendly Society. Miller was a keen golfer and was president of the Australian Golf Club at Kensington in Sydney.
For his service to Australia and for services rendered as Governor of the Commonwealth Bank during the War, Miller was awarded the title of Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (KCMG). This was bestowed on him by the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) in June 1920, during the Prince’s tour of Australia.
Death and legacy
Sir Denison Miller died suddenly on 6 June 1923 while in office. The Deputy Governor, James Kell, took on many of the duties of Governor during the formal period of mourning.
The outpouring of grief from staff and the general public, and accolades from politicians and business leaders in Australia and overseas, was unprecedented. Despite having held the position of Governor for the relatively short period of 11 years, Miller’s leadership over the war years, his record of service to the Australian people, and his wide-ranging influence across all aspects of Australian society saw him thought of as a personal friend and father figure by many, even those who had not personally met him. Crowds lined the route to St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney, where the funeral service was held, and then to Waverley cemetery, where Miller’s body was interred. Such was the level of regard for him that at a public meeting in Sydney on 10 June 1923, it was unanimously carried that '… the title of Governor be not given to the successors of Sir Denison Miller, but that some other title be created such as “President” or other suitable, so that the people down through the centuries to come will think of Sir Denison Miller as always being with them as Governor of their Commonwealth Bank assisting in the shaping of Australia’s great destiny' (RBA Archives GDM-23-10). In the end this was not adopted, and James Kell was appointed to the position of Governor of the Commonwealth Bank in 1924, but it showed the highest regard in which Denison Miller was held and that many saw him as irreplaceable.
This information is drawn from records held by the Reserve Bank of Australia and the following external sources:
Gollan R (1986), ‘Miller, Sir Denison Samuel (1860-1923)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 10. Available at <https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/miller-sir-denison-samuel-726> (accessed 15 July 2021).
‘Miller, Sir Denison Samuel (1860-1923)’, Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Available at < https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/miller-sir-denison-samuel-726> (accessed 15 July 2021).
Reserve Bank of Australia Museum, ‘Managing the Bank in Times of War’, From Bank to Battlefield Exhibition (accessed 15 July 2021).
The majority of the records relating to Sir Denison Miller’s role as Governor of the Commonwealth Bank were donated to the Bank by the grandson of Sir Denison Miller in the 1960s and can be found in the Bank Governors & Senior Personnel Series of records relating to him (all containing the prefix GDM).
Additional records that relate to Sir Denison Miller and his role at the Bank can be found within the London Letters series (To and From London), dated 1912–1923:
- S-L-7 – S-L-114 (From London)
- S-La-1 – S-La-34 (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.
Records relating to the Sir Denison Miller Memorial Fund can be found in a 1923 Secretary’s Department file:
- S-23-10 Secretary's Department - Miller, Sir Denison Memorial Fund, 1923
There are also two files of biographies and reminiscences. One relates specifically to Denison Miller. This has not been digitised. The other relates to Mrs Abercrombie (nee Manton) who was Denison Miller’s secretary.
- SA-65-76 Secretary's Department - Archives - Biographies and Reminiscences - Staff - Abercrombie, Mrs. R.B. (nee Manton), 1962
- SA-65-80 Secretary's Department - Archives - Biographies and Reminiscences - Staff - Miller, Sir Denison, 1963
There are also a number of collection items relating to Sir Denison Miller’s time as Governor:
- LS-001676 Cartoon - "Denison Miller" - by Low
- MU-000230 Paperweight - Bronze paperweight with handle. Ornamental design appears to be thistles and shamrocks - used by Sir Denison Miller - circa 1916
- MU-000238 Bell - Novelty mechanical bell, fashioned in shape of tortoise - used by Denison Miller - circa 1912
- MU-000261 Framed Portrait of Sir Denison Miller - porcelain portrait manufactured by Dutch Art Pottery Co. Sydney - circa 1916
- MU-000269 Sculpture - Bronze - Bust of Sir Denison Miller executed by Nelson Illingworth - 1923
- MU-000285 China - One Royal Doulton teapot and lid with Australian flower design - for use by Sir Denison Miller in the Governor's Dining Room - 1915
Some personal items were donated by the grandson of Sir Denison Miller to Westpac Historical Services in the 1980s. They mainly relate to his time at the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac), and can be viewed, by appointment, at this institution.
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Denison Miller - Invitations to Functions and Replies - February to June 1923
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Denison Miller - Invitations to Functions and Replies - September 1922 to June 1923
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Denison Miller - Donations to Charities, etc. and Membership - 1922 to 1923
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Denison Miller - Invitations to Functions and Replies - April to August 1922
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Denison Miller - Invitations to Functions and Replies - November 1921 to March 1922
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Denison Miller - Donations to Charities, etc. and Memberships - 1914 to 1921
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Denison Miller - Knighthood - Congratulatory Messages - 4 to 7 June 1920
GOVERNORS & SENIOR PERSONNEL - Denison Miller - Knighthood - Congratulatory Messages - 3 May to 3 June 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
The Bank at Work - Note Printing Branch - Ceremony re-numbering the first Commonwealth note (ten shilling note) - 1 May 1913
Premises - Head Office - Cnr Pitt Street & Martin Place - Opening Day - photograph of a cartoon featuring the Federal Treasurer, Andrew Fisher and the Governor, Denison Miller - 1912
HRH the Prince of Wales' Visit to Australia June 1920 - Overseas pressmen accompanying the Prince of Wales photographed talking with Denison Miller (middle)
Bank's Functions, Activities, etc. - Note Issue - First meeting of the Note Issue Board (also known as the Notes Board) - 17 December 1920
Staff - Social Functions - Luncheon given to Denison Miller at City Carlton Club, London - 7 August 1918
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
Staff - Denison Miller in his office - Australian Alliance Building, Melbourne - July 1912 (plate 27)
Premises - Commonwealth Bank - Melbourne - Bicycle Club Chambers (original Head Office) - Governor Denison Miller and Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher in the Governor's office - 1912
Head Office - Construction, laying of Foundation Stone - Premier of NSW presenting trowel to Governor (copy a) - 14 May 1913
Premises - Commonwealth Bank of Australia - Head Office - Ceremonies associated with construction - Governor Denison Miller lays the Foundation Stone for the new Head Office building - 14 May 1913
Sixth War Loan Campaign activities NSW - Tank Week, April 1918 - Tank visits Sussex Street - 9 April 1918 (plate 226)
Commonwealth Bank - Head Office cnr Pitt Street & Martin Place - Staff - Sir Denison Miller - 12 September 1916 (plate 725)
Commonwealth Bank of Australia - Head Office cnr Pitt Street & Martin Place - Opening Day - Senior Officers & Branch Managers - 23 August 1916 (Plate 688)
Commonwealth Bank of Australia - Temporary Premises - Head Office - Melbourne - Bicycle Club Chambers - 1912 (plate 26)
War Service Homes Scheme, NSW - Mr Denison S.K. Miller laying the foundation stone of the first War service home in Kennedy St , Canterbury - 21 July 1919
Commonwealth Bank of Australia - Denison SK Miller - Programme - Opening of Head Office in Sydney - marked 10 August 1916