Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Armitage, Hugh Traill (1881–1963)

by M. R. Hill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Hugh Traill Armitage (1881-1963), banker, was born on 17 February 1881 in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), son of Charles Cyrus Armitage (d.1897), merchant, and his wife Dora Elizabeth (1858-1945), née Robertson. Born on 14 July 1858 at St Clair, Michigan, United States of America, Dora was educated in England; she married Charles on 18 January 1877 in Colombo. When his firm collapsed in 1882, she took their four children to England where she learned to type. With the youngest three children, she rejoined Charles in Sydney in 1887. His Australian venture also failed and Dora supported the family by teaching typing. Her Ladies' Type-writing Association won a special prize at the 1888 Exhibition of Women's Industries in Sydney. Honorary treasurer (1896-97) and secretary (1897-99) of the National Council of Women of New South Wales, she married Walter White Wingrove Cooke in 1902 and spent most of her later life in England.

Educated at St Philip's Grammar School and Fort Street Model School, Hughie began his career with the New South Wales Mortgage Loan & Agency Co. in 1896, but transferred next year to the Bank of New South Wales. On 24 February 1906 in St John's Anglican Church, Darlinghurst, he married Edith Jane Callow (d.1947); they were to have four children, one of whom died in infancy and another in childhood. Ambitious and hard-working, he did well with the Wales and in 1909 became accountant at its Perth branch. In 1912 (Sir) Denison Miller, with whom Armitage had been associated in Sydney, persuaded him to join the new Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Armitage returned to Sydney as accountant (chief accountant from 1916), though his role was much wider. He was promoted secretary (January 1921), manager of the Sydney office (1924) and chief inspector (December 1925).

Armitage's appointment as deputy-governor on 1 June 1927 was greeted with enthusiasm by the bank's staff who appreciated his fairness, ability and decisiveness. In July he embarked on a seven-month tour: he opened an agency of the bank in New York and visited London. Giving the 1928 presidential address to the New South Wales branch of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, he put forward a view of world finances which he had formed during his trip. Unlike some of his colleagues, Armitage was interested in developing the Commonwealth's role as a central bank. He established a close relationship with the Federal treasurer E. G. Theodore and helped him to prepare the unsuccessful Central Reserve Bank bill of 1930. With the Depression worsening, Armitage was critical of the Commonwealth Bank's board of directors who in 1931 refused to approve an increase in the note issue to finance government relief works. The board's failure to prevent the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales from suspending payment on 23 April met with his further disfavour. Having investigated that bank's affairs, he found it to be essentially solvent and believed that, had Miller still been Commonwealth Bank governor 'with unfettered powers', the Government Savings Bank would not have closed its doors.

Appointed C.M.G. in 1941, Armitage succeeded Sir Harry Sheehan as governor on 1 July. Armitage's initial three-year term was to be extended until 31 December 1948. From mid-1944 he assisted the government to draft bills (enacted next year) to reform the Commonwealth Bank and formally constitute it as a central bank. In making permanent the controls which had been imposed due to wartime conditions, he and J. B. Chifley were careful to point out that the 1935-37 royal commission on monetary and banking systems had recommended that the Federal government have ultimate power over monetary policy. The 1945 banking legislation also directed the Commonwealth Bank to compete actively with the commercial banks; Armitage implemented the change with vigour.

In retirement he joined a number of company boards, including that of Allied Investments Ltd, and retained an interest in business affairs. He had served the community over many years through charitable and benevolent bodies. Armitage lived in Sydney for most of his life. As a young man he had been involved in swimming, sailing and rowing, and in later life he continued to surf; his other recreations included golf and motoring, and he enjoyed weekend farming and riding on a small property in the country. On 6 August 1953 at the registrar's office, North Sydney, he married his widowed sister-in-law Margaret Toshack, née Callow, late Paurs. He died on 17 October 1963 at his Cremorne home and was cremated; his wife survived him, as did a son and daughter of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Giblin, The Growth of a Central Bank (Melb, 1951)
  • R. Gollan, The Commonwealth Bank of Australia (Canb, 1968)
  • C. B. Schedvin, Australia and the Great Depression (Syd, 1970)
  • S. J. Butlin and C. B. Schedvin, War Economy, 1942-1945 (Canb, 1977)
  • H. C. Coombs, Trial Balance (Melb, 1981)
  • S. Baldwin (ed), Unsung Heroes & Heroines of Australia (Melb, 1988)
  • Bank Notes (Sydney), Jan 1921, June 1927, Jan 1928, Sept 1941
  • personal recollections of Mr H. T. Armitage, Miss F. A. Manton, Miss M. McCourt, Mr W. H. Wilcock and Sir Bede Callaghan (Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, Sydney)
  • Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, Sydney
  • Westpac Banking Corp Archives, Sydney
  • private information.

Citation details

M. R. Hill, 'Armitage, Hugh Traill (1881–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/armitage-hugh-traill-9382/text16483, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 September 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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