This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986
Sir Denison Samuel King Miller (1860-1923), banker, was born on 8 March 1860 at Fairy Meadow, near Wollongong, New South Wales, son of Samuel King Miller, schoolteacher, and his wife Sarah Isabella, née Jones. Most of his boyhood was spent at Deniliquin, where his father was headmaster of the public school. At 16 he was employed as a junior in the Deniliquin branch of the Bank of New South Wales and after six years was transferred to head office in Sydney, where he rose steadily in the bank hierarchy. On 17 February 1885 he married Maud Eveline Dean at St John's Church of England, Darlinghurst. After seventeen years service he was appointed assistant accountant, and two years later accountant. On 13 June 1895 at Young, the widowed Miller married Laura Constance Heeley. In 1899 he became assistant to the general manager, in 1907 general manager's inspector, and two years later metropolitan inspector, the second most-senior position in the bank. In 1911 he went on a world tour.
Miller, however, was relatively unknown when Prime Minister Andrew Fisher appointed him governor of the Commonwealth Bank from 1 June 1912. The terms were generous: £4000 a year, the second-highest salary paid to a banker in Australia and substantially more than the salary of the prime minister or the chief justice of the High Court of Australia. He was also entitled to travelling expenses equal to those of High Court justices.
In the long political campaign leading to the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank some sections of the labour movement had seen the bank as an instrument of radical reform: an institution which would control what were considered to be the rapacious activities of the private banks. King O'Malley saw it also as a central bank which would exercise a good deal of control over all the trading banks. In fact the bank, legislated into existence by Fisher and developed by Denison Miller, differed little from the existing banks: where there was a difference it was in the greater conservatism of the Commonwealth Bank. With a nice mixture of caution and initiative Miller proved to be unusually well suited to preside over such an institution.
In order to avoid any appearance of political control, the Commonwealth Bank Act (1911) provided for an autocrat: 'the bank shall be managed by the Governor of the Bank'. Even the deputy governor, James Kell, who was required to exercise the powers of the governor if by reason of illness or other cause he was unable to carry out his responsibilities, was granted only minimal authority.
Miller exercised his authority to the full. In the first six months after his appointment the spare and wiry governor travelled Australia from Cairns to Perth, setting up branches of the Commonwealth Savings Bank, beginning at Melbourne in July 1912. At the same time he was finding premises and appointing staff to carry on the general banking business. Seven and a half months after his appointment the trading bank opened, with the head office in Sydney and branches in all State capitals, Canberra, Townsville and London. Miller maintained his close and detailed supervision. He not only made decisions on sites and plans for new buildings, but also decided on fittings and furniture. Only in 1921, when the bank was quite a large institution, was there any significant delegation of authority, and then only to permit the inspector and secretary, third and fourth in the hierarchy, to approve branch purchases of furniture. Even then the governor instructed that he should be kept informed of what was being bought. All staff, from managers to cleaners, were his personal concern.
The details of banking policy were also determined by Miller, set out in a letter to the Commonwealth treasurer about a year after taking up his position. His aim, he wrote, was to build a bank that would not interfere with the existing banks, that would do the business of the Commonwealth and such of the State governments as might elect to do business with it, and when it could be done safely, meet those needs of the public which could not be accommodated by their own bankers. In regard to private business Miller was at pains to emphasize that he was not competing aggressively with the private banks; the interest rate for overdrafts was a uniform 6 per cent with 5 per cent for charities and churches; the fixed deposit rate was ½ per cent less than the other banks; and business was declined if it was discovered that it was offered to secure a lower rate than was being charged by the applicant's own bank. In the face of gibes about 'sovereigns for all' and 'Fisher's flimsies', Miller took care not to convert vague distrust into hostility. An expanding banking frontier eased this task.
At the outbreak of war in 1914 the bank was a very modest concern, but the demands of war financing soon gave it a key position in the banking structure. The two problems with which the war confronted the banks were how to raise the necessary funds to pay for war expenses, and how to finance Australia's international trade under war conditions. The Commonwealth Bank took the lead in solving the banking side of both problems.
Australia entered the war expecting to pay for it from revenue and loans raised in London, but revenue proved insufficient and the London money market was soon restricted. So Australia was thrown back on its own resources. The Commonwealth had never raised a loan in Australia and nobody had any clear idea of what could be expected from that source. In the event, internal loans raised and managed by the bank provided more than half the total spent on the war. The ten war loans raised £250 million.
The bank also played a big part in financing the export trade. Before the war the export of wool, wheat, meat, and other primary products was handled by wool-broking firms, grain merchants, and others. But the war limited the available shipping, upset the established means of payment, and varied the demand for Australian products in Britain. The answer was to pool commodities, arrange finance for producers, and control exports. Wheat and wool made up two large pools, but there were others for meat, rabbits, cheese and butter. Though all banks played a part in financing these operations, the Commonwealth Bank had the central role.
By the end of the war the bank was firmly established as the Australian government's banker and its agent in most financial matters. The physical evidence of its maturity was the imposing head office, opened in 1916 in the heart of Sydney, in whose building and furnishing Miller had taken a close and detailed interest. An undercurrent of objection to the governor's exceptional personal power was kept in check by Miller's impressive record. But after the war he was accused of nepotism with regard to architectural and other services to the bank. In June 1919 he was appointed to a second term of office. The K.C.M.G. with which he was invested by the visiting Prince of Wales on 17 June 1920 was a recognition of personal achievement as well as of the stature of the bank.
Displaying a 'faculty for combining conventionality in thought with enterprise in action', Miller in 1920 released sufficient currency to cushion Australia from the post-war slump, and in 1921 he confirmed to a deputation of the unemployed that he was prepared to finance the country for productive purposes in the same way as in wartime.
Vance Palmer observed that though Miller's personality was 'neither dramatic nor colourful it made a deep impression on the public mind'. It was appreciated that the new bank might have been as outstanding a failure in the hands of the wrong man, as it had been a success in Miller's. His ability to secure co-operation and loyalty was not the least of his strengths.
Miller was a man of wide interests. He was closely associated with the Barnardo scheme, the Millions Club, the Million Farms Campaign Association and the New Settlers' League. A founder and honorary treasurer of the Institute of Bankers of New South Wales, he was a life governor of Sydney Hospital and the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children whose executive he chaired. He was for many years president of the Australian Golf Club, and a member of the Australian Club and the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron.
Miller died suddenly of heart disease at his home, Cliffbrook, Coogee, on 6 June 1923. He was buried in the Church of England section of Waverley cemetery. His wife, four sons and two daughters survived him. His son Clive of his first marriage was killed in France in 1917. Miller's estate was sworn for probate at £29,791. A public meeting inaugurated the Denison Miller Memorial Fund that established a post-graduate scholarship in economics at the University of Sydney in 1924.
Robin Gollan, 'Miller, Sir Denison Samuel (1860–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/miller-sir-denison-samuel-726/text13235, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 February 2017.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986