On the job

Unusual cheques

Have you ever seen a cheque made out on a watermelon, or a sailor’s cap?

Here are some of the most unusual cheques that Bank of Montreal staff received – and honoured — throughout the years.

You wouldn’t want to lose the baggage claim

Imagine your boss asked you to run a simple errand for the bank while on holiday in New York: simply pick up $70,000 in banknotes and bring it back to your home branch. Of course, you would pack the money into an old tea chest to avoid attracting attention. What’s one more piece of luggage, right? This was one of the stories told by accountant Henry Dupuy, one of the original seven Bank of Montreal employees. According to Henry, the most nerve-racking part of the trip was the journey by steamboat up the North River (now the Hudson), “where there are so many stoppages (with people getting on and off), it was necessary to be constantly on the watch at the baggage room.”

The first BMO employees were a cashier, an accountant, a paying teller and a second teller. A discount clerk, a second bookkeeper and a porter were added shortly afterwards. The cashier was given the highest salary as well as the use of the bank house (living quarters owned by the bank, which were occasionally provided to employees). It was with this staff of seven that the bank began business in 1817.

We started with seven.

See how much our team has grown.

The first ledger of the Montreal Bank spans the years 1817-1820. In addition to being an interesting artifact for the stories it tells about the bank’s customers, it serves to remind us that at one time, employees had to record every transaction by hand. Naturally, good penmanship was a requirement for any cashier, bookkeeper or clerk.

Although typewriters made their appearance in some banks soon after the turn of the century, the adding machine, or “arithmometer” as it was called, was still regarded as something of a corrupting influence, likely to foster slipshod ways.

Beware bad cheques

In its first year, the bank enacted a by-law stating:
“If the teller pay any cheques, and the persons drawing not having the amount to their credit, the teller be charged with the amount overdrawn, provided the same was without application to the bookkeeper, but if the bookkeeper shall have declared the cheque to be good he shall be responsible for the amount overdrawn.”

The porter

One of the seven original employees of the bank was a porter. The bank’s by-laws of the day provide some insight into his duties.

“It shall be the duty of the porter to keep the Bank House and appurtenances clear and in good order. He shall remain constantly at the Bank while it may be open, either for public or private business. He shall make the fires and light the lamps at the times he may be directed and before closing the Bank at night he shall examine every part of the building and appurtenances, and when the Bank is shut he shall carry the keys to the President or Vice-President, and have the same at the Bank timely in the morning if required.”


Worklife and culture

James R. Hoel

James R. Hoel

James Richard Hoel was a Harris Bank of Chicago employee in the early 1940s. When he enlisted as a cadet in the Army Air Corps, his manager presented him with an engraved watch as a parting gift. Hoel lost that watch when his plane was shot down on May 17th, 1943. And then, sixty years later, Hoel received a phone call from England from a man who had found his watch. Read the incredible story (opens in new tab).

Gertrude Jacobs

In 1926, Gertrude Jacobs was appointed assistant cashier, becoming the first woman officer of any bank in Wisconsin. Jacobs used her position to help educate other women on matters of banking through her appearances on Milwaukee’s first radio station, WHAD, and writing leaflets that answered many common questions about banking. Jacobs was also an active member of the National Association of Bank Women, founded in 1921.

Through the decades

Take a look back at Bank of Montreal, Harris and M&I employees in their natural habitats through the years.

During World War I, a time when many women joined the bank, the massive account ledgers of the Bank of Montreal continued to be posted laboriously by hand. However, they had become so heavy that help was often needed to carry them to and from the vaults. In deference to its female clerks, the bank began to change over to loose-leaf ledgers, the individual pages of which could be removed for easier handling.

War and the workforce

World War I had a profound impact on Bank of Montreal’s workforce. By 1917, almost 50% of our staff – 810 men – had left their jobs to join the war effort. Women stepped in to take their place.

Prior to 1914, women stenographers were rare, even at head office, and women accountants were unheard of. By the war’s end, 42% of our employees were women. Hundreds of women had been hired not only as stenographers and secretaries but also in every clerical position below the rank of manager.

A similar shift occurred during the Second World War. Between 1939 and 1945, 1,269 men and 181 women – approximately one quarter of the bank’s staff – joined the armed services. At the war’s end, 40% of Bank of Montreal employees were women.

Remembering our war heroes

“Victory,” a nine-foot sculpture in Serezza marble, was commissioned by Bank of Montreal to honour those employees lost during World War II. It still stands in the atrium of Montreal’s main branch.

In 1963, Rebecca Watson became the first female Bank of Montreal branch manager.

At Harris, women began to join the firm in the early 1890s. By 1918, women accounted for nearly half of the bank’s workforce, and by 1938, more women were on the payroll than men.


More to life

The Bank of Montreal Pension Fund Society, established in 1884, was among the earliest of its kind in Canada. It would pay a pension to any bank employee with 10 or more years of service, who was over 60 years of age and declared to be incapacitated or infirm from properly performing his duties. It also provided an annuity to the employee’s widow and minor children in the case of untimely death.

1903: The Montreal Bankers Hockey League

Established when bank president Lord Strathcona offered a cup to the best bank clerk hockey team. The games were hugely popular, drawing over 4,000 people to each game.

After the Interprovincial Bank Championship of 1914, in which Bank of Montreal trounced the Canadian Bank of Commerce, an epic ballad was written to document the highlights in dramatic fashion. The final stanza tells us the winning score:

Twice more the puck through Commerce goals is fired.
The whistle blows, the warriors’ rage subdue.
The game is won. The score stands twelve to two.
The Commerce team slinks mournfully away.
The B of M are heroes of the day!

Clubs and recreation leagues have always been popular with BMO employees. Among them were the choral society, bowling leagues, and tennis clubs.

Celebrating the season at a Bank of Montreal branch in Vernon, B.C.

Covers of Whom Fortune Favours volumes 1 & 2

The definitive history of one of North America's most enduring banks, Whom Fortune Favours: The Bank of Montreal and the Rise of North American Finance, Volume 1 & 2, by Laurence B. Mussio.

Visit the McGill Queen’s University Press site to order your copy.

A visually rich tribute to Canada’s first bank, A Vision Greater than Themselves: The Making of the Bank of Montreal, 1817-2017 by Laurence B. Mussio tells the compelling story of the bank from its origins to present day.

Visit the McGill Queen’s University Press site to order your copy.


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