The Corporate Archives curates physical and digital exhibits from our collections to tell BMO’s story over the years. Our aim is to provide a better understanding of the defining moments in our history.

Protecting your money

From the earliest days of safeguarding legal tender using vaults, to today’s biometric security features, staying a step ahead to protect BMO customers has always been a priority. Here are some examples of the innovative ways BMO has ensured customers’ finances have been safe and secure to help them make real financial progress with peace of mind.

1817 – Policing and the bank

Four days after the Montreal Bank opened for business, its directors petitioned the governor of the city to place a sentinel at the bank for security. Montreal had no police force, but was garrisoned by British troops. The following year, the city made a provision “for the erection of street lamps, and also for night watches, consisting of twenty-four in number, their duties being to trim and attend the lamps, and also to act as police guardians.”

Image: Photograph of the Montreal police force, inaugurated in 1843. Courtesy of Archives de la ville de Montréal.

The Miller Chest

When the bank needed to transport valuables in the early days, it depended on the Miller Chest to keep them safe. This inconspicuous black box would have travelled through many dangerous and forlorn places, often in the back of stagecoaches, dragged through the snow, trekking through brush and forest and hauled through the worst that a northeastern North American climate could throw at it.

Because of its valuable contents – the wealth, treasure and vital information of the bank, and the merchants and customers it served – the chest was one of the most anticipated objects to arrive in settlements and military outposts, where currency was scarce. These treasure chests often held much of a community’s wealth, destined for more secure places or for investment. It’s no surprise they were perpetually in the crosshairs of highwaymen and criminals. The Miller Chest is a stark reminder of the hardships of early Canadian banking.

Image: Miller Chest, c. 1817.

1832 – There’s no such thing as a snow day in banking

Accountant Henry Dupuy, recalling his early days as a Montreal Bank employee, wrote about having to transport a large sum of specie (money in the form of coins), in boxes and kegs from Kingston to Montreal by stagecoach in February 1832 during a snowstorm.

Between Brockville and Cornwall, the coach met a very steep hill and broke a harness in the attempt to climb it. Henry and the driver had to carry the specie from the bottom of the hill to the top, wading through snow nearly up to their hips. Eventually, they were able to reassemble coach and cargo at the top of the hill and be on their way.

Henry wrote of the stagecoach driver: “He swore at a great rate at the hard dollars for giving him so much trouble,” but then went on to say, “It would have been rather hazardous had the driver been a desperate fellow; however, I had not the slightest fear.”

Thanks to this hardworking employee and his trustworthy driver, the cash made it to Montreal safely.

Image: Excerpt from Henry Dupuy’s memoirs, c. 1860.

Corporate seal

In a world where it was difficult to obtain information and verify reputation, seals were a tangible way to convey security, legitimacy, and trust. They were also extremely difficult to forge. When businesspeople saw the Bank of Montreal corporate seal on a document, they knew immediately what it meant and who stood behind it. It represented a promise and a guarantee.

Corporate seals were, and in many cases still are, used to certify official documents, deeds and acts of the bank.

Image: BMO’s corporate seal, 19th century.

1870 – Protectograph

In 1870, the protectograph offered a way for banks to protect themselves and their customers against forgers who would alter cheques, securities, cash certificates, bills, receipts, and other forms of exchange.

These chequewriters were used to print the face value on negotiable securities in relief so the value could be both seen and felt. The machine printed a mark before the digits in the face value, making it impossible to change the amount after the cheque had been printed. The corrugated surface of the digit stamps was pressed into the paper fibres, allowing the paper to absorb the special ink. This technique made it virtually impossible to erase or even chemically remove the printed money value.

The protectograph was part of a long line of technologies aimed directly at keeping Bank of Montreal and its customers safe from fraud.

Image: Protectograph, c. 1870.

Victorian Cryptography: Telegraph Codebooks

The telegraph was a vital part of the transportation and communication revolution of the 19th century. It heralded the death of distance and the acceleration of decision-making. It was vital to the information and control-processing revolution. For financial institutions, technological transformation, then as now, can lead to complete financial transformation.

Transmitting intelligence and sensitive financial data through public telegraph lines demanded a code language. The code language developed by the bank was continuously updated down the years. As the introduction to one such codebook (in 1960) suggested, the codebook’s purpose was “to conceal the meaning of messages and to minimize telegraphic charges. Important or confidential messages should be closely coded in order to disguise the meaning as far as possible; where there is not the same need for secrecy, economy of words is the primary objective.

The codebooks were high-value intelligence documents and so were kept in a safe or a locked compartment in the custody of the manager or accountant. The chain of custody during office hours was carefully set out, and only authorized personnel would be able to see or use the codebooks.

Image: Telegraph books, c. 1910.

1912 – Three-storey vault

Built into all three floors of our former Winnipeg Main branch in 1912, this bank vault was one of the thickest and most secure ever made.

The steel in the doors and the lining of the vault alone totaled 500,000 pounds (250 tons). The outer door was 47 centimetres (18.5 inches) thick and weighed 36,000 lbs (18 t), while the inner door weighed 20,000 lbs (10 tons), and they were reinforced by thick layers of corundum to prevent burning through the door. The doors featured 24 solid steel locking bolts, more than 10 cm (4 in) in diameter, and two combination locks on each door. The codes were known only to two officers of the bank. Quadruple time locks ensured extra security, as did security patrols and “electric protection.”

The vault had three sections. Day-to-day business needs were met by the bank’s cash vault, located on the main floor. A second section served as a book vault to secure ledgers and various account books. The basement-floor section – 9.7 metres (32 feet) long, 2.8 m (9 ft 2 in wide) and 2.4 m (8 ft) high – served as the bank’s safety deposit vault.

Image: Photograph of the vault in the former Winnipeg Main branch, c. 1920.

1920s – Armoured cars

Armoured cars began to be deployed in number by the 1920s and followed strict rules regarding construction. One such car – customized for the bank by Smith Brothers of Toronto – was described as “made entirely of Special Armoured Steel, walls to be 3/16-gauge, roof and floor to be 12 gauge […] Frame-work of body to be constructed of angle iron and all parts well fitted and securely riveted. The body to have such portholes for shooting purpose and in position as requested by customer.”

Image: Photograph of Bank of Montreal armoured car, c. 1920s.

1931 – Heroic employees

The June 1931 issue of the Staff Magazine recounts how a robbery attempt at the Vancouver Heights branch was thwarted by two heroic employees: manager F. J. Roche and teller G. C. Johnston:

“Two bandits gained entrance to the office through the skylight at night and, concealing themselves in the Manager’s office, seized Mr. Johnston when he arrived at the Bank at 9 a.m. They tied him to a chair, and a few minutes later seized Mr. Roche as he entered his room and lashed him to another chair.

The bandits, masked and armed with revolvers, demanded that Mr. Roche open the safe. Mr. Roche replied that it was impossible to do so as the time-lock was set for the opening of the safe at 10 o’clock. Repeated threats and explanations continued for an hour. Then with the arrival of 10 o’clock, Mr. Roche was unbound, taken to the safe under cover of revolvers and ordered to ‘open up or be drilled.’

Mr. Roche, after various delays in fumbling the numbers, at length threw off the combination, but pulled on the wrong lever and of course failed to open the door. He suggested that the time lock was still holding and told the bandits to try it themselves.

By this time it was past 10 o’clock and customers were knocking at the front door. The bandits became nervous and decamped through the back door. They have since been arrested and committed for trial.

A presentation from the General Managers of an inscribed gold watch and a cheque to Mr. Roche and a cheque to Mr. Johnston as an appreciation from the Bank of the manner in which they had protected its property.”

Image: Excerpt from Staff Magazine article on attempted robbery, June 1931.

1924-1950 – Wanted posters and reward notices

The circulation of wanted and reward notices was one of the most effective means of bringing criminals to justice in 19th- and 20th-century Canada. Notices would be posted throughout the community where the forgeries, counterfeiting or robberies took place. Some posters were distributed by the police, while others were issued by Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency across their agencies. The Canadian Bankers Association likewise played an important role by offering rewards leading to the capture of bank robbers. Between 1924 and 1950, the association paid out a total of $253,203.

Image: Notice of reward for a bank robber, 1875.