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.

Worklife and culture

While customer service has always been a priority at BMO, workplace culture has always been important to employees and the bank. This exhibit explores the various jobs employees would have had, the ways the bank fostered a winning culture, as well as some of the activities that made up employees’ lives.

1817 – The first BMO employees

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.

Image: “The Founders – A Dream Takes Shape,” painting of nine business leaders gathering to sign the Articles Association of the Montreal Bank in June of 1817, Will Davies, 1966.

On the job

The first ledger of the Montreal Bank spans the years 1817 to 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 20th century, the adding machine, or “arithmometer” as it was called, was still regarded as something of a corrupting influence, likely to foster slipshod ways.

Image: First Bank of Montreal ledger, 1817-1820.

The bank messenger had a great deal of responsibility

The Bank of Montreal Rules and Regulations of 1817 stated that the messenger “shall be accountable for whatever may be entrusted to his charge and for all sums of money collected by him. He shall also be responsible to the bank or to the parties concerned, as the case may be, for all losses arising from his negligence, errors or omissions in performing the duties assigned to him.” In smaller branches, the duties of the messenger were taken on by the porter, who already had his own long list of responsibilities. Over the years, the role of the messenger changed significantly. While they would sometimes be called on to deliver sensitive documents and securities that had to be dispatched quickly, they would more often be kept busy delivering mail within the branch, helping customers fill out paperwork, or directing them to the right teller.

Image: Photograph of Bowmanville Branch exterior with bank employees, including one in messenger’s uniform, 1911.

1884 – Bank of Montreal Pension Fund Society

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 their duties. It also provided an annuity to the employee’s widow and minor children in the case of untimely death.

Image: Bank of Montreal Pension Fund Society seal press, c.1884.

1901 – Workplace rule book

This edition of the employee rule book, published in 1901, covered an extraordinary range of responsibilities and duties about the business of banking, managing staff, and the wider world. Article 7, for example, required the manager to “keep himself informed of the general news of the neighbourhood.” Other instructions covered everything from the nature and use of telegraphic communications to the handling of nitroglycerine for oiling locks.

Image: Rule on penmanship, Bank of Montreal Rules and Regulations, 1901.

1910s – Hockey League

The Bank of Montreal Hockey Club was 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 match. 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.”

Image: Photograph of Bank of Montreal Hockey Club Champions, Montreal Bankers League, 1913-1914.

1916 – More to life

Starting in 1916, Harris Bank sponsored an annual outing to allow its people to “put on their play personalities” for a day.

Image: Photograph of Harris employees at the Seventh Annual Field Day, Olympia Fields Country Club, 1921.

1930s – Telegraph Department

From 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the Telegraph Department, housed at Head Office, was filled with the overtones of the staccato tap, tap, tap of the telegraphic typewriter, the undertones of the dot and dash tappings of the Morse Code operators, and the interrupting swish, floop of the pneumatic tubes carrying typewritten messages to-and-from other departments of Head Office or the Montreal main branch.

In the 1930s, Bank of Montreal’s Telegraph Department and private wire system were considered the “last word in up-to-date equipment.” This was the nerve centre of a far-reaching system of communications that connected Bank of Montreal branches across the continent and overseas. The teletype machine could send and receive messages, making it possible to carry on a typed conversation much in the same way we use texting on our smartphones today.

A description of what it was like to watch the machine: “There is a touch of the weird in one’s first experience with one of these machines, especially if it is receiving. You see a machine, quite unattended, busily typewriting a message, just as though a stenographer is operating it, but that stenographer is hundreds of miles away.” It’s just one historical example of BMO’s commitment to innovatively serving our customers and communities.

Image: Photograph of employees in Telegraph Department at Montreal Head Office, 1932.

1940s – Switchboard operators

Switchboard operators served an important function for our customers and communities. According to a 1949 booklet, the operators at the Toronto Headquarters handled 131 telephones.

Image: Photograph of telephone operators, Toronto Headquarters, King & Bay Streets, 1949.

1950s – Harris bookkeepers

In the early 1950s, nearly 900 employees kept track of Harris’ steadily increasing accounts.

Image: Photograph of Harris bookkeeper posting accounts, 1951.

1960s – The typing pool

In the typing pools of the past, a large group of operators sat in a single room with all their desks facing the same direction. A supervisor would distribute the work among the typists and oversee their work. It was a highly efficient system – until personal computers came along, ushering in significant productivity improvements.

Image: Photograph of typists, Waterloo Place, London, England, 1964.