From Grease to Greensleeves (or, a brief history of personal banking)

I must tell you about this. There is a new thingo available on your computer, and it’s really quite marvellous. It’s called “the internet.” I can’t believe all the stuff you can do on it! Neither will you! At least, not if you work at my local council!

Let’s rewind a little. (rewind = a term from the analogue era).

In prehistoric times, ie, back in the 1970s and early 80s, the only way that an abstract figure with a dollar sign in front of it, symbolising your cash assets, accumulated in your bank account, was through a physical process where you loped into a branch of your bank, with a sweet little booklet in one hand, and your cash in the other. The little booklet was sweet because it was so small and simple, and functioned as your only means of knowing how much you had in your account, other than asking the bank teller while you were in the bank. In that booklet, with a pen, at the bench provided at the bank for this very purpose, you wrote out painstakingly, the date, the amount being deposited, and then, sticking your tongue out to the side, you calculated, based on the previous total, what the current total of your account was, and wrote that new total in also.

An extra sense of satisfaction was imparted, I am sure, by the labour-intensive work done to convey your finances to the bank, do some arithmetic in your head, and write your new total in by hand.

If you needed to make a withdrawal, pretty much the same process applied, except that you had to know how to subtract, and you came out with the cash.

A bank book - not mine.

A bank book – not mine.

Pic: Junkables

Quaint it may seem now, certainly, but at the time, like so many things in the 70s and 80s, it was always a lot of fun, because once you’d made your deposit, and registered your new total, music would suddenly start playing, the bank teller (invariably a female with a shaggy perm) would leap over the counter, rip off her bank teller uniform to reveal underneath the uniform of a diner waitress, the bank manager would slide out across the counter on his knees, microphone in hand, and everyone in the bank would dance to Grease Lightning. That was just how it was back then. (We were very keen on the 50s at the time.)

That was of course, back in the paeleolithic period. Towards the end of that era, ATM machines became more common, (Editor: a quick Google search reveals that ATMs were in Australia earlier, so it may be that our correspondent was not old enough to have an ATM card until she turned 16 and never noticed them before then). From that time, it became possible to visit a machine in a wall to withdraw money and find out your bank balance. Sadly, the sweet little booklet with handwritten records in it was relegated to the past, and, like dinosaurs, became extinct; while those who’d been working as bank managers in the 70s became dinosaurs.

The world entered the Neanderthal period of the early 1990s, which is distinguished from the previous era by a number of significant advances in the technology behind the transferral of funds. Into the early nineties, we spent our lunch breaks walking to the post office, or offices of gas and electricity companies, to pay bills. That was what lunch breaks were for back in that era. If you were organised you could perhaps pay two bills in the one trip, thus only taking about 45 minutes (including the walk to and from, and the queuing up at peak bill-payment time) to pay two bills.

So technological advances brought a heady rush of excitement during that era, as we encountered things we’d never dreamed of before. Suddenly we didn’t have to line up in the furniture department of Myer from 3pm on Friday afternoons with all the other casual staff to collect our pay envelope full of cash – our salaries were transferred directly into our bank accounts as if by magic! And then, just a few years later, we could check our accounts and pay bills using the buttons on our phone!!!! 

Sliced bread is so overrated as the greatest thing ever, right?

Of course, these advances in technology had the down side of cutting out all the dancing in the bank and post office, but you always lose some of the personal element in the relentless march of technology. On the upside, you could listen to the bank’s hold music for up to 25 minutes, but on the downside, it was always a very low-quality recording of Greensleeves, played at a fast tempo, on a child’s toy keyboard, somehow incorporating a Samba beat.

Just like Greensleeves, technological advances in this area began to accelerate, and next thing you know, we all had credit cards, and were paying our bills over the phone left right and centre, without even speaking to a real live person! We felt a rush of joy as we pressed “2” for Pay Bills and then typed in 735 different keys to identify who we were, which bill we needed to pay and how much to pay, and then hit the hash key. For a while there in the late 1990s, we were at a loss as to what to do with all our newly-found spare time.

Then, my friends, with a screech of brakes, the new millenium arrived, and with it came the need for every home to have a computer and get online. Now we could pay bills via the mysterious wonders of the internet. We’d moved on again, and now, along with dancing at the bank, listening to a decimated version of Greensleeves warbling at you from the other end of your phone was a thing of the past. You could put on your own recording of “Sparky the Magic Piano”* and listen to that while you worked your way through all of that week’s bills in a matter of minutes.

Greensleeves is a charming song and anyone who disagrees will be locked in the Tower!

Greensleeves is a charming song and anyone who disagrees will be locked in the Tower!

Pic: The National Maritime Museum

Fast forward to the present day, 2016, a date that sounded incredibly futuristic back in the 20th Century, when every year started with boring old “19”. If quizzed, 9/10 people thought that by 2016 we’d all be wearing white jumpsuits with built-in white shoes, and using swipey cards to get into our houses, which would look a lot like spaceships, but that evolution has so far only effected those who live in Toorak and Brighton.

Well, 2016 probably still does sound futuristic down at my local council offices, which, incidentally, are nowhere near Toorak or Brighton. Maybe my council were the sole victims of the dreaded Y2K bug that the entire world was fearful of in 1999, and when midnight on December 31 ticked over, it was their computer(s)* that was reset back to the year 1900. That would explain a lot, as it means that according to their computer(s) it’s currently 1916.

I have surmised this because, now that it’s 2016 in the rest of the world, all sorts of companies, big and small, have cottoned on to this new-fangled internet thingo, and have what are commonly called “websites,” which they are gradually developing to incorporate portals their customers/clients can use to sign in and process transactions, access uploaded documents or locate information tailored towards their account/washing machine/child.

For those who are unfamiliar with websites, (here I’m talking to my local council – and anyone else still running DOS) they are a bit like a brochure and a friendly customer service person all rolled into one, with the added bonus of not needing to actually make any conversation with someone. It’s the 2010s now, and we prefer not to speak to anyone, if at all possible, in any circumstance. Instead, we look them up. We go to their website, and read about who they are, and what they do. If they are a company, and you, a member of the general public, have a complaint or enquiry, you can fill out a form and submit it online. If you need to make a payment for some product or service, you can click a few buttons and pay them using their online portal to process your credit card, or as long as they provide you with the right information, you can go to your bank’s website and pay the third party using the “pay anyone” function. It’s truly amazing.

These handy website things are incredibly useful. If you haven’t yet seen one, I recommend trying it. It’s the future, and it’s here now, except of course for where it has not yet arrived, which is at my local council.



*Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I will attempt to actually get to the point. The point, believe it or not, was something about my local council and their antiquated approach to collecting payment for residents parking permits. (I also reserve the right to never come back to the point.)

* We had an album called “Sparky the Magic Piano” as kids. That may be a story for another day. But in actual fact, at the point that I mentioned this album in my timeline, it would have been very difficult to listen to, as it was a vinyl album, and in the early 90s, I don’t think I knew a single person with a record player as they were deemed obsolete for a brief spell there. But I didn’t want to get too off track by mentioning that.

* It seems fairly likely to me that our local council has only one computer to share between them, for all uses ranging from issuing parking fines to assessing planning applications.


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  1. Councils and governments are always miles behind. It’s because they always give the tender for IT to the lowest bidder who, it turns out is (a) hopelessly incompetent and (b) can’t possibly do it for the money, causing a massive cash overrun and eventual termination of the half-completed work.

    My bank recently got rid of the tellers. When I want to pay in a cheque (a couple of times a year), I prod the machine a bit, it beeps at me, I look confused and then a member of staff swoops in and does it for me. Not sure how this is an improvement on the old system.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I’m not sure either! But glad you have developed a system that works for you!


    • Sounds like me using the self-checkout machines at the supermarket! I’m sure I know how to work the damn machines but whenever I try something goes wrong and a female supervisor with a superior smile comes to the aid of the poor incompetent male.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. “It’s the 2010s now, and we prefer not to speak to anyone, if at all possible, in any circumstance.”

    This x1000. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Technical advances in computers and electronics have happened so amazingly fast that many of us alive today clearly remember life in the BC (Before Computers) era. Need I say that it seemed perfectly normal to us? You don’t yearn for what you do not know. Little could I have guessed when I left school that I would one day consider it normal to work (and play) with computers and even teach computing in an institute of higher education. Strange as it may seem to young people today, we got by perfectly well without computers and mobile phones. We were neither bored nor frustrated by not being able to do what these things enable us to do today.

    I obtained my first ‘proper’ bank account when I went to university. By ‘proper’, I mean a current account with – yes! – a cheque book. As a kid, I used to see an advertisement on the buses. It showed a horse’s head (why a horse?) with a speech bubble saying ‘Run out of cash? A gentleman would have a cheque book’. I now had a cheque book and, ergo, was a gentleman.

    I paid my bills by cheque and thought I would do so for the rest of my life. I could not imagine anything more sensible and convenient. Each term I received a grant cheque and I paid this into my account by filling in one of the forms in the paying-in book and passing them across the counter in the bank. This too seemed perfectly normal.

    I remember the first cash machines. They were not called ATMs because they were very simple: they dispensed a fixed amount of money, take it or leave it. Your card was not plastic but made of stiff paper. It was punched with rectangular holes like a miniature computer punched card which, after all, it was.

    Another such punched card came with the monthly bill when I obtained a credit card. We were warned not to tear, pierce or fold this card, presumably because that would make it difficult for the poor old computer to read it. Again, payment was made by cheque.

    Computers have made our lives easier, certainly, and they have made them a lot faster. They have taught us to expect instant completion of tasks, instant answers to questions, instant access to all of our accounts, instant satisfaction in all things,. When this doesn’t happen, we become impatient and resentful. We no longer know the pleasant tingle of anticipation we once enjoyed when we cut a coupon in the newspaper, sent it off with our cheque and knew we must ‘Allow 28 days for delivery’!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the ad campaign! And I’ve never before heard of the little paper card that preceded ATM cards – your comment was a very informative read as well as an interesting one! We are indeed all so much more impatient now, that if a website takes more than a few seconds to load we lose interest. We don’t have to wait all week for the next episode of our favourite show – we can binge & watch the whole series in one go. For those apparent gains, what’s been lost? As you’ve said, the thrill of anticipation, and the ability to be patient.



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