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Windows on the world - a successful City partnership: Standard Chartered Bank archives and history project

Standard Chartered bank project team

In January 2014 London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) completed the cataloguing of the extensive archives deposited by the City of London-based global financial concern, Standard Chartered Bank. Over the past three years, this major project has been managed through a successful partnership with Standard Chartered Bank funded by the business. The archives provide a fascinating record of the evolution and worldwide impact of the bank’s predecessors from its earliest foundations in the mid-19th century to the 1970s. The project has also facilitated the writing of a definitive history of the bank which will be published in due course. Richard Wiltshire tells more.

One of the world's leading commercial banks, Standard Chartered Bank was formed in 1969 through the merger of two City of London-based overseas banks, the Chartered Bank (formerly the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China) founded in 1853, and the Standard Bank Limited (formerly the Standard Bank of South Africa Limited) founded in 1862. The Chartered Bank was a major presence across most of Asia and the Middle East, while the Standard Bank operated in South, Central and Eastern Africa.

The Standard Bank of South Africa was the first bank on the gold fields of the Transvaal, and its operations predate the formation of the Republic of South Africa. The Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China took advantage of the demise of the East India Company’s rule, and had been operating in the Far East for ten years when the Suez Canal opened making it well-placed to enjoy the commercial boom that followed. The Bank’s archives are not only key to documenting this history, but  also that of the people and countries that worked for and banked with it.

In 2010, Standard Chartered Bank and LMA formed a major partnership, ‘Windows on the world – here for good’, to catalogue the Bank’s extensive archives in order to support the writing of a new definitive company history. Standard Chartered Bank provided funding for a team of three archivists to work on the project. The team was based at LMA and catalogued archives already deposited there as well as records held at the bank itself. In total, five archivists were employed on the project gaining valuable experience of large-scale cataloguing work and financial records, liaising with related archives including archivists at HSBC, and Standard Bank Heritage Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Building on earlier work by the former Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section, the project has opened up access to over 330 linear metres of previously uncatalogued records. Most of these records belong to the two largest predecessor banks - the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, and the Standard Bank of South Africa, but also relate to the British Bank of West Africa, P & O Banking Corporation, E D Sassoon, and Wallace Brothers. Before this project, the contents of the uncharted sections of the archive had been largely unknown and virtually impossible to make available for use by the researchers or the bank.

Chartered Bank Raffles Place, Singapore Branch c1920.

​Chartered Bank Raffles Place, Singapore Branch c1920

​Scope and highlights

The collection consists of head office foundation papers, literally thousands of internal letter and subject files, financial accounts, staff registers and staff club records, head office, branch and agency returns, photographs and premises plans, original banknotes and cheques.

The records reflect both the geographical range and the breadth of interests held by the predecessor banks which exploited opportunities brought about through the 19th century expansion of overseas trade and the mineral revolution in South Africa. Documents cover the establishment and management of branch networks which were established in both Africa and the east, as far afield as Japan, China, the Philippines, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone and Cameroon. The banks played an important role in financing the conveyance of goods around and between continents. Documents describe commodities traded including consumables such as rice, tea and coffee; raw materials including tin, rubber and hemp; and luxury goods such as ostrich feathers and tobacco.

Highlights include 125 Chartered Bank research files and photographs (series CLC/B/207/CH03/01/14-17) for “Realms of Silver – One Hundred Years of Banking in the East” which was published in 1954 as the official history of the Chartered Bank. For more information see Realms of Silver. Extensive staff records recording names of European and local staff per branch are held under section CLC/B/207/CH08, together with a register of staff 1874-1920 (CLC/B/207/CH08/01/001) which provide valuable information for family historians, the latter including details of previous employment, results of examinations, salary, departmental experience and additional notes reasons for leaving including losses during the First World War where employees were killed in action.

In addition, important records concern the Chartered Bank operations during the Second World War including a register of staff interned (CLC/B/207/CH08/01/004) and Secretary’s files of letters from internees in prisoner of war camps in 1942 (CLC/B/207/CH03/01/09/003-004). These provide a vivid picture of the conditions and issues faced by staff operating under Japanese occupation and the solutions they came up with to circumnavigate barriers in communications with head office. For further sources about family history and the lives of staff posted abroad, see From beginning to end: Chartered Bank’s staff welfare provision in its earliest days.

The Standard Bank of South Africa records include over 1000 letter books from the 1860s to 1970s; and First World War German claim case files held by the Agency and Inspection Departments which concerned the bank’s exiled Hamburg Agency (under CLC/B/207/ST03). There are over 3,500 photographs - evocative images of staff posed outside the branches in which they worked, customers, bank buildings and local life. These images provide a fascinating glimpse into what life may have been like for Bank staff abroad over 100 years ago.

Unusual items in the Standard Bank collection include the ‘Native Gold’ branch register, 1931-1963 (CLC/B/207/ST07/05/02/001). Originally kept at Hartley Branch, this volume records deposits of freshly mined gold made to the bank in Gatooma, Southern Rhodesia (now Kadoma, Zimbabwe) during the 1930s (‘native’ here means mined from the local area). The register features control measures in the register to ensure that no gold went missing between deposit and collection, and includes instructions to staff on how to buy and store gold. The region was enjoying a gold rush at the time, and checks and measures in this register, including double weighing of each nugget deposited, were designed to prevent fraud and theft. This ensured the Bank safeguarded its reputation and its customers’ wealth in a very profitable part of the world.

David Luck with Mr J S Davidson, depositing photographs

​Mr Davidson with David Luck, depositing photographs

​A further notable highlight are the records of Wallace Brothers and Company (Holdings) Limited, East India merchants, and E D Sassoon Banking Company Limited. The records of Wallace Brothers, founded 1862, trace its activities as agents, developing markets in the United Kingdom and Europe, and organising finance for importing cargoes from the Far East around the world. Wallace Brothers controlled the operations of subsidiary companies such as the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Limited. For more information see Elephants, East African plantations and Rangoon forests.

A new publication

During cataloguing, LMA facilitated access to the records for author Duncan Campbell-Smith, to enable him to research a new history of the bank. Due for publication in coming years, the book will trace the evolution of both the Chartered and Standard Banks from their origins, and will chronicle the story of the combined Standard Chartered Bank since the 1970s. An experienced journalist and author, Duncan Campbell-Smith has a strong interest in business and economic history, having worked as an editor and journalist for The Economist and Financial Times respectively. His most recent book was Masters of the Post: the authorised history of the Post Office (2011). Please see the website for a full biography of Duncan Campbell-Smith and details of his publications.


Descriptions of all the records are now available on LMA’s online catalogue under reference code CLC/B/207. 48 hour notice is required before records can be produced. There is a 45 year closure in place on all records of Standard Chartered Bank, although access to records containing details on individual bank staff and customers are restricted further under Data Protection. Bank notes and cheques are accessible only by special advance notice and the agreement of LMA. Photographs are available at LMA without prior notice to researchers registered with a valid History Card.

The collection is owned by the Bank, with the exception of the records of Wallace Brothers, E D Sassoon and related companies which have been donated to the City of London.

LMA would like to thank Standard Chartered Bank for funding this important cataloguing project and working closely with LMA to reach a successful outcome. For further information about the Bank’s archives, please visit LMA’s online catalogue or email  For further information about Standard Chartered Bank please visit their website.

22 April 2014
Last Modified:
28 February 2019