There was a prelude to the 1912 robbery of the Bank of NSW in Newtown. Six months earlier the Hoskins Street site of the stationery company Penfold’s new building was broken into. The safe was already in place, and had been tampered with;

Would the burglars dare to return when the business opened, or strike elsewhere?

Bank of New South Wales Surry Hills
Bank of New South Wales, Surry Hills, circa 1960s.

In December  1912 a new Bank of New South Wales branch was nearing completion in Sydney’s Surry Hills. About six weeks before opening day the strong room was constructed and the heavy iron door fitted. It had been  designed with excellent security features. Two keys were required to open it. One was to be held by the manager, Mr Miller, and the other by his deputy, Mr Gardiner. It was decided to leave the door open, to allow the cement surrounds to dry out thoroughly.

The bank opened to the public on Friday afternoon, December 27, and Mr Gardiner moved into a room on the premises. This additional  measure  was not strictly necessary, but better to  be safe than sorry. Next evening he enjoyed a night out at dinner, then spent Sunday morning visiting friends. When he returned home late that afternoon, he realized a portmanteau he had used to hold dirty clothes was missing. Oh well, maybe the cleaning lady had shifted it.  However, as he looked around the premises he saw that a window was open in the kitchen. He glanced out and saw  a ladder leaning against the brick wall of the rear garden. How odd…and slightly unsettling.


His feeling of unease increased dramatically when he noticed a bag of copper coins beside the ladder. Naturally his first impulse was to check the  strong room. The door was  firmly shut, but Mr Gardiner was shocked to be able to open it with his single key.  That just wasn’t meant to happen. As he feared, the vault had been  emptied; a loss of approximately £2,300 in gold, silver, notes and coins. Gardiner was completely mystified as to how the robbery had been carried out, just as the police would be.  Was this an inside job?

At first it was suspected that duplicate keys had been made.  This  theory  was quickly discounted, much to the relief of Messrs. Miller and Gardiner.  Any hint that they had allowed a key in their possession to be copied would have resulted in instant dismissal, if not a charge of conspiracy to commit a robbery.

The locking mechanism had been supplied by Chubb Ltd., and their chief locksmith was called in.  He unscrewed the  large steel plates on the inside of the door. There were about 80 screws altogether but the job didn’t take long as they were remarkably easy to move.  Why?  Well…. they had been lubricated with grease.


With the locks exposed it was discovered that the wards had been filed down.  Wards are the small cylinders of metal that catch the spaces of a key.  They had been filed down in such a way that almost any key would be able to  turn the tumblers  and  allow the door to open.

Lock wards fitting into a key.
Lock wards fitting the spaces in a key. These were filed down before the bank robbery.

Never again would a strong room be left unguarded at a building site. Nobody suggested it at the time, but it’s possible the gang  could have planted someone as a builder’s labourer, just to see if there was a weak point in the bank’s  armour, so to speak.


Surely the robbers would have brought their own bags, but Mr Gardiner’s portmanteau  must have looked easier to carry. It was out with the assistant manager’s  dirty washing and in with the loot.

From the Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday December 30:

Information was furnished to detectives yesterday morning that two men were seen leaving the vicinity of the bank carrying a portmanteau, which was apparently very heavy.  Later in the day a second report was received that a man was seen struggling with a heavy portmanteau some distance from the scene of the robbery.

It’s in the bag, boys!

The men….and the bag, were never seen again.

It turned out that the robbers had been watching the progress of the bank’s construction, and became aware of the strong room being built.   When the coast was clear, they removed the door plates and made off with the locking mechanism. In their own good time and safely away from the premises, they took the locks apart and  filed down the wards.  They had even labelled all the pieces to make the job of reassembly as simple as possible.  One more trip  to Surry Hills was made to replace everything . Pretty ingenious eh?   All they had to do next was wait until the bank became operational.   Someone kept watch on Mr Gardiner’s movements and swooped that very first weekend, approaching via  the rear of a Wunderlich  pressed metal factory.  One turn of their own key in the strong room door and they were in the money.

Plan of attack for the Surry Hills bank robbery in 1912
Just follow the dotted line for a big pay-off.

Oh how simple!  I  know I shouldn’t condone such nefarious behavior, but I can’t help feeling  quite impressed.  The police commented that the robbery must have been carried out by foreigners.  Fair go! Did they think our home grown crooks weren’t clever enough?


  1. Another great story Pauline. I wonder how the robbers spent the money :-). I have sent it to my niece who has worked at Westpac for 20+ yrs.

  2. Great story, sounds like Aussie ingenuity to me..

  3. Yes, I agree, this sounds like a fair dinkum job to me!
    Great story 🙂

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