THOSE grave Victorian-era buildings that lie at the heart of Sydney and Melbourne - the ones now boasting fashion boutiques and coffee shops - look as if they were once banks.
That's because many of them once were.
Just two generations ago as many as eight or nine different banks graced the main shopping streets across Australia's cities, suburbs and country towns.
Thirty years have passed since the ''big four'' emerged out of the ruck and dominated the nation's banking landscape.
Today, for better or worse, that looks like a number the country is stuck with.
The four are too big for Canberra, under the ''four pillars'' policy, to allow them to amalgamate among themselves, probably ''too big to fail'', but also too big for others to successfully compete against other than around the margins.
A key date is October 1, 1982, when Westpac formally appeared from a merger of the Bank of New South Wales, which was established in 1817, and the Commercial Bank of Australia, established in 1866.
About the same time the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney, which went back to 1834, joined up with the National Bank of Australia (established in 1858) to become the National Australia Bank. The old National, like the old Commercial of Australia, was a child of the gold rush.
Just over 30 years before the big mergers, in 1951, the Union Bank and the Bank of Australasia, both established in the 1830s grazing boom, had joined to form the ANZ (Australia and New Zealand) Bank. In 1968, the ANZ absorbed the smaller ES&A (English, Scottish and Australian) Bank and in 1979 the venerable but troubled Bank of Adelaide.
The three earlier ANZ component banks had all been London-owned, but the ANZ ''Australianised'' and brought head office to Melbourne in 1977.
Then in the recession around 1990, several state-owned or the last of the other one-state banks had their time of trouble and disappeared from your street, privatised or absorbed into the bigger brothers. By that time, the formerly government-owned Commonwealth had also been privatised, completing the line-up of four commercial major banks.
Prior to the 1930s, banks believed that impressive buildings would convey the right image of solidity. Managers lived upstairs on the premises.
Today's smaller, shop-front banks are mainly former building societies or credit unions that got banking licences in the modern deregulation era, but - not unlike smaller supermarkets - found the going tough and were absorbed into the big four as satellites.
Why did the successful old-established banks merge in 1982? Essentially, because they thought they could do better and would be less vulnerable to unsought takeover. Increasingly, bigger customers were also wanting bigger loans. About the same time, many other middle-size businesses also disappeared
The old ''CBA'' and National were strongest in their home state, Victoria, relatively weak in New South Wales and patchy elsewhere. The ''CBC'' especially dominated the bush in NSW, where it was looked on as the farmers' bank, contrasting with the ''Wales'' for the ''big man'' and grazier, in popular lore.
A more pressing reason given for merging was the likelihood of deregulation and a rush of overseas banks. This was foreshadowed in the inquiry into the financial system (the Campbell committee) from 1979. Not only did the Australian banks worry about overseas banks moving into their patch; they also thought that if they became more like titans, they could successfully expand abroad. (Westpac's name came from West Pacific.)
Bigger banks would also have advantages of scale as the ''technology merry-go-round'' began to bite, with mounting pressure to spend more on ever more advanced technology and relatively less on pen-and-ink staff (who then famously had safe jobs, suspected of being ''cushy''). Technology changed banking even more than the big mergers.
Electronic technology was a merry-go-round because it was so quickly outmoded and in need of replacement - at a cost that was not always clearly an advantage over labour-intensive methods.
But it was also an unavoidable juggernaut, destroying much of the old, simpler way of doing things. Automatic teller machines were just coming in 30 years ago, with telephone and online banking still to come. Computers also eventually switched back-office jobs and lending decisions from the local branch to head or regional offices, so local bank managers became more lowly figures than they had been. New technology also brought on a huge new diversity in bank ''products''.
The chequebook was still the costly king in 1982, to the annoyance of some senior executives. Accounting machines and calculators were still considered acceptable practice and inky paper lasted into the 1970s. Computers had been gradually replacing older mechanisation since the mid-'60s, mainly at head and state offices. Bankcard arrived in 1974 and was the first big change the average customer noted in the postwar banking scene.
Competition from foreign banks, when it came in the mid-'80s, was not the worry the merger architects foresaw, nor was expansion overseas the answer. To hold market share, local banks fought each other and the global newcomers to near death in the financial uproar of the late 1980s. The advantage or otherwise of size was not clear, since the big banks were still struggling to adjust to the new structures and Westpac famously ran into its stormiest seas since the doors first opened.
What was in it for the public? Not a lot, apart from strong banks getting stronger. Folklore was that the smaller banks were better for the smaller customer, at least, to deal with. They all had the reputation - folklore again - of being stingy for loans. It is doubtful there was ever a goldilocks age for lending: just the right amounts at the right interest.
In the economic ''big picture'', Australia was considered ''over-banked''. But this was based more on the number of main street branches, than of banks. The 1982 mergers led to many branch closures, and more followed in the rationalising 1990s. But competition for deposits has brought a trend back to branches. The proliferation of smaller shop-front branches makes a then-and-now comparison of branch numbers difficult.
Prior to the deregulation of the mid-1980s, the Reserve Bank largely set interest rates and controlled lending indirectly as it required banks to lodge additional deposits with it to subdue lending when the economy was getting boisterous.
The old banks were supposed to compete on service. They did to a degree - it was always nice to have an agreeable manager - but no guessing what the customers grumbled about while waiting out in the foyer to withdraw cash for shopping.
Bank bashing has been a national passion over nearly 200 years, but the banks have got a lot right. Apart from the crash of the semi-banks in the 1890s, failures have been rare, loss of depositors' money even rarer and corruption has hardly been an issue.
Robert Murray is a historian and former business writer.