Colonial settlement coinage
Historical contextProclamation occurred in an era of mercantilism when West European maritime powers, after venturing into the world in an Age of Discovery, were now accelerating the globalization of trade along the world’s great sea lanes as the British, Dutch and other East India companies sought profits in distant lands. Major European trade, after passing out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic in the 15th century had, during the 16th and 17th centuries, moved into the Indo-Pacific. But although the Dutch had carried out a quick reconnaissance of the vast land that lay to the south of the East Indian archipelago, it would not be until the late 18th century that the British would use this territory as dumping ground for the many convicts that were overwhelming their prisons.
The British set up the Colony of New South Wales in what was to them a new continent, an extension to the New World Americas, even though it had been occupied for over 65,000 years by its Aboriginal inhabitants. The British brought with them the cultural experience that had accrued from the Western Mesopotamian core: customs that had developed out of an Agricultural Revolution with its associated urbanization and increasingly complex social organization.
Though the use of coinage for the exchange of goods and services was part of daily life in Europe, the settlement at Port Jackson was expected, in its early years, to manage without this convenience. In their place came not only commodity money but the coins of Western Europe’s colonizing powers; Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, and the countries on their trade routes, including Peru, Brazil, and India.
For a decade or so following European settlement of Australia on 26 January 1788, there was no official monetary system. The first attempt at currency stabilization was the 1800 Proclamation Act of Governor Philip Gidley King. His eleven 11 ‘Proclamation Coins’ are now an important part of Australia’s numismatic heritage.
As a penal settlement, the British Colony of New South Wales was, in its early days, expected to be entirely self-sufficient. All provisions were supplied by the British government’s Commissariat (the government store) and British authorities saw no point in providing convicts, or their military guards, with coinage. Besides, Britain was itself experiencing a dirth of silver and copper coins at this time. Salaries of government employees were paid as government bills drawn on the English Treasury and Navy Board and, it was assumed, this would be sufficient.
Governor Phillip was expected to take on supplies and livestock en route to New Holland, also paid with treasury bills, while all public expenditure was financed by ‘warrant’ issued by Phillip himself as needed. Military salaries were drawn against the Admiralty by the New South Wales Corps paymaster, but civil expenditures were the responsibility of the Governor. The first expenses were probably the wages of carpenters and sawyers from Sirius and Supply, settled in small Treasury bills.
Out of necessity, a system of barter was established and many debts were paid in produce, land, and labour. Rum was just one of many basic items that acted as commodity money, others being tobacco, sugar, wheat, meat and livestock. Promissory notes, easily forged, were issued by people who could not guarantee them. These notes often remained in circulation for long periods and some were never presented for payment. The ‘rum currency’, as it was known, persisted until banned when Macquarie became Governor on 1 Jan. 1810. The government store bought local produce and issued store receipts that could be accumulated and redeemed for treasury bills while the receipts themselves became ‘money’.
As early as November 1788 Phillip had requested money from England and in 1790 HMS Kitty arrived with about 4500 Spanish dollars to be spent by Phillip as needed. Spanish dollars (pieces of eight) were, in effect, an international coinage used in the English colonies. A few coins were given as change from government bills. In addition to British coinage there were coins used as part of the international maritime trade that had developed. These included guilders and ducats from Holland, rupees and pagodas from India, with a few English and Irish banknotes. The quantity of these coins was, however, small and they quickly left the colony when used to buy goods from visiting ships.
In 1800 Philip Gidley King was appointed Governor and ordered to ‘clean up’ the colony. Demands on Colonial Office coffers were to be minimized by reduction of free convict labour and the re-establishment of public farms, thus reducing the cost of obligatory feeding of the convicts while at the same time ensuring that the government store did not operate at inflated prices. At the same time it was expected that he would improve trade within the Pacific region and encourage local industries.
At this time there were 6,508 settlers, 75% of these being convicts, so only 1600 people required money. But it was between these people that a crude economy had been built. Most of the 4500 Spanish dollars had gone and, in their place, was a diminishing mix of British and foreign coins. The values of world coins used for currency in Sydney Town at this time were frequently disputed. With the potential arrival of a shipment of pennies Governor King took the opportunity to settle values ‘for all the specie legally circulating in this colony’ by way of a Currency Proclamation. Though not a proclamation coin, the hefty ‘cartwheel’ penny was vital for ‘dealings of the ordinary customers of the business houses’. To prevent the new coins passing into the hands of visiting traders King decreed that they circulate at 2d – twice the face value! By inflating coin values locally, he believed, visiting merchants would be reluctant to take them out of the country.
By retaining circulating coinage in the colony, and issuing a Proclamation that fixed the value of international coins in terms of British money (at slightly inflated values) it was hoped to introduce some economic stability into the colony, along with a small profit. There were, of course, many coins in circulation that were not cited in the Proclamation, including other British coins used as legal tender.
The situation in Australia had a precedent in the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada where British coin, in short supply, was supplemented by an assortment of foreign coins used in maritime trade. The coins used in Canada were mostly American and French while the character of trade in New South Wales leaned towards those from the Netherlands and India. In 1796 Canadian legislation had standardized the values of the coins at their disposal on their bullion value and this had stabilized exchange. The addition of a premium was then intended to keep the coins within the colonies.
By 1788 European colonial powers had established international maritime trading routes with provisioning ports scattered around the world. Sailors accumulated the coins of all these countries when they stopped in port, trading with them as best they could. Especially popular were the silver coins (reminiscent of the ancient Athenian owls) of the major European trading nations: Spanish and Portuguese reales, Dutch guelders and ducats, French francs, but also coins of India and China and, for settlers in New Holland, a range of coins from their home country.
King’s 11 Proclamation Coins have become an important part of Australian numismatic heritage with a complete set in good condition being highly sought after. What exactly counts as a ‘proclamation coin’ is, however, a mute point since the variety of coins actually in circulation would have been far greater than King’s short list – including Indian half mohurs, Spanish doubloons, US dollars, French ecus, and German thalers.
All British coins were legal tender and though the penny (worth twopence) was the Proclamation coin there would also have been sixpences, threepences, halfpenny and farthing and, at the more expensive end, the half-guineas and third-guineas.
The reason for fixing the Johanna at £4 was its equivalence with the Spanish 8 escudos and the standardized value of the doubloon (2 escudos) as £1.
Proclamation coins were the first legal tender in the Australian Colonies. King applied monetary regulation on 19 Nov 1800 by legislating only the following 11 coins as legal tender in the colony of New South Wales. Under Proclamation the coinage would have a value above the actual intrinsic or circulating value of the coin itself. So for example, the 1787 Great Britain Shilling was proclaimed to have a value of 1 shilling and 1 pence. British pennies arrived in New South Wales immediately just after the Proclamation was declared.
Proclamation was only a partial success as penalties for exporting coins were ignored, and to overcome the inflated value of the coins visiting merchants simply increased their prices.
Gold Mohur (India)
Copper 1 oz coin (Britain)
Gold Mohur (India)
Copper 1 oz coin (Britain)
Gold Mohur (India)
Copper 1 oz coin (Britain)
The eleven coins and their values
proclaimed official currency by Governor Philip Gidley King on
19 November 1800
The most popular international currency at the time of European settlement in the colony of New South Wales was the Spanish ‘dollar’. This was the most popular trading coin for over 300 years. Portugal commandeered the South American gold mines at this time, but it was Spain whose silver mines in Peru were the source of over 8 billion silver coins. The Spanish ‘dollar’ was so strong that the burgeoning United States associated its currency to size and value of the ‘piece of eight’. It existed in one form that was 39 mm wide that weighed 27.70g.
These coins could not be ignored and in New South Wales Governor Arthur Phillip had, in 1791, established their value at 5 shillings. 4,500 were delivered to the colony in 1792.
Up to 1772 these Spanish dollars on their reverse face carried a depiction of the pillars of Hercules that symbolized the Straits of Gibraltar as the transition from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and the Old World to the New World.
Silver 8 reales ‘dollar’
The most familiar of the ‘foreign’ coins was the Spanish silver eight reales coin (hence ‘pieces of eight’ made famous by Caribbean piracy). The coins were then cut into quarters, each quarter then divided into two pieces sized one third (1/12 of the original, that is, sixpence) and two thirds (1/6 of the original, or 1 shilling).
In 1803, 15 years after settlement, Governor King bought 8000 Spanish dollars in two purchases, one of 500 at 6/- each, and 7500 at 5/- each. This was because of the increase in numbers of released convicts who had served their sentences and the arrival of free settlers: all now needed to buy and sell goods and services.
In November of 1812, to further simplify the coinage Governor Macquarie purchased 40,000 Spanish dollars from the Spanish ship Samarang. These were shipped from India by the East India Company under contract from the British government with instructions that they remain in the colony. To achieve this Macquarie asked silversmith and convicted forger William Henshall to punch the centre out of each coin yielding a “ring” and a “dump”. Each piece was to then be counterstamped with its nominated value; the ring at 5/- and the dump at 1/3. Thus £10,000 of coins now had a circulation value of £12,500 – a nice profit – although about 100 coins were lost in the early stages of production because of problems with the machinery. Though they were dated 1813, none were sent to the Commissary until early 1814.
The punch and counterstamp ‘holey dollar’ adopted by Macquarie was previously adopted in the Americas and West Indies: in Dominica (1761-1818) and St Vincent (1798), then in British Guiana (1808), and Prince Edward Island in Canada (1813). Colonial dollars and dumps were used until recalled in 1822 when attempts were made to establish the Spanish dollar as the official currency of the Colony of New South Wales.
Today fewer than 300 genuine holey dollars are known and maybe 1500 dumps exist. Those few ‘holey dollars’ that remain command thousands of dollars among collectors.
With the rapid increase in population during the gold rush of the 1850s unofficial gold coins were released as traders’ tokens. A more formal system of coinage was needed but requests to Britain for a gold coin mint in Adelaide were rejected, even though 25,000 £1 pieces had already been struck.
Australian ‘Holey Dollar’
The value of these coins was fixed at 5 shillings and to prevent them from leaving the country holes were punched in the centre, the value of the central ‘dump’ fixed at 15 pence. This Spanish dollar dated 1773 has been punched around the hole with the new date of 1813 and the name of the colony, New South Wales.
Provided to Wikimedia Commons by the State Library of New South Wales (catalogue record 431559)
Accessed 2 January 2010
Colonial European Coins
Dutch Republic – 1 silver ducat – 1772 – 28.25g, 41.5mm. Armoured knight. KM#52.4
Brazil – 960 reis = 8 Spanish reales – 1817 – 26.89g, 40.6mm. Portuguese crowned arms. Overstruck Spanish dollar. KM#307.3
George III – 1 dollar token – 1804 – 26g, 41mm. Seated Britannia. Bank of England overstruck Spanish 8 reales with a value of 5 shillings to supplement a deficiency in British regal coinage. The coins were struck by the Soho Mint, Birmingham between 1804 and 1811 though all are dated 1804. Initially valued at 5 shillings but re-valued to 5 shillings & 6 pence in 1811: withdrawn in 1817-1818. If undertype visible it adds around 10% of the numismatic value depending on grade: Seaby#3678
George III – silver shilling – 1787 d aUnc $166+ Seaby 4743; KM#607.1
Images: Roger Spencer
Nearly 300 years before the establishment of the colony of New South Wales the Portuguese settlement of coastal Brazil, established with the landing of navigator Cabral, had fallen back on a commodity economy with even by the government making payments in sugar, cotton, tobacco, iron, cocoa, and cloves, among other means. Gradually a mix of foreign coins weas built up, obtained from pirates, settlers, and invaders, as well as those from Portugal itself, their value loosely following the intrinsic value of their metal content.
The real (pl: réis) was the unit of currency of Portugal from around 1430 until 1911, and though taking various forms this was used in Brazil from 1500 up to Brazilian independence in 1822, declared the official currency in 1690.
From 1580 with the establishment of the 50-year Iberian Union of Spain and Portugal there was a flood of Spanish reales from Peru and a flourishing trade based on Rio de la Plata (Rio de Janeiro) that lasted until the end of the 17th century. Portuguese coins circulating in Brazil were also reales, minted in gold, silver, and copper with values expressed in Réis. The later cost of war resulted in considerable devaluation.
Without money to pay soldiers and suppliers. besieged Dutch in 1654 money denominated ‘real’ was also printed by the Dutch in the Brazilian Northeast. Then with a lack of coins in Brazil itself in 1694 a provincial mint was set up in Bahia, moving several times before being committed in 1703 to Rio de Janeiro where it would transform gold into coins. In the early 18th century three Brazilian mints produced coins of high value and beauty with wealth generated in the reign of Dom João V (1706-1750) who, in 1722, changed the shape and value of Portuguese gold coins, creating the Escudo series with the values of 12,800 Réis (Dobra of 8 Escudos), 6,400 Réis (Dobra of 4 Escudos), 3,200 Réis (Dobra of 2 Escudos), 1,600 Réis (Escudo), and 800 Réis (half Escudo), continued during the reigns of Dom José I (1750-1777) and of Dona Maria I (1777-1805) with the exception of the 12,800 Réis piece, suspended by Dom João V in 1732.
As the colonial homeland, it was Britain that provided the greatest variety of coins.
In 1798, before becoming Governor, King had requested ‘a few tons of copper coin’ for New South Wales. This had not arrived at the time of proclamation but was eagerly anticipated as a way of eliminating promissory notes.
(British) East India Company
Variously named, this was a private English (later, British) joint-stock company founded in 1600 to trade in the Indian Ocean and East Indies, SE Asia and, later, Qing China. Remarkably it came to colonized and control regions of India, SE Asia (including Hong Kong following the First Opium War of 1839-1842) and also trading posts in the Persian Gulf. This company alone accounted for about half of world trade from the mid-1700s to early 1800s shipping commodities that included cotton, silk, indigo dye, sugar, salt, spices, saltpetre, tea, and opium. The company instituted a military administration of large areas of India beginning with Benghal in 1757 and continuing until British imperial rule of India passed from private to government administration with the installation of the British Raj in 1858.The company was eventually dissolved in 1874.
A copper coinage consisting of four denominations – 20, 10, 5 and 1 cash, was struck in England in 1803 for the British East India Company, the two higher values repeated in 1808. The 813 ton Admiral Gardner on her 6th voyage to the east as an East India Company vessel (commanded by William Eastfield) was wrecked off South Foreland on the Goodwin Sands on 25 January 1809. The ship was carrying 54 tons of specially minted copper coinage from Matthew Boulton’s Soho Works in Birmingham and destined for the East India Company’s Mint at Madras. New copper coins were struck in the new Madras mint in 1807 in the range of denominations of 40, 20, 10, 5 and 2½ cash.
In June 1985, professional divers from a company called SAR Diving, who were working with the EIC diving group, succeeded in recovering a large quantity of copper coins, which were passed to the legal authority for such finds, the Receiver of Wreck. The most impressive find was an intact barrel which underwent preservation treatment at Portsmouth and was estimated to contain 28,000 coins.
England in the late 18th century was desperately short of copper coinage. To meet the demand, private minters and companies began the issue, in 1787, of copper halfpenny and penny tokens (‘tokens’ because not legal tender) which found a wide circulation. Many of the minters were from Birmingham, among them industrialist Matthew Boulton who struck large numbers of tokens at his Soho Mint which was the first to be powered by steam. Lobbying hard to strike official copper coins he was, in 1797, given a government contract for 480 tonnes of copper pennies and 20 tonnes of copper twopences. The first official British coins of these denominations to be made of copper, they also heralded the Industrial Revolution by being the first official British coins to be struck by steam rather than by muscle power.
George III (reigned from 1760-1820) had become king on his grandfather’s (George II) death in 1751. Known for ‘losing the American colonies’, gaining the colony of New South Wales and other colonies. When he became mentally ill (diagnosed after his death as porphyry) his eldest son (George IV) acted as regent from 1811 until his father’s death in 1820. The accession of Queen and Empress Victoria followed. Much smaller pennies were minted towards the end of his reign.
By the late 1850s, the state of the copper coinage was deemed unsatisfactory with quantities of worn oversized pieces, some dating from Boulton’s day, still circulating. They were replaced by lighter bronze coins beginning in 1860: the ‘Bun penny’, named for the hairstyle of Queen Victoria on it, was issued from then until 1894. The final years of Victoria’s reign saw the ‘Veiled head’ or ‘Old head’ pennies, which were minted from 1895 until her death in 1901.
British pennies from 1806, 1858, and 1896
George III – 1806 – Struck at the Soho Mint, Birmingham. Much smaller than the earlier ’cartwheel’ pennies. Copper, 18.9 g, 34 mm
Victoria – 1858 (overstruck 1853) – Known as the ‘young’ or ‘bun’ head this is among the finest world coin portraiture. This coin was designed by William Wyon (initials on nape of neck). 18.8 g, 34 mm.
Victoria – 1896 – with older ‘veiled head’ design by Thomas Brock. Now reduced to 9.4 g, 30.8 mm
Images: Roger Spencer
Grundy was an Englishman from near London who arrived in Melbourne on Ben Nevis in January 1855. In 1856 he opened a tobacconist’s shop in Main Road Ballarat, ‘. . . the principal tobacconist in the town.’ He lost his shop in 1872 after speculating heavily and then moved to Melbourne where he sold ‘colonial cigars’. Two versions of his penny tokens, both struck by Ralph Heaton and Sons of Birmingham England, were issued in 1861 one with the spelling ‘Ballaarat’ (the older style) in the legend and the other ‘Ballarat’ (today’s spelling). The Birmingham Mint of Ralph Heaton started producing tokens and coins in 1850 using second-hand coin presses bought at an 1850 auction of the defunct Soho Mint estate of Matthew Boulton which dated back to 1788. . . . Boulton had minted the famous ‘cartwheel’ pennies and twopences used in Australia. Heaton’s first productions were the Australian token coins. The machines comprised four steam-powered screw presses and six planchet presses for making blanks from strip metal. It was an independent private enterprise that proceeded with the co-operation of the Royal Mint. During the peak of operation the four original Boulton screw presses were striking about 110,000 coins per day. As overseas orders increased, particularly for India, the Mint added a new lever press and further equipment. Completed in 1862 it employed 300 staff and was at this time the largest private mint in the world. The first issue from the mint was the 1851 Annand Smith (Sydney, New South Wales) penny token.
The famous 1797 cartwheel copper penny was one of the first coins produced by the new steam presses of Matthew Boulton in Birmingham, England. The new presses facilitated more refined designs and cash-strapped New South Wales was among the first recipients. ‘Near four tons’ of 1797-dated pennies arrived aboard the Porpoise, which docked in Port Jackson on 6 November 1800, a cargo valued at 550 pounds stirling. Each copper penny coin weighed exactly 1oz (avoirdupois i.e. 28.35g, not 31.10g which is a Troy ounce). They were 36 mm wide and 3 mm thick and were designed to resist wear and tear. Seventeen coins, edge-to-edge, measured 2 feet. Despite their size they were carried in rolls for dealings of up to 5 pounds (=1200 coins weighing 34 kg!).
Two weeks later (one day after Proclamation) HMS Royal Admiral docked in Port Jackson with boxes of British farthings and halfpennies.
The cartwheel ‘twopence’ has an important place in Australian numismatic history as Australia’s first official coin, the coin that prompted King’s famous 1800 Proclamation. Contrary to much reportage, only the penny (valued as twopence) is a true proclamation coin while the popular collector’s 2 oz coin, almost identical in design but twice the weight, must have found its way into New South Wales later. These two coins are among the largest minted coins in the world, known as ‘Cartwheels’.
Cartwheel Penny and Cartwheel Twopence
Seated figure of Britannia, designed by Conrad Küchler faces left, with trident in left hand, olive branch in raised right hand, shield bearing Union flag resting at left, sea behind with ship to left (symbolizing British naval power). The Soho mint mark is below the shield. KM#663, Sp#3780
The cartwheel penny (left) was 36 mm wide and weighed 28.3 g (exactly 1 oz). It served as an accurate weight and measure and was used extensively in colonial Australia and the USA. The George III penny was minted between 1797 and 1808, a total of 8,601,600 coins each containing its exact value in copper. This famous coin type was the first coin struck on the steam press by Watt & Boulton: it was demonetised on 31 August 1971.
The cartwheel twopence (right), though also dated 1797, was minted after the penny. It was one of the world’s largest – a massive pure copper coin 41 mm wide, 5 mm thick, and weighing 56.7 g (2 oz): it had a much smaller minting of around 722,160 coins.
Image: Roger Spencer
In the 1790s, the United Kingdom suffered a silver shortage, ceasing to mint larger silver coins and instead using ‘token’ silver coins and overstruck foreign coins. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Bank of England began the massive recoinage program that produced standard gold sovereigns, along with circulating crowns, half-crowns, and eventually copper farthings in 1821.
The 1800 Proclamation makes special mention of the English shilling, which it values at 1 shilling and 1 penny. The largest mintage of George III’s 25mm, 6g coin occurred in 1787. An attractive coin, coupled with the former scarcity, resulted in considerable hoarding of this shilling in both England and the new colony and the availability today of high quality coins. No doubt its Proclamation in New South Wales was related to the Canadian legislation of 1796 which had included the shilling.
Well-to-do businessmen stored their wealth in gold guineas – especially the golden ‘spade’ guinea of George III which from 1765 to 1799 displayed the arms of the House of Hanover in a spade-like shield. Valued at £1-2 shillings its value was one shilling above its British value of £1-1 shilling, a value that had been set in 1717 by Isaac Newton when exercising his role as master of the King’s mint.
The use of gold as a standard economic unit of account based on a fixed quantity of gold had been informally adopted in 1704. In England, most highly skilled artisans were paid about 6d a day (this was 5.4g silver in the mid-15th century), and a whole sheep cost 12d. So even the smallest gold coin, the quarter-noble of 20d (with 1.7g fine gold), was of little use for simple trade. Everyday transactions had therefore adopted a silver standard since silver was the accepted medium of exchange for local, and even regional, trade. Gold was the medium for international trade and high-value exchange but its value fluctuated based on the price of silver.
Both Spain and Portugal had become dominant European powers through the 16th and 17th centuries through the wealth obtained from the precious metals of South America. In the 18th century it was Portugal that in about 30 years extracted more gold from its Brazilian mines than Spain had obtained in 400 years from its colonies in Central and South America. This gold translated quickly into commodities when converted into gold coins.
This was eagerly carried out by Brazilian King Joao V from 1722 to 1733, his name appearing in the legend on the obverse face of the popular gold 12,800 reis coin as IOANNES. England and other European countries had quickly adopted these and other gold coins, the name on this one quickly anglicized to ‘Johanna’ or ‘Joe’. This coin corresponded to the Portuguese 8 escudos and the Half-Joe (minted up to 1800 with portraits of several monarchs) was therefore 6,400 reis (4 escudos).
Johannas arrived in small quantities in Sydney after pick-up at Rio on the way from England. King’s Proclamation value of £4 was an 8-shilling margin over the going international rate of £3-12 shillings.
Trading companies in the New Holland Region included the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company (which folded in ?1802). With a vibrant trade developing in India, soon to become the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, Indian gold and silver coins were part of the currency in Sydney Town.
Chief among these were the Proclamation golden mohur of Bengal which was first minted around 1600 although it was a 30mm, 12.36g piece minted in 1765 that proved popular in Sydney.
Alongside this was the main trading coin from southern India, the pagoda, named by the Portuguese who considered the reverse to be like a Chinese pagoda. This was a Dutch coin from Madras adopted by the British who then began minting their own pagodas in 1691. Best known of these is the British East India Company’s 5-pointed Star Pagoda which was the Proclamation coin that King had listed, about 11mm wide and 3.4 g which King valued at 8 shillings.
This was a popular everyday Indian trading coin that was produced in many versions, the most noted being those minted by the Moghuls of Mushidabad. It was these that were copied by the British East India Company after 1756 as the popular 26mm, 12.43g, 19 Sun rupee that gathered popularity as a trading coin in Sydney.
Of the various European colonial powers operating in the Indo-Pacific it was the Dutch that controlled major provisioning ports.
Britain’s First Fleet set out for New South Wales with £30 of Dutch gold ducats to pay for provisions taken aboard at several of these entrepots, notably that at the Cape of South Africa and the islands to New Holland’s north. The New Holland was testament to earlier Dutch impact on the region, mainly the explorations of the Dutch East India Company (VOC).
The gold ducats used for trade were 22 mm wide and weighed 3.49 g. However they were available in some variety as each of the six Dutch provinces their own heraldic design and this is also evident in the range of available silver guilders.
Though the VOC was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1800 there was still confidence in the silver 30mm, 10.61g guilder which had, from 1786, been the mainstay of Dutch trade in the Dutch East Indies.
Australia’s first mint
Australia’s first official mint was established in 1855 in Sydney. striking originally-designed gold sovereigns (valued at £1) between 1855 and 1870 bearing the legend ‘Sydney Mint, Australia, One Sovereign’, on one side and the bust of Queen Victoria on the other (also half sovereigns). In 1870 the British design was adopted.
National currency (1910)
With state federation In 1901 the constitutional power for the minting of coins passed from the states to the commonwealth which continued to mint British-style coins until 1910 when a national Australian currency was formalized in pounds, shillings and pence, following the British model.
Decimal currency (1966)
Decimal currency was introduced on St Valentine’s Day, 14 February, 1966 based around the Australian dollar.
Australia’s 1966 decimal coinage was the work of Stuart Devlin, at that time a 32-year-old sculptor and silversmith from Geelong with a scholarship to the London College of Art. An incentive of 300 guineas ($9000) was offered to each of the six contestants to design the new currency, the requirements being a compulsory profile of the Queen but freedom in design of the reverse. It was decided that the new currency should be called the ‘dollar’ in line with other decimal currencies and four mints, three in Australia and one in London, began to stamp the one billion coins required. Robert Menzies resigned as Prime Minister three weeks before release and was replaced by former Treasurer Harold Holt. As winner of the competition Devlin’s was awarded 4000 guineas ($120,000 today). His designs moved away from the more formal British designs of empire towards a simpler and fresher look based on Australia’s fauna.
With his prizemoney Devlin set up a silver- and goldsmithing business and moved to swinging London with fresh ideas. He was keen to move beyond Bauhaus and Scandinavian design to embue smithing with ‘richness and romanticism’, mixing gold and silver, introducing filigree and tactile surfaces. At its height, his studio employed 60 smiths. Perhaps the career highlight was his appointment as goldsmith and jeweler to Queen Elizabeth II in 1982.
Devlin’s designs remained mostly unchanged. The round 50 cent coin, possibly confused with the 20 cent coin or melted for its 80% silver content,in 1969 assumed its dodecahedron shape. Inflation in the 70s led to the withdrawal of the 1 and 2 cent coins. Devlin continued his currency design which included the $1 coin in 1984 while also designing the currencies for another 36 countries.
Sadly, Devlin did not turn his skills to plants. In a speech to the Numismatic Association of Victoria he remarked that without colour ‘flowers tend to look not that much different from flowers of other countries. They [do] not look sufficiently Australian.’ – which is difficult to justify based on Australia’s highly distinctive banksia, grevillea, bottlebrush, wattle, eucalypt. Perhaps the tide of Australian coin design will turn.
Early in his career he was concerned that coins were ‘mere’ graphic design but more recently he has conceded that it is a truly democratic art form since ‘millions of people around the world carry my work around in their pockets’.
Australian coinage timeline
1788 – Settlement
1790 – HMS Kitty arrives with 4500 Spanish dollars tobe used at Govr Phillip’s discretion
1791 – Govr Philip fixes the Spanish dollar at 5 shillings
1797 – ‘Cartwheel’ British penny (1 oz) as the first official British coinage (date of arrival of twopence (2 oz) is uncertain)
1800 – Govr King, by Proclamation on 19 Nov. fixes those coins that may be used as currency
1810 – ‘Rum currency’ forbidden by Macquarie
1812 – The ship Samarang arrives at Port Jackson with 40,000 Spanish silver dollars which were purchased by Governor Macquarie for four shillings and nine pence each. To keep these within Australia he cut holes in the middle (they became known as holey dollars), restamped them for George III of England, and fixed their value at five shillings, the ‘dump’ from the middle valued at 1 shilling and threepence
1813 – Holey dollars and dumps declared legal currency on 30 Sept.
1814 – Holey dollars and dumps released into circulation
1817 – Australia’s first bank, the Bank of New South Wales, opened in Macquarie Place, Sydney, the premises leased from the emancipist businesswoman Mary Reibey who is depicted on the $20 banknote
1825 – The Currency Act of 28 September 1824 was the first act passed by the Parliament of New South Wales. It formalized British sterling as the official currency of New South Wales, ‘pounds, shillings and pence’ remaining Australian currency denominations until the introduction of decimal currency in February 1966
1901 – Australian Federation resulted in the constitutional power to produce coins passing from the state to the commonwealth and coins continued to be minted
1910 – Australian coinage introduced as pounds shillings and pence, but initially as silver florins, shillings, sixpences, and threepences
1966 – Decimal coinage introduced as dollars and cents – the first issue being of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 cent coins
1984 – First issue of $1 coins
1988 – First issue of $2 coins
‘Holey Dollar’ images below provided to Wikimedia Commons by the State Library of New South Wales (catalogue record 431559) – Accessed 2 January 2010
George III – 1797
Over-stamped Spanish Real
of Charles III – 1773
George III – 1813
Opening of Parliament Florin
George V – 1927
Crown – Five Shillings
George VI – 1937