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Australian coinage

Historical context

In the early years following Australian settlement on 26 January 1788 the British Colony of New South Wales had no currency of its own.

The new settlement, as a penal colony, was expected to become self-sufficient and there was no monetary system. All provisions were supplied by the British government’s Commissariat (the government store). 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, payed with treasury bills while all public expenditure was financed by ‘warrant’ issued by 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 became established and many debts were paid in produce, land and labour. Rum was just one of many basic commodities that acted as 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 Kitty arrived with about 4500 Spanish dollars to be spent by Phillip as needed. The Spanish dollar (piece of eight) was, in effect, an international coinage used in the English colonies. They left the colony when used to buy goods from visiting ships, although coins were left behind as change from government bills. In addition to British coinage, then, there were guilders and ducats from Holland, rupees and pagodas from India and several other coins as well as a few English and Irish banknotes. The total amount was small and the coins tended to be exported quickly as they were often the only way to buy goods from visiting ships.

By 1800 most of the 4500 Spanish dollars had gone and, in their place, was a diminishing mix of British and foreign coins, with no agreement on their values. King attempted to control this situation 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, remembering that the coinage in circulation in 1800, and after, was not only that mentioned in the Proclamation. There would also have been sixpences , threepences, half mohurs, half-guineas, third-guineas as well as Spanish doubloons and other coins. The reason for fixing the Johanna at £4 was its equivalence with the Spanish 8 escudos and the established value of the doubloon (2 escudos) as £1. Penalties for exporting coins were ignored and to overcome the inflated value of the coins, visiting merchants simply increased their prices.

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 both free settlers and convicts who had served their sentences needed to buy and sell goods and services.

European coins

By 1788 European colonial powers had established international maritime trading routes with provisioning ports scattered around the world. Sailors picked up the coins of all these countries when they stopped in port and traded with these 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 those of India and China, and, for settlers in New Holland, coins of the home country Britain.

Spanish reales

The most familiar of the ‘foreign’ coins was the Spanish silver eight reales coin (hence ‘pieces of eight’ made famous by Caribbean piracy) dollar whose value was fixed at 5 shillings by Governor Philip in 1791. These coins were cut into quarters, each quarter then divided into two pieces sized one third (1/12 of the original or sixpence) and two thirds (1/6 of the original or 1 shilling).

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

British copper

England in the late 18th century was desperately short of copper coinage. To meet the demand, private minters and companies began the issue of copper halfpenny and penny tokens (referred to as ‘tokens’ when not legal tender) in 1787 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, 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 others, and becoming mentally ill (porphyry) his eldest son (George IV) from 1811 acted as regent until his father’s death in 1820 and the accession of Queen and Empress Victoria. 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 regarded as among the world’s most elegant coin portraiture by William Wyon (initials on nape of neck). 18.8 g, 34 mm.
Victoria – 1896 – with older ‘veiled head’ design by Thomas Brock. 9.4 g, 30.8 mm


With a lack of coinage in the early years traders commissioned their own coins, refrred to as ‘tokens’, from mints like the Soho mint (described above). One of these, illustrated below was the tobacconist Grundy.

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.[1][2] The first issue from the mint was the 1851 Annand Smith (Sydney, New South Wales) penny token.

Cartwheel pennies

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 much 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 in 1800, each copper coin weighing 1oz and designed to resist wear and tear.

The values of world coins used for currency in Sydney Town at this time were frequently disputed. With the arrival of the cartwheel 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.

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 which regulated the number and value of world coins that were to be accepted as legal tender in Australia.

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.

Proclamation (1800)

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:


• Gold Johanna of Portugal (12800 Reis) = £4
• Gold Half Johanna of Portugal (6400 Reis) = £2
• British guinea = £1/2/- (£1 two shillings)
• Indian Gold Mohur = £1/17/6 (£1 17 shillings and sixpence)
• Spanish dollar = 5/- shillings
• Spanish Ducat = 9/6 (9 shillings and 6 pence)
• Indian Rupee = 2/6 (2 shillings and 6 pence)
• Chinese Pagoda = 8/- (8 shillings)
• Dutch Guilder = 2/- (2 shillings).
• English shilling = 1/1 (1 shilling and 1 penny).
• The first two British coins exported to Australia were the 1797 and 1799 copper penny (1 oz) & twopence (2 oz) with the bust of George III on the obverse. These are among the largest minted coins in the world, known as ‘Cartwheels’.


Holey dollars

Later, in November 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 had been previously adopted in the Americas and West Indies: in Dominica (1761-1818) and St Vincent (1798) then in in British Guiana (1808), Prince Edward Island in Canada (1813).
These colonial dollars and dumps were used until recalled in 1822 when attempts were made to estanlish 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

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 with 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.

Coin design[1]

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 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) and twopence (2 oz) arrive as the first official British coinage
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) and fixed their value at five shillings, the piece from the middle known as the Dump was valued at 5 pence).
1813 – Holey dollars and dumps declared legal currency on 30 Sept.
1814 – Holey dollars and dumps released into circulation
1825 – British currency becomes the accepted currency
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

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