It was a somewhat jinxed start for Australian currency. The range was incomplete as no pennies or halfpennies were struck. The first shipment, consisting exclusively of shillings, arrived on 1st March, 1910. Two months later King Edward VII was dead, long before threepences, sixpences and florins reached Australia to complete the set. Each coin was struck in what is known as .925 fine silver (925 parts silver with 75 parts copper). This mixture had been used in English silver coins for over 1,000 years and is commonly referred to as sterling silver.
The obverse of the 1910 issues depicts a crowned and robed bust of Edward VII facing right. It was designed by the chief designer of the Royal Mint, George William de Saules whose initials 'DES' appear at the base of the bust. The Australian coat of arms, granted by Edward VII in 1908, was the dominant feature of the reverse with the words 'Advance Australia' in a scroll at the feet of an emu and a kangaroo supporting the shield which contained the State Emblems. The design was the work of William Henry James Blakemore, who was also on the staff of the Royal Mint.
The designer of the Edward VII bust, W.H.J. Blakemore, was not accredited with the reverse design of the first pence issued in 1911 until the 1970's. This was due to official policy at the Royal Mint at the time not to identify the work of the staff.
Home Soil StrikingsThe first Commonwealth coins to be struck locally were dated 1916. The new Melbourne mint produced all four silver issues - a total of 11.5 million coins.
The bronze issues saw the introduction of a new mintmark (an ' I ' under the word 'Penny') as both the pennies and halfpennies were struck at the Calcutta branch of the Royal Mint from 1916 to 1918 while war raged in Europe.
The Kookaburra TrialsCoin issuing authorities, both now and in the past, consult with coin vending machine manufacturers over the suitability of new coin issues. The mechanical restrictions imposed by coin vending machines in the early decades of the 20th century effectively killed-off a revolutionary idea to replace the heavy round pennies and halfpennies in the early 1920's.
The project is believed to have been the 'brainchild' of the then Treasurer, Mr Watt, who suggested the kookaburra design. Struck in lighter, hardwearing cupro-nickel, the coins were to be square in shape to avoid confusion with sixpenny and threepenny pieces. This proved to be their undoing as coin vending machine operators successfully argued that the coins were impractical by demonstrating just how easily they jammed in the coin acceptor mechanism. The harder nickel alloy proved difficult to work with in striking the coins and there was a greater cost in importing nickel compared to the cost of locally produced metals.
The Uncrowned KingA major change in Australia's coinage followed the death of George V in 1936. It was decided to introduce all new designs for the reverse of the circulating coins with the exception of the sixpence. Originally the new coins were scheduled to coincide with the crowning of Edward VIII. Edward's portrait had been appearing on the watermark of our notes since the Legal Tender issues of 1933, while he was still the Prince of Wales.
A number of countries managed to release issues of Edward VIII in 1936, although Australia had earmarked 1937 to release the all-new coins. Reverse patterns, dated 1937, were prepared but work on the obverse ended abruptly on 11th December, 1936 when the king abdicated. No official coins bearing the portrait of Edward VIII were issued in Australia, although there has been an unofficial crown-sized coin produced especially for collectors since then.
The Crown - Casey's CartwheelOne significant coin from these confusing times did reach circulation. The 1937 crown was especially struck to commemorate the coronation of George VI.
King George VI IssuesIt was not until 1938 that new Australian coins, showing their new reverses were to appear. The credit for the reverse designs was given to George Edward Kruger who was to become more famous as George Kruger-Gray. He decided to add the maiden name of his wife to that of his own surname following their wedding in 1918.
However, fresh evidence, which only came to light in October, 1982, indicates that Gray only improved on the designs. The evidence comes from a 1937 newspaper report which quoted the Commonwealth treasurer, Mr Casey, as saying 'The originals [of the reverse design] were the work of Mr Douglas S. Annand of Sydney. They have been redrawn and adapted to facilitate die-making for coinage purposes by Mr Kruger-Gray, who does the bulk of coin designing for the Royal Mint'. Gray also designed coins for New Zealand, Fiji and New Guinea as well as countless medallions and other pieces including the Western Australian Centenary Medal of 1929.
It is Gray's initials which appear on the coins and, for this reason, he is quoted in this catalogue as the designer. As it is, Gray would probably not want to be associated with the reverse design of the florin as it contains a number of major flaws.
The coins of George VI, with George facing the same way as his father, was not a break with tradition. It was more correctly an allowance for what might have happened if Australian coins bearing the portrait of Edward VII had been released.
The Latin inscription around the monarch's head went through an interesting change during the reign of George VI. Initially, the design read 'Georgivs VI D:G:BR:OMN:REX:F:D:IND:IMP', which literally speaking was an abbreviation for 'George VI, King of all the Britains, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India' (seemingly British officials still regarded us 'colonials' as British or simply not worth a few extra FD's or IMP's to give us some acknowledgement. Perhaps there just wasn't room to fit us in).
A change was necessary following the independence of India in 1948. The 'IND:IMP' (Emperor of India) was dropped from all coinage minted from 1949. But again, Australia did not benefit from this timely bit of extra space, as the Royal Mint decided to fill the gap by merely spelling out the 'F:D' (Defender of the Faith) to 'FIDEI DEF'.
It was during the reign of George VI that Australia again had to rely on outside sources to supplement it's currency needs and to again reconsider the silver debasement situation. The first crisis came in 1942 - for more reasons than one. Japan was at our doorstep and the Americans were already here - and spending up big. The well-paid American servicemen literally broke our banks of small change. The Sydney mint had closed in 1926 and the Perth and Melbourne mints could not cope with the quotas required.
The U.S.A. mints at Denver and San Francisco came to the party, churning out over £6 million worth of florins, shillings, sixpences and threepences between 1942 and 1944. These coins carry either the mintmark 'D' or 'S' respectively. Our old standby, India, came to the rescue with the Bombay branch of the Royal Mint striking both pennies and halpennies during 1942 and 1943.
In 1946 the decision to reduce the silver content of all Australian coins was taken. The 1945 issue was the last to contain sterling silver. All future issues were to contain 'q-metal' - a mixture of 500 parts silver, 400 parts copper, 50 parts nickel and 50 parts zinc (per thousand). The high copper content made the coins look yellow.
A short-term solution was to pickle the coins in acid which gave them a slight covering of silver. However, this was only temporary as excessive handling and the results of coin vending and poker machines soon showed up the coin's true colours.
It was boom conditions which required the London mint to come to the rescue again in 1951 by minting extra coins for Australia. These were the heady days when wool was selling for £1 per pound and the new-found affluence again created a small-change shortage. The Royal Mint produced both denominations of pence as well as sixpences and threepences. It created a precedence by putting a mintmark on the coins. This is in the form of a small 'PL'. The 1951 Mint Annual Report stated: 'The same letters were used, as well as others, for the same purpose on coins struck at London during the Roman Occupation'. It was the last time in the pre-decimal series that overseas assistance was required.
Queen Elizabeth II IssuesOur present monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, first appeared in 1953 on our coinage following the death of her father in 1952. The rather engaging portrait of the young queen was designed by English sculptress, Mrs Mary Gillick, an ageing widow whose design was accepted as she celebrated her seventy-first birthday.
Once again, the legend was revised. Good news for nationalistic Australians was the deletion of 'BR:OMN' (Of All the Britains). Bad news for the defenders of our moral code was the deletion of the letters 'F:D' (Defender of the Faith). In scenes reminiscent of those which greeted Queen Victoria's 'godless' florin of 1849, church leaders decried the new coin. Mint officials were quick to act and the 1954 Royal Visit florin contained the lettering. All other normal circulating denominations carried the full inscription from 1956, except for the halfpenny which corrected the error with the 1959 issue.
The announcement of decimal currency spelt the end of all Commonwealth denominations. The last florins, shillings and sixpences were struck in 1963. Threepences, pennies and halfpennies expired after 1964.
Lost Forever - Where Did They Go ?At one time, mintage figures gave a reasonably accurate assessment of the relative value of a coin. As logic would indicate, coins with low mintages would be worth more that similar coins with mintage figures of many millions.
This rule of thumb is no longer as accurate as a result of natural attrition and the smelting pots having taken their toll. In addition, the changeover to decimal currency in 1966 was the single most crucial move in reducing the numbers of available coins. The silver coins were refined for their bullion value while the bronze coins were simply melted down, processed and brought back as 1 cent and 2 cent pieces.
A Royal Mint report from the early 1970's tells the tale: 'Large quantities [of pence] have been melted and used in Melbourne, Perth and Canberra to produce decimal bronze coins and some added melts for cupro-nickel coins as part of the copper content.' There are no exact figures to go by, but another paragraph in the same report indicates the enormous magnitude of the meltdown operation. 'Storage for such large quantities of coin created difficulties for the Department of Supply and to help solve these, a contract was arranged with an Australian company for refining about 1,600 tons of pennies and halfpennies.'
In the period from 1910 to 1964, the total value of all coins struck was approximately £70 million. By the mid-1970's, around £55 million of this had been withdrawn and either refined for it's silver bullion value or recycled as decimal coins.
Even as late as 1981-82, the annual report of the mint indicates that the sale of silver recovered from withdrawn coin amounted to $71,620. The purchase of withdrawn coin amounted to $123,912.13 and the sale of other metals (including some recycled copper) came to $470,351.83. At this rate, the number of coins available to collectors of the future will be insignificant indeed.
Most of the coins which fed the furnaces would have had large mintages and would once have been considered quite common. Their permanent loss will surely create new 'rarities' in time to come. The loss of such coins is compounded by several other factors. The number of people who find coins with metal detectors gives us an indication of just how careless, or unfortunate, we and our forebears are with change. Yet surely the number recovered can be only a small proportion of the amount originally lost. Recovered coins often have little value to the collector as many show the effects of being buried for many years.
There are many stories indicating that large-scale coin loss had been going on for many years prior to the decimal changeover. The fact that all pre-decimal coins (except the penny and halfpenny) contained at least 50% silver was reason enough to collect them, especially when their intrinsic value was more than their face value. This extract from the Brisbane Mail of 13th January, 1963, provides an insight into the problem:
'The Commonwealth Mint may still be making money but it could be pushed to make a profit this year. With silver soaring to record prices on world markets, the silver in a 2/- is worth more than the coin itself. Last week in London, silver topped 106d sterling (132½d Aust.) an ounce - its best price in more than 40 years.
'The breakeven profit for the Australian Mint appears to be around 102d stg an ounce. Taking into account the production costs, the mint could be running at a loss. It's bullion stocks had run down to a little over 400,000 pounds; 700,000 less than a year previously. Re-building stocks at current prices would be a costly business.'
At the time of this report, a pre-1946 florin, which contained sterling of 92.5% pure silver, had an intrinsic value of 3s 6d. The profits to be had from melting down such coins was too big a temptation for some.
Although smelting down coins of the realm is an offence, the practice flourished as the price of silver continued to rise. Hong Kong became the unofficial Mecca for much of the smuggled pieces. The usual going rate was one pound for every 17 shillings worth of pre-1946 coins smuggled in and sold to a fence. Many of the smugglers raised the capital to buy the coins by selling 'duty-free' transistor radios from their ships.
There were many ways to open-up shop. A favourite was to open a bank account using notes for the initial deposit. A few days later a withdrawal was made with the customer asking for the amount in coin. It was then a simple matter of going through all the coins to cull out the higher-percentage silver coins. The others were re-banked and the process repeated.
Not all smugglers were successful, as newspaper reports of the early 1960's indicate. The Melbourne Age reported on 11th December, 1962, 'Customs officials yesterday seized nine pounds worth of silver coins from a ship at Victoria Dock. The ship was due to sail today for Port Moresby, Manila and Hong Kong.
'The coins were seized after customs officials boarded the vessel. They said the coins had been minted before 1946 and had a higher content of silver than the present currency. They believed an elderly Chinese crew member intended to melt the coins down in Hong Kong.'
An even bigger haul was reported by the same paper on 18th July, 1963: 'Four Chinese seamen were fined a total of 140 pounds in the special court today for attempting to smuggle more than 500 pounds' worth of Australian silver out of the country. The seamen told customs officers they had each purchased one pound's worth of coins for 22/- and had intended to sell them in Hong Kong.' One month before, the Melbourne Herald reported; 'A trade in Australian coins in Asia is probably operated by a ring of smugglers, customs officials said today.'
And while this practice was flourishing, the Government itself was doing a pretty fair job of competing with the smugglers. This report from the 18th March, 1963 edition of the Perth News shows just how unwittingly efficient the Government was at reducing the number of pre-decimal coins for a new generation of collectors: 'Electronic coin sorting machines are being used to recover dud coins which aren't worth a cent - and two bobs worth more than two bob. The machines are being used to sort out and retain the pre-1946 florins which have a higher silver content. Eventually they will emerge into circulation again - but as coins containing only 50% silver and 40% copper and 5% each of zinc and nickel. Now all but half of one percent of old coins have been withdrawn and one in about 200 shillings and florin pieces are being diverted back to the Reserve Bank's branch at Fitzroy.'
With only about half a per cent of sterling silver coins left in 1963, the numbers left today must be even more discouraging. Earlier purges helped to start the ball rolling. Pre-1946 coins worth $6million were melted down in 1956 and shipped to the U.S.A. The coins were repayment of silver lent during the second World War when Australian coins worth more than £6 million were struck in Denver and San Francisco. These were silver coins of all denominations which carried a distinctive mintmark of 'S' or 'D'.
By June 1970, the mint had refined some 623 tonnes of coins with a face value of $11.3 million. The silver value from this process was worth $16.4 million. Two overseas firms entrusted to speed up this mammoth task also accounted for 1,000 tonnes each with a silver residual worth $61 million.
Several decisions concerning our copper coins resulted in big meltdowns, even before the introduction of decimal coins. A consignment of Australian pennies was sent to Japan in 1947 for use by the occupational forces following the second World War. However, few of the coins were actually used for this purpose. Copper-starved industries in the recovering Japan paid up to five shillings a piece for the coins. How many met their fate in this manner is anyone's guess.
While we do not know the quantities lost to the Japanese, we do know that 50 tonnes of Australian pennies ended up in the pockets of New Zealanders in October, 1966. This shipment, which represented some 5.5 million coins, was bought by the New Zealand Government to relieve a shortage of pennies until the Kiwi changeover in July, 1967.
And now, in this modern age of tax evasion and bottom-of-the-harbour deals, it is fitting to conclude with another newspaper report from the past - the Sunday Times, Perth, 21st April, 1963: ' The proposed introduction of decimal currency in February, 1966 is expected by Police and Treasury officials to flush out hoards of hot money. A flood of secret money could descend on Australian capital cities in the next three years. The officials said the fixing of a date for a completely new currency could bring to light bankrolls buried in back gardens for tax-evasion purposes.
'It would also take care of the few pounds under the lino by pensioners worried about the means test and also the proceeds of unsolved robberies. Police said there was a great deal of hot money in the community. These hoarders of hot money would know they had only a limited time to convert it into more liquid assets. Assets they would look for would be things they believed could be turned safely back into decimal coinage without awkward questions being asked. Land and property deals would be out because of the incriminating documents involved.'
So what does all this mean ? What is the result of this immense melting down of coins ? Simply that all our pre-decimal coins are in short supply and the numbers are still shrinking.
With more and more collectors coming into the hobby each year, it is also obvious that prices for this limited stock must rise. In addition, with the indiscriminate melting down of all sorts of dates and mintmarks, we are no longer sure of low-mintage key dates. In any event, it seems sure that the values of all pre-decimal coins in any condition must rise significantly in the future.
Pre-Decimal Proofs and PatternsTo celebrate the first home striking of Australia's silver coins, the Melbourne Mint issued a collector proof set in 1916. Apart from this, very few proof coins of dates prior to 1920 are known to exist. From 1920 onwards, a limited number were struck each year for presentation to Museums, etc. These are mostly classified as Proof Record Pieces and, not being made available to the public, precious few have found their way into private hands.
In 1934 and again in 1935, a coin dealer in New Zealand, Mr H Williams, succeeded in obtaining a limited number of proof coins struck at his request. It was not until 1938 that proof coins were sold to the public at a premium by the Melbourne mint. All denominations, including the 1937 and 1938 Crown were struck in proof. The practice was repeated in the following year. Exact figures are unknown for 1938 and 1939 releases but the numbers are tiny.
The values of proofs and patterns in perfect condition are shown in the date listings of this catologue. Proofs with marks, spots or uneven toning will normally be significantly discounted.
Pre-Decimal BanknotesBefore 1910, the issue of banknotes had been in the hands of approximately fifty private banks for a period of over 90 years. Mergers, absorptions and failures had reduced the number of issuing banks significantly by the beginning of the 20th century, particularly as a result of a financial crisis which occurred in 1893.
There were three exceptions to the private banknote issues during that period. In 1866, a financial crisis led the Queensland Government to issue its own notes. These were subsequently withdrawn in 1869. In 1893, the New South Wales Government issued Treasury Notes to overcome financial problems which arose when many banks suspended payments during a severe financial crisis. The issue was very limited. In the same year, the Queensland Government became the sole note issuing authority in that state. This was to continue long past Federation. Their issue was finally prohibited by the Commonwealth Banking Act of 1910.
At a rally in 1909, a hasty promise was made that "if elected, Australia would have its own currency". Once elected, the government realised that the easily made promise would not be easy to fulfill.
Prior to the Commonwealth issues, the States levied a 2% tax on private banknote issues. After allowing for this tax, historians estimate that the banks made a 2½ to 3% profit by lending out part of the funds represented by their note issues. The private banks were still legally able to print and issue banknotes, a right which existed until the Commonwealth Bank Act of 1945. The Commonwealth Government, however, was not keen to have an alternative to its new note issues. To ensure a proper footing, and to make the new note issues successful against private competition, a hefty 10% taxation levy, imposed in the 1910 legislation on private banknote issues, made the practice prohibitively expensive and effectively killed off all other note issues.
The four lower denomination notes began to appear in 1913 while the higher denominations (£20, £50, £100 and £1000) did not issue until the following year. The front design of all eight notes gave an overall blue impression because of the ink used in the intaglio printing of the borders and text. The basic features of the design were an imperial crown, a coat-of-arms, heading text, two signatures, the value displayed a number of times and two panels in which serial numbers could be printed later. The text on each note read 'The Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia Promises to Pay the Bearer (denomination) in gold coin on Demand at the Commonwealth Treasury at the seat of Government'. Signatories were Jas. R. Collins, Assistant Secretary, and Geo. T. Allen, Secretary to the Treasury.
The notes were made from a very fine quality linen paper which was capable of absorbing secretly formulated inks. The ink penetrated beneath the surface, but did not soak through to the other side, producing a design which could not be altered or obliterated without easily being detected. Three colours of ink were used on each side, applied in up to seven separate printing runs, to produce a design which could not be colour-separated or counterfeited by means of photography.
By 1921, intaglio printing had replaced surface printing for the design detail. The lines engraved on the printing plate were actually minute channels about one thousandth of an inch deep. The plate was inked, then the excess was wiped off, leaving ink only in the channels. The plate was then applied to the note paper under high pressure to force the fabric of the paper into the inked channels. The channels were engraved by means of a special Geometric lathe which could inscribe patterns which were so complex that they could not be exactly reproduced by counterfeiters.
The signatures appearing on notes printed up until the mid-1920's were engraved on the block. This meant that a new block had to be engraved each time the signature combination changed. After the death of Denison Miller in 1923, signatures were no longer engraved, but were added later, in a separate printing run. The result was that signatures no longer appeared in the same colour as the design of the note, but in black.
During 1924, the note printing operation was moved to new premises at Victoria Parade, Fitzroy, a suburb of Melbourne. Note production was to be undertaken here for the remainder of the pre-decimal series and well into the decimal era - 56 years - until relocation to the current premises at Craigieburn, 23 km from the centre of Melbourne, in the early 1980's.
In 1929, consideration was given to extending the use of paintings for the reverse designs of Australia's notes. The £1 had carried a scene of Captain Cook's landing since 1923. Eventually the idea was dropped and a Melbourne sculptor, Paul Raphael Montford, was commissioned to prepare a series of clay models based on themes of pasture, agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, dairying and mining. The models were engraved as bas-relief panels with the first to appear being the Manufactures design on new, smaller ten shilling notes in July, 1933.
The £1 note, with a pastoral, sheep tending design was issued in August, 1933, followed by commerce on the £5 in December, 1933 and agriculture, wheat farming on the £10 in October, 1934. The designs, unpopular with many and ridiculed in the press from time to time, survived until new notes were prepared after Elizabeth became Queen.
The historical significance of the new notes was in their wording. The text read 'This Note is legal tender for (denomination) in the Commonwealth and in all Territories under the control of the Commonwealth'. The legal tender status signified an end to the gold standard, the notes were no longer backed by gold reserves and were no longer redeemable for gold.
The £20 note was not redesigned. Issue of the denomination ceaced in 1938 after it had become clear that there was little need for higher value notes whose main use was seen almost exclusively on the nation's racetracks. £50 notes with a commerce bas-relief and £100 notes with dairying were printed in 1939 but never released. Except for a few specimens, both series were destroyed in 1958.
In 1948, in an effort to reduce costs, the note printing branch began to use an American technique for the replacement of printer spoils. Notes destroyed in the printing process were no longer replaced with identically numbered notes, but with notes from a separate print run. The substitute notes had a five digit number with a five pointed star or asterisk at the end. On the changeover to decimal currency in 1966, a six pointed asterisk replaced the star and a prefix of Z was added. With newer printing innovations, the practice was stopped in 1972.
In 1959, a new Reserve Bank Act transferred responsibility for note issue to the newly created Reserve Bank of Australia. This led to a change in Dr Coombs title on the notes from Governor, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, to Governor, Reserve Bank of Australia.