IntroductionTo the populace of crime-torn England at the end of the eighteenth century, a 'free passage' to Australia was anything but a voluntary trip. Yet, in fifty years, Englishmen, and people in countries around the world were prepared to offer their life savings for a berth on a ship to get here. The change in attitude was directly attributable to the discovery of gold around Bathurst (New South Wales) and Ballarat (Victoria).
Gold was first discovered in 1823 (near Bathurst) by James McBrien. The news was kept quiet by the authorities of the time to prevent a convict uprising. By the late 1840's, free settlers had replaced convicts as the main immigrants. By the time the news that a prospector by the name of Edward Hargraves had found gold reached the rest of the world, Australia was already deep in the grips of gold fever. Labourers and settlers alike left their farms, city dwellers abandoned their homes and jobs, and fortune hunters quickly began to flood in from Europe, the United States and the Orient. The opportunity to cash in was quickly grasped by the Government of the day who immediately declared that prospectors and miners must pay a license fee of 30 shillings a month.
Gold was soon discovered at Clunes and then at Ballarat. The frenzied diggers swarmed back, quickly turning Victoria into the golden centre of Australia. The imposition of licenses similar to the ones imposed in the north led to ugly disputes as the miners demanded that the fees be reduced. Tensions quickly reached boiling point in the famous Eureka Stockade clash near Ballarat in 1854.
The Gold Rush opened new roads inland, attracted immigrants and injected much needed cash into the economy. However, when the miners eventually returned home, gold dust and nuggets were not convenient forms of commerce. It was only a matter of time before these raw materials would be struck as gold coin, and in fact the first coins struck in Australia were made from this precious metal.
The first gold coins came into being in a roundabout way following the discovery of gold at Mount Alexander in the Castlemaine district of Victoria. When word hit Adelaide, some 500 kilometers to the west, the rush was on. In the following three months nearly half of South Australia's men were at the diggings. After five months the number stood at 8,000 miners. The drain on manpower had almost peaked to bring on a state of bankruptcy of the colony when about £50,000 worth of gold started to come back in the pockets of the lucky few.
Adelaide IngotsIt soon became apparent that the gold was too difficult to use in it's raw state and on 9th January, 1852, a group of influential merchants approached Lieutenant-Governor Sir Henry Young to start up a mint to convert the gold dust to coin. Sir Henry, at first, refused point-blank, stating that coins could only be struck as part of the Royal prerogative. He was also aware, however, that commonsense would have to prevail. To obtain this consent from the monarch would take at least six months and Adelaide would surely go under in the meantime.
The businessmen appealed again and Sir Henry sought the advice of George Tinline, the acting manager of the South Australian Banking Company. He was in favour of immediate action. They decided on a compromise when the Colonial Treasurer Robert Richard Torrens suggested that ingots and not coins be produced. This had the effect of putting the raw gold into a more convertible form without treading on royal toes.
Sir Henry felt safe. He had found a loophole in the instructions handed down to him by Parliament. While the governors were not allowed to 'assent in Her Majesty's name' to any bill affecting the currency of the colony' there was a way out in the accompanying paragraph which said 'unless urgent necessity exists requiring such to be brought into immediate operation'. This was urgent. So urgent, in fact, that only two hours elapsed between reading the proposed law to the Legislative Council on 28th January, 1852 and having it passed as the Bullion Act Number One. The ingots were not intended as general issue but for banks to hold as backing for their notes. The Act fixed the price of gold at £3-11s an ounce, 9 shillings more than was then being paid in the Victorian goldfields.
Thousands of these irregular ingots were produced. Most would not survive for more than a year or two. Today, less than dozen Adelaide ingots are thought to have survived.
The Adelaide Pound (and Five Pounds)Both the public and the banks wanted legal tender coins, not ingots. Representations were once more made to Sir Henry Young and in November, 1852 the Bullion Act was amended to allow the striking of one, two and five pound issues as well as ten shilling gold pieces. The Adelaide Assay Office had anticipated the move and when the law was adopted, one pound dies already tooled by a local die-maker and engraver, Joshua Payne, were ready to go.
About 25,000 of the Type II variety were struck and issued and both coins are now considered to be very rare. Half a dozen five pound coins are believed to have been struck but no records have been found to verify this. None are known to have survived. The design of the five pound coin was similar to that of the one pound and was as large as our 1966 50 cent piece.
In 1919, twelve gold and two silver restrikes of the Adelaide Five Pound coin were especially struck as historical artefacts by the Melbourne Mint, using Joshua Payne's original dies. Six of the gold coins were subsequently melted. Another gold restrike was made ten years later for the National Gallery of South Australia. Should an original five pound coin turn up, it would be regarded as one of the truly rare Australian coins.
Although the Type II was struck in quantity (for that period), few have survived. Soon after striking was completed, it was found that the weight of the gold was worth 1s 11d more than face value. As a result, many were melted down for their intrinsic value, thus ensuring their rarity to collectors who would come generations later.
The semi-official mint of South Australia, known as the Adelaide Assay Office, was to have a short history. Eventually London heard about the makeshift Bullion Act and withdrew Royal assent.
At about the same time as London folk were being told that the new Adelaide coins contained 10 percent more gold than their face value, there came fresh news that gold was being bought direct from the miners at the Ballarat goldfields for £2 15s per ounce. With the official value being pegged at £4 per ounce, it occurred to London die-sinker and engraver William Joseph Taylor that there were still severe shortages of gold coins in Victoria. The firm of Messrs. Hodgkin, Taylor and Tyndall proposed to set up a mint in Melbourne by buying gold at £2 15s per ounce and turning it into £4 per ounce gold coins.
In 1851 Taylor had exhibited a coining press at the Great Exhibition and for his latest adventure had no trouble finding wealthy backers to provide him with a fully supplied ship for his trip to Melbourne. Sailing on a chartered vessel, the Kangaroo, Taylor arrived on 23rd October, 1853. Here, the problems which would ultimately doom the project to failure struck. The wharves at Melbourne had no facilities for manhandling the press dockside in one piece. Many months were lost as the press was stripped down to be moved.
In the meantime, a large shipment of sovereigns arrived from London and the price of gold at Ballarat almost doubled to £4 4s an ounce. Dies to strike ¼ ounce, ½ ounce, 1 ounce and 2 ounce gold coins had accompanied the high-spirited team from London and with the new price of gold these were now useless.
It is evident that Taylor also struck several trial pieces from each of the dies. The British Museum has a complete set in gold while the Royal Australian Mint has a set of gold-coloured gilt copper restrikes. A number of private collectors have some highly prized pieces and on rare occasions these are offered at auction.
Sydney Mint GoldThe next chapter in the Australian gold series is steeped in lustrous history. By the mid-1850's the Government decided that it was about time that an official mint should be set up to convert the plentiful gold stocks into coins of the realm. Adelaide and Melbourne both petitioned for the honour of establishing a mint, but the royal decree went to Sydney.
Legislation for the establishment of a branch of the London Royal Mint in Sydney was announced in August, 1853. Ironically, the new mint was to be housed in part of the old Rum Hospital which itself owes its existence to 'currency' of another kind. The mint opened on 14th May, 1855 and the first coins were struck on 23rd June, 1855. When opening Parliament on 5th June, the Governor General advised that the building of the Mint was complete, the machinery erected, and the process of coinage commenced. It was anticipated that charge for assaying and coining would fully cover the cost of running the facility.
The first Sydney Mint sovereigns were unique in the history of the British Empire. In a situation which has not been repeated since, the coins carried a design which was completely different from that of the standard British issue. Even so, the dies for both the sovereign and half sovereign were slapped together in a half-hearted way by the authorities in London.
In the report of the master of the Royal Mint dated 3rd March, 1856, he states 'Several pieces from the Governor General have reached me, of which the assay offered nothing remarkable ... You could not have hit the standard more closely than in the Sovereigns and Half Sovereigns lately received, which the average is exact, the divergence of individual pieces is extremely moderate, and shows great regularity of work.'
The Australian coin somehow always seemed to look paler than the British coin and now the reason for this was clear. The Australian ore had a high percentage of silver while the darker tone of the British coin was due to the copper content. Soon they were being accepted with great relish in all the business houses around Australia. From 1868, they were even accepted as legal tender in Canada and Newfoundland. Britain had been accepting the coins since 1863.
Many of these early Sydney Mint sovereigns left Australia in traders purses and disappeared overseas. Bullion dealers disposed of others by melting them down for their intrinsic value. Those which remained were generally worn flat by a sovereign-starved community.
Although mintage figures seem high in some years, these coins are scarce especially in better grade. This situation was made worse by the short run of Sydney Mint gold coins. Production of the half sovereigns halted in 1866 and the British Treasury revoked its approval to mint any further Sydney Mint coins in 1871. The last Sydney Mint sovereign is dated 1870.
Imperial GoldThe British Treasury was growing increasingly jealous of its gold sovereigns and half sovereigns. There were now two reverse designs for the sovereign. One was the famous Benedetto Pistrucci St. George design, first issued in 1817 on English sovereigns; the other was the shield reverse which was beautifully created by Jean Baptiste Merlen. The shield featured the quartered royal arms of England, Scotland and Ireland. St. George first appeared on a 1526 George Noble of Henry VIII. It paid homage to the third century Greek soldier who was martyred in A.D. 303. St. George was adopted as the patron saint of England around the eleventh century.
The Melbourne Mint also produced both reverses of the sovereign and the mintmark "M" can be found in the same location as the Sydney coins' mintmark. From 1874 to 1899 a total of nearly £67 million worth of gold coins were struck by the Sydney and Melbourne Mints. This was twice as much as the Royal Mint in London struck in the same production period.
In 1887 there was another design change and new locations for the mintmarks. This was the last year that the shield reverse sovereign was struck.
During the years in which the St. George reverse sovereign was struck alongside the shield reverse, neither mint bothered to keep separate records of production. The mintages shown for these coins is duplicated as there is no way of telling just how many of each were produced in a particular year. It is evident that the St. George reverse was more favoured and that the shield reverse is by far the scarcer of the two designs.
As the advancing years crept up on Queen Victoria, it was time that her portrait was updated. The resulting design by Thomas (later Sir Thomas) Brock was to become known as the Old Head design although it is probably kinder to Victoria's memory to call it the Veiled Head type. This design was struck continuously until Victoria's death in 1901 after a reign of sixty-three years.
Production was stepped up after 1899 when another mint was set up in Perth. The mintmark 'P' on all subsequent sovereigns and half sovereigns can be found in the same place designated for the Sydney and Melbourne mintmarks. Any sovereign without a mintmark will be a British issue. From 1894, the shield reverse half sovereign was dropped in favour of the St. George design.
In 1926, the Sydney Mint closed. Hard as it is to comprehend, the mint actually went broke making coins. Perth and Melbourne continued until 1931 when the last sovereigns were struck. Officially half sovereigns were last struck in 1920, but the rare 1918 issue is the last date known. This is also true of the last years of the sovereign. It is thought that, although minted, many of these coins were not released and were later melted down.
Today, most collectors are content to accumulate a type set of sovereigns and half sovereigns due to the enormous cost involved in collecting a date set. Over the years, the Australian gold series has proven to be an excellent investment area. Many investors feel secure that sovereigns have value in more ways than one. There is their intrinsic value, and more importantly, that special quality about a coin which gives feeling to the word 'numismatics'.
The Gold Rush era is featured on the following Australian coins: