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Australian Early Gold Series

by Greg McDonald

With minor modifications and additions

The discovery of gold in Australia in the 1850's resulted in one of our most exciting and romantic periods. At the time, however it was a period of incredible social and economic upheaval.
Ironically the discovery of gold almost sent the colony broke as industry and commerce fell to its knees as laborers, clerks and anyone else with a shovel, pan and glint in their eye rushed to the diggings.
Up until this time, the mining of gold had almost been the sole privilige of central governments, gold rushes in California and Australia allowed the common man to participate for almost the first time in history.
It was a time of frantic pace where many decisions - including that of making coins - had to be made there on the spot, with little regard to the usual red tape. And so we have an interesting situation where our first indigenous gold coins were, strictly speaking, illegal issues. The cutting of red tape to get them circulated as soon as possible meant circumventing Royal approval. Then, as now, the issuing of coinage without official approval is illegal. However we must appreciate the circumstances which led to this extraordinary situation; to understand it was a period of desperation rather than one of deliberately ignoring Royal Decree.
Our first gold "coinage" looked anything like coins in the true sense. In fact they were simply strips of stamped gold which came to be known as Adelaide Ingots. They came into being as a result of gold being found at Mount Alexander in the Castlemaine district of Victoria.
When word of the strike reached Adelaide, some 500 km to the west, the rush was on. In the following three months nearly half of South Australia's male population were trying their luck. A labor starved Adelaide was on the brink of bankruptcy when about 50,000 pounds worth of gold arrived for assaying back in the capital, from the diggings.

Adelaide Ingots

Adelaide Ingot
An Adelaide Ingot
Picture courtesy - Royal Australian Mint
However plentiful the gold shipments may have been, problems soon arose in trying to use nuggets and dust in normal day to day trade. On January 9, 1852, a group of influential merchants approached Lieutenant-Governor Sir Henry Young to start up a mint to convert the raw gold to coin. Even though he realized that only Royal approval could initiate such a move he was also aware that the survival of the colony was at stake. To obtain Royal permission would take at least six months by even the quickest clipper ship and Adelaide simply couldn't wait that long. A compromise was decided upon when Sir Henry, acting upon advice from George Tinline, the acting manager of the South Australian Banking Company and the Colonial Treasurer, Robert Richard Torrens decided to mint ingots rather than coins. The idea was to put gold into a more useful form without denting the Royal pride too severely. In fact they had found a very handy loophole in the act which, they felt, covered them nicely.
While the governors were not allowed to "ascent 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". How urgent the situation was can be gauged by the fact that only two hours had elapsed between reading the proposed law to the Legislative Council on January 28 and having it passed as the Bullion Act, Number One.
The ingots were not intended as a general issue but rather to circulate between banks to hold as backing against their note issue. The first ingot appeared amidst uproar on March 4. They were of different weight, shape and even colour. Critics claimed they would be too easily counterfeited while the different weights would make them an accounting nightmare.
To the layman, the ingot was a very confusing piece of currency indeed. They were simply a flat strip of gold (some say made with the use of a steam roller) which bore an official crown seal and punch figures showing the fineness of the gold which was roughly standardized at 23.1/8 carats.
Inside a circular stamp surrounded by the legend "weight of ingot" were punched the weight of the ingot as well as a weight conversion to 22-carat gold. No two were the same shape with some being almost round while others were rectangular in shape. On average, the dimensions were about 50 x 25 mm. The calculations necessary hardly made them easier to use than raw gold.

The Adelaide Pound

By November 1852, mounting criticism resulted in the bullion act being amended to allow the striking of one, two and five pound issues as well as ten shilling gold pieces. The first, and only issue to be struck was the One Pound Coin although dies and re-strikes of the five pound pieces are known. However, even the striking of the One Pound coin was not without its problems. A local die maker by the name of Joshua Payne was given the go-ahead to cut the die even before the amendment to the act was finalized.
The plan was to commence production immediately the bill had gone through. Payne, however, had produced less than 50 of the new pound coin when a severe die crack was discovered - thus causing further delays. The crack occurred from the inner circle to the rim beside the downstroke of the "D" of "DWT" on the reverse side of the coin. A new die was quickly cut and about 25,000 of what was to be known as the Type II Adelaide pound were struck. Both coins are considered to be very rare. Despite the seemingly high mintage figure of the Type II, very few have survived. Soon after they began circulating it was discovered that their intrinsic value was nearly two shillings (actually 1/11d) more than face value. What coins were saved from profiteers were eventually melted by official decree when the British Government rescinded the Bullion Act. Adelaide Pound Type I showing die crackAdelaide Pound Type I showing die crack
Adelaide Pound Type I showing die crack
Images from 2002 Commemorative Issue.
Although coming in for some initial flak Sir Henry Young went on to greater things. As a result of his efforts in South Australia, he was promoted to Governor of Tasmania in 1854 and held that position until his retirement in 1861. Other key figures in the enterprise were likewise rewarded. Robert Richard Torrens, who suggested making the ingots, was later knighted, while George Tinline was awarded a special gold plate along with a cheque for 2500 pounds for his efforts.
Adelaide Pound Type II
Adelaide Pound Type II
Image courtesy KJC Coins » Sydney Mint Sovereigns and Half Sovereigns were decided upon only a short time after orders to close the Adelaide operation came through.
Legislation for the establishment of a branch of the London Royal Mint in Sydney was announced in August 1853 - much to the disappointment of the Legislative Councils of Victoria and South Australia who also applied for the honor of having Australia's third - but first official - mint.

From the book, "The Sovereign" which is available from Token Publishing
Established in a wing of the old Rum Hospital, the mint opened on May 14, 1855 and the first coins were struck on June 23, 1855. Although the obverse by James Wyon was only slightly different to that used on British minted sovereigns and half sovereigns, the reverse was uniquely Australian.
It was the first and last time, such licence was ever given to a Royal Mint branch in any of the colonies
Sydney Mint Type I
Sydney Mint Type I
Image courtesy KJC Coins » Sydney Mint sovereign as legal tender, in fact they were more popular than their English counterparts because of the yellow colour, ( a result of the silver in the alloy) as opposed to the redder colour of London. Ironically, Britain had been accepting the coin since 1863. In fact, this success was the Sydney Sovereigns undoing, and in 1870 it was decided to abolish the distinctive designs.
Sydney Mint Type II
Sydney Mint Type II
Image courtesy KJC Coins »
1871 Sydney Shield Reverse.
The shield reverse is a hard wearing design, and can still be attractive even after being in circulation.

The "Young Head" obverse used on Australian Shield Sovereigns, the date appears under the portrait.
In 1871 London was re-introducing it's now famous Benedetto Pistrucci's rendition of St George killing the dragon. As Pistrucci had died in 1850, it is almost certain that it was engraved by other hands. Up to that point all Queen Victoria sovereigns featured the intricate Jean Baptiste Merlen shield reverse design. Pistrucci's famous reverse which was issued on the first sovereign of 1817 and was used on both gold and crown issues of George IV was dropped completely by William IV when he assumed the throne in 1830. The design was suggested by Pistrucci who was originally introduced by Sir Joseph Banks of Captain Cook's voyages of discovery. It was suggested it would serve as a reminder to world of Britain's victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.
1887 Melbourne Mint St George Obverse
The mintmark appears just under the base of Queen Victoria's neck on St George reverse coins until 1887
1887 Melbourne Mint St George Reverse
1887 Melbourne Mint St George Reverse
Notice that St George has no ribbon flowing from his helmet, this was introduced on the Jubilee issues of 1887
It was Britain's intention to issue sovereigns of both types. It allowed the branch mints to decide which, and how much of the two designs to strike. While Britain dropped the shield reverse completely in favor of the St George type in 1874, "Shields" were minted in Australia until 1887 due to the shields popularity in India along with public demand at home.
The only difference between the London minted St George and shield reverse sovereigns and those minted at the Sydney Mint was a small "S" mintmark to denote the colonial issue. There were no St George reverse half sovereigns minted during this period.
Sydney's production as supplemented from 12th June 1872 when another branch of the Royal Mint was opened in Melbourne. The new Mint fronted on William Street between Little Londsdale and Latrobe Streets. There were four buildings, one on each boundary, giving a central courtyard.

From the book, "The Sovereign" which is available from Token Publishing
In the first half year of operation the new Mint achieved a total of 748,180 sovereigns. These consisted of two types: the Shield design by JB Merlen and the Benedetto Pistrucci St George and the Dragon type It was not without its problems however. Faulty machinery in the opening weeks damaged at least 95 per cent of the coins struck. In the first year of operation no half sovereigns were issued and only about one-third of the Sydney production of the sovereigns appeared. These initial problems were soon overcome however and the Melbourne Mint was still producing coins nearly 100 years later. The Melbourne Mint also produced both types of the sovereign and its distinguishing feature was the small "M" mintmark.
From 1874 to 1889, a total of nearly 67 million pounds worth of gold coins were struck by both mints which was twice as much as the figures achieved by the parent mint in London over the same time span.
But while both Sydney and Melbourne can be proud of its production figures, figures of another kind were sadly lacking. Mintage figures were taken as a total figure with no separate records being kept as to how many St George reverses were being produced each year compared to the shield reverse type.
It can obviously be assumed that less the number of each type was actually struck than the figures would indicate. However it is worth bearing in mind that collectors and prices realized tend to agree that the shield reverse is scarcer in most instances
In 1887 both types of sovereign as well as the half sovereign were struck showing the Young Head obverse which had been designed by the talented William Wyon.
However this was the Jubilee year - marking Queen Victoria's 50th year on the throne and another obverse design was introduced to be struck in conjunction with the soon to be redundant young head type.

On shield reverses the mintmark can be found at the bottom of the shield, this one has the "M" for Melbourne Mint.
1887 Royal Mint Proof Obverse
The Jubilee obverse introduced in 1887
Crafted by (later Sir) Joseph Edgar Boehm, the portrait showed the queen with a hard scowling look of disapproval. Perhaps she was just concentrating as she appeared to be balancing the crown on her head like a sideshow entertainer rather than wearing it like a stately monarch. The design drew much criticism.
This design only employed the St George reverse design, (With the addition of a "ribbon" flowing from St Georges helmet ), although the shield reverse half sovereign remained unaltered. The design at least gave the Australian series an interesting catalogue variety in the Boehm's initials appear only on some of the 1891 Sydney Mint half sovereign issues of 1891.
1887 was also the first year when the Sydney Mint issued very small numbers of two and five pound coins that were struck for VIP's. These are extremely rare and should not be confused with their English counterparts which were struck in larger numbers. As with all gold coins of this era, the mint mark is to be found on the exergue just above the date.
The Jubilee issue continued until 1893 when the encroachment of time again made it necessary to alter the portrait of the ageing Queen. Although this new issue is officially called the Veiled Head type, the colloquial expression "Old Head" type is probably closer to the mark. As was the case six years before, both the out going style and new style were released. The only modification concerned the half sovereign which also saw the introduction of the St George reverse. No more shield reverse half sovereigns would be issued after 1893.
At the time when Sir Thomas Brock’s Veiled Head design was introduced, the nation was in the firm grip of economic depression. Much of the foreign capital that had been invested in the great Australian land boom was being repatriated, and this outward flow of capital was driving many respected banks to collapse. Although by 1893 the volume of banking failures was easing from a rush to a trickle, the economic hardship that the depression caused the average Australian during the last years of the Victorian era was compounded by the beginning of a drought that affected the entire nation. Needless to say, a sovereign during this period had a high value indeed, accounting for at least half a week’s wages for the average man. This design was to continue with Queen Victoria until her death in 1901.
Again a small number of two and five pound issues, dated 1893, were struck at the Sydney mint for the selected few. They are also considered extremely rare
Two years before Victoria's death during her record reign of 63 years, another London branch mint was established in Perth. The mintmark, "P" on all subsequent Perth sovereigns and half sovereigns can be found in the same place designated for the Sydney and Melbourne coins of the same period.
1893 Royal Mint Proof Obverse
The "Old Head" obverse , introduced in 1893
Edward VII obverse
Edward VII obverse
Edward VII's short reign saw an abundance of gold sovereigns from all three Australian branch mints. Already in advancing years, the portrait was the work of George William de Saules who also designed the crowned likeness of his majesty which appears on the Australian Commonwealth silver coins of 1910.
Although Edward VII acceded to the throne in 1901, he was not crowned until 1902, and the first coins issued for him were dated 1902, and in that year alone, gold coins worth over 11 million pounds were produced by the combined efforts of the three mints. Many of the foundations of Australia’s monetary system, economy and society that are today taken for granted were laid during the Edwardian era. Most of our national government institutions were established at this time; the Banknote Act was passed; and Australia’s first currency coins were issued . The first battalion of Commonwealth troops entered active service in 1902; many major public buildings were erected; and a large number of regional towns & centers were established.
Following Edward's death in 1910, it was left to Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal to design both the bare headed likeness of George V used on the gold issues and the crowned effigy of the commonwealth issues which also included the two bronze issues for the first time
The world was moving at a much quicker pace by the time George V came to the throne. Dramatic changes in the way business was conducted and the way wars were fought brought sudden and often permanent changes - even to something as traditional as gold coinage. The first chink in the armor came in 1915 when the Melbourne Mint produced its last half sovereign. Sydney ceased production of half sovereigns in 1916 and Perth in 1920. Perth produced no half sovereigns in 1917 and 1918 but did produce 1918 dated half sovereigns in 1919 and 1920.
The King George V "Large Head" obverse appeared on Australia's sovereigns during an era of national change and turmoil. The effects of events as momentous as World War I and the Great Depression were felt for many decades to follow, also influencing the rarity of many Australian sovereigns, with gold production in Victoria and Western Australia declining steadily; Australia's economic fortunes fluctuating widely, and high volumes of gold being exported to repay debt from World War I.
As the 1920's emerged, the production figures for the Sydney Mint sovereigns became more erratic and some of the rarest dates of the entire sovereign series are found in this period. In 1926, Sydney suffered the final irony of going broke making coins.
1911 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Obverse
King George V "Large Head" obverse.
1931 Perth Mint Sovereign Obverse
King George V "Small Head" obverse, notice the extra line of 'beading'.
In 1929, the obverse of the remaining sovereigns still being minted at the Perth and Melbourne Mints went through a cosmetic change when the portrait of George V was slightly reduced in size although the dimensions of the coin remained the same. The King George V "Small Head" obverse has 2 rows of beading around the rim and was seen rather late in the life of the sovereign. It was issued only from 1929 to 1931, the last 3 years which Australia was on the gold standard. It was introduced in an attempt to improve the level of detail seen both in the obverse & reverse designs and prevent 'ghosting ' of the reverse design. One of the technical considerations for an artist designing a coin is that when the coin is struck, the metal should flow evenly throughout both designs. If the design is higher on one side than the other, then not all of the opposing design will be clear. This was thought to be the case with the George V Large Head portrait, hence the change.
The age of gold as a means of circulating medium of exchange now belonged to a bygone era. Both Perth and Melbourne ended the golden age in 1931. Australia was not to see another gold coin until 1980 when the $200 gold Koala emerged, followed by the Perth Mint's Gold Nugget in 1986. It was the dawning of yet another era; when a gold coin was born out of the demand from collector interest rather than older values when a sovereign in the hand meant a quid's worth of real money.


How To Buy and Sell Australian Coins and Banknotes
Greg McDonald, 1985
PO Box 649, Lavington
NSW 2641

KJC Coins


Royal Australian Mint

The Sovereign
Daniel Fearon & Brian Reeds, 2001
Token Publishing

Most Importantly of All,
"The Coin Widow"
For typing all this.