Holey moly: Australia’s first minted currency

No currency was supplied when settlers and convict fleets arrived in Australia from the United Kingdom, leading to an interesting mix of currencies making up the Australian financial system. Thanks to trade with merchant ships from across the globe, British, Portuguese, Dutch and Indian coins were commonly mixed; however, most would leave the colony through continual exports and imports. As such, Australia was left struggling to secure currency of any kind. To combat this, the Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, ordered 40,000 silver Spanish 8 Reale coins. At the time of their arrival from India on 26 November 1812, the coins in question were used as international ‘de facto’ currency.

Similar to practices in the West Indies, Governor Macquarie stamped out the centre of the coins so that the coins couldn’t be recirculated again, and were unique to the New South Wales colony. The first minted currency in Australia was established.

Unlike the modern technology on offer today, in the early 1800s the task of stamping out the coins proved to be tricky to execute. As such, Governor Macquarie employed the services of convict, and former metal plater and cutter, William Henshall to stamp out the coins. Henshall had been sentenced to seven years as a convict for counterfeiting. As Australia’s unofficial first mint master, Henshall took more than a year to complete the task of stamping the 40,000 coins – far longer than Governor Macquarie’s estimated timeframe of three months. While it’s not officially known exactly what machinery Henshall built and used to stamp the coins, it’s believed that a drop hammer was used to inscribe the coins with their value and the words ‘New South Wales 1813’. Alongside this, Henshall also included the letter ‘H’ into his design – no doubt a nod to his own efforts. Finally, the first batch of the new coins were delivered to Deputy Commissioner-General David Allen in February 1814, with the last completed batch arriving in August 1814.

From there, the Bank of New South Wales issued currencies in bank notes and paper tokens from 1817, while the Royal Mint in Sydney was established in 1853 with the consent of Queen Victoria. It wouldn’t be until 1910 that Australia’s official ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ currency was introduced, and later, in 1966, the British currency system was withdrawn, making way for the notes, dollars and cents we know today.

A New South Wales ‘holey dollar’. Image courtesy of Sir William Dixson, Numismatic Collection, State Library of New South Wales

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