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Let's look at some Australian Coins

By Richard Goodstein    |   Sunday, 25 September 2005

The following content comes from the Richard Goodstein personnal website, which not longer exist since 2018. To keep this information available to the public and for a perpetuity reason, we reproduced it here.

In come the dollars, in come the cents,
to replace the pounds and shillings and the pence.
Be prepared for changes when the coins begin to mix,
on the 14th of February, 1966.

Sung to the tune of the famous Australian ballad 'Click Go the Shears', this jingle heralded the introduction of decimal currency in Australia. Three years earlier, the decision to introduce dollars and cents had been approved by the Australian Government. The dollar as the unit of currency was not an automatic choice, other unsuccessful contenders, seriously considered for the name included the austral, merino and royal.

The United States of America, the first nation to introduce decimal currency, took ten years to finally work out its dollars and cents system, established in 1792. By 1875, all of Europe, including Russia, South America and Japan had converted to decimal monetary systems. Britain got to the brink of decimalization in 1847 with the introduction of the florin - one tenth of a pound. It was to be another 124 years - 1971 - before the difficult pounds, shillings and pence system was finally killed off.

In Australia, the decimal system was brought to the attention of Governor Philip Gidley King in 1803 by visiting French explorer Nicolas Baudin. While a proposed issue of coins for 20, 50, 100 and 1,000 farthings is mentioned in the Official Records of New South Wales, there is no evidence that it was seriously considered. With the exception of Governor Brisbane's experiment with the Spanish dollar between 1823 and 1826, the British system was to remain entrenched in Australia through federation in 1901 and for another 65 years until 1966.

Australia's parliamentary records show that a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to generate interest in a decimal currency system. In 1901, George Bertrand Edwards got agreement to the establishment of a select committee to look into the matter. They recommended a decimal system based on a sovereign equal to 1000 mils. Despite their report being adopted by the House of Representatives in 1903, nothing happened. Support for the change fell away with a change of government in 1905, and with Edwards' death in 1910, so died any remaining interest in the proposal.

The ultimately successful push for decimal currency in Australia began in 1958 when the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, made an election promise to investigate its possibilities. The investigation committee which was eventually established reported back in 1961, having considered 5 different decimal systems: £ - mil, £ - cent, 10s - cent, 8/4d - cent and 5s - cent. The 8/4d - cent scheme would have provided for an exact conversion from the £-s-d system but none of the existing denominations would match logical decimal denominations (e.g. the shilling would become 12 cents, a rather strange decimal denomination, were it to have been released).

The 10s - cent scheme was the preferred choice and in 1963, the name dollar for the major unit was formally accepted.

The decision to change over to decimal currency provided a challenging opportunity to design a completely new series of coins incorporating typically Australian motifs. The pre-decimal series, built up piece-meal over 54 years, did not represent a family of designs, nor did they adequately reflect uniquely Australian themes.

A 1-2-5-10 denomination sequence was chosen on the basis that it was believed to represent the best combination to make up any given amount with the least number of coins.

The Australian Government mounted a full scale operation to ensure that the new designs would be the best possible, from the point of view of both artistic design and considerations of minting techniques.

The obverse (or 'head') of the coins presented few problems. The preparations for the introduction of a new coinage coincided with the approval by Queen Elizabeth for a new effigy to be used accompanied by a simplified inscription.

After preliminary investigations, the next step in the preparation of the new reverse designs was the appointment of a panel of leading fine art and coining experts to manage the process. Six leading designers were commissioned to prepare alternative designs.

The unanimous view of the panel, the six designers, and most other commentators at the time, was that the reverses should consist of an Australian motif and a large numeral indicating the number of cents. This recommendation implied that ' AUSTRALIA' and the date, which appear on the reverse (or 'tail') side of pre-decimal coins, would be transferred to the obverse on the new coins. A criticism which had been leveled at earlier Australian coins was that their value was not immediately apparent to people unfamiliar with them. For example, the pre-decimal series in use at that time did not possess a single numeral indicating value. The use of large numerals in the reverse designs were to be of great advantage to blind and impaired eyesight people as the numerals could be distinguished by touch. The numerals also made it much easier for migrants and tourists to get a quick understanding of the coins.

The six designers presented a number of themes and the advantage of having each of the six coins as members of a family of designs was immediately apparent. Stuart Devlin, who proposed a series based on Australian wildlife, was the designer eventually selected. His designs had the incidental advantage of providing a link with the two supporters of the Australian coat-of-arms - the kangaroo and the Emu - to be used on the 50 cent piece, thereby presenting the six coins as a coordinated series based mainly on representations of Australian fauna.

In a country with an unusually large number of animals and birds not found elsewhere, the choice of which animals to portray was not an easy one. The animals eventually chosen aroused criticism from some quarters on the grounds that some were little-known, while favourites like the koala and kangaroo had been left out. The seven 'Australians' shown on the first decimal coins were :

Feather-tail glider - 1 cent

A type of possum and the smallest of our gliding marsupials. One of its nicknames - the 'flying mouse' gives an idea of its size. It is also know as the 'flying squirrel'.

Frilled lizard - 2 cent

Growing to about a meter in length - most of it tail - is harmless but when cornered presents a gaping, hissing mouth in the middle of its brightly coloured neck frill.

Echidna or spiny ant-eater - 5 cent

One of only two egg-laying mammals (the platypus is the other), it is about 45 centimeters long and rolls up in a ball depending on its spines for protection when threatened.

Lyrebird - 10 cent

About the size of a pheasant, the male of the species possesses a magnificent tail and the bird is famous as a mimic in the dense forests it inhabits.

Platypus - 20 cent

Australia's other egg-laying mammal and only slightly larger than the echidna, it is found in rivers and creeks where, with webbed feet and rich short fur, it swims with the dash of a seal.

Kangaroo and Emu - 50 cent

These two animals support Australia's Coat of Arms. The kangaroo is Australia's biggest marsupial, with various species found over the entire continent. The Emu, the second largest bird in the world after the ostrich, ranges over most of Australia. See the nature features for theRed Kangaroo and Emu.

The coat of arms on the 50 cent coin is a more accurate representation than that which appeared on the sixpence and florin. The kangaroo of the penny and halfpenny was given a new dignity and a more prominent appearance as a supporter of the coat-of-arms. The sheep motif appearing on the shilling and the ears of wheat on the threepence were not included in the new designs, the former because it is not native to Australia and the latter because it did not fit with the wildlife theme. Both themes, however, were used in the new decimal notes.

The inscription on the obverse presented some difficulties. In the first place, the nature of the reverse designs required that the identifying word 'AUSTRALIA' should now be included in the inscription. Secondly, it is traditional and desirable, although admittedly not strictly necessary, for each coin to bear a date. Thirdly, the new effigy of the Queen takes up a larger proportion of the outer rim effectively requiring the inscription to be broken up into two sections.

The inscription chosen combined dignity with simplicity. On the left appear the words ELIZABETH II and on the right AUSTRALIA 1966. It was realized that there would be critics who would have nostalgic memories of the days when Australian and other British Commonwealth coins had Latin inscriptions of some complexity. For example, the first Australian coins carried the legend EDWARDUS VII D.G.BRITT.OMN.REX.F.D.IND.IMP.

Even in later simplified versions like the final pre-decimal coins with ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA F.D., these inscriptions had only limited meaning and significance for the average Australian. The new inscription positively identifies the Queen's effigy, identifies each coin as Australian and shows the date of issue.

A New Mint in Canberra

A stockpile of 1 billion coins was required for Australia to make the transition from the British Pounds, Shillings and Pence system to the Decimal system of Dollars and Cents.

To meet this and anticipated future Australian coinage requirements, a new mint - the Royal Australian Mint, was built in Australia's Capital City - Canberra. This was the first Australian mint not established as a branch of the Royal Mint in London.

A seismic refraction survey was conducted in 1956 to investigate the foundation conditions at a site on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and King Edward Terrace in Canberra near the Department of Treasury. Suitable foundation rock, capable of withstanding vibrations created by large coin presses, was found only at uneconomic depths. Of even more concern, tests showed that a fracture zone existed nearer to the ground surface. The site finally selected was a few kilometers away in the Canberra suburb of Deakin. The mint was officially opened on 22nd February, 1965 by the Duke of Edinburgh.

The first decimal coins, officially released on the 14th February, 1966, consisted of six denominations, a round silver 50 cent piece, three copper-nickel coins - 20 cent, 10 cent and 5 cent - and two bronze coins - 2 cent and 1 cent.

All the 50 cent pieces of 1966 were struck at the Canberra Mint. Other mints were required to help out to build the stockpile. The London mint contributed 30 million of each of the 5 cent, 10 cent and 20 cent coins. The mints at Perth and Melbourne assisted by producing 1 and 2 cent coins. Only Canberra struck all denominations and the mintages, in comparison to some of the pre-decimal yearly averages, are amazing - 146.6 million 1 cent coins, 145.2m 2 cent, 45.5m 5 cent, 11m 10 cent, 28.2m 20 cent and 36m 50 cent coins.

The Fifty Cent Myth

Much has been written about the glamour piece of the new coins - the 50 cent piece. It remains the only, and likely to be the last, circulating decimal coin to have been issued in Australia with a silver content (80 percent). All other pieces have been either bronze or copper-nickel (many non-circulating, precious metal issues have been subsequently released to collectors at a premium above their legal tender, face value).

The Royal Australian Mint in Canberra struck over 36 million 50 cent pieces before rising silver prices halted production. A quarter of a million pieces, held at the mint when the directive to cease production was announced, never saw the light of day. They were duly melted down. Since that time a gradual recall and melting down of all pieces which make their way back to the mint has occurred, at a handsome profit to the Government.

However, many million remain in existence as hoarding them has become a national pastime. They remain a very collectible item in uncirculated condition, but are now regarded as no more than a bullion value coin in lesser grade. Each coin contains approximately one third ounce of silver. The value of the coin continues to generate confusion among the general public. Today, they are worth around $3 each. During the silver boom of the early 1980's, their intrinsic value reached highs of $11 to $15, much healthier than the prices of today.

There were no mintings of the 50 cent coin in 1967 or 1968. When it next appeared in 1969, its shape was changed to dodecagonal (12 sided) to remove the confusion generated by the similarity in size of the round 50 cent piece and the only slightly smaller 20 cents.

After the first few years, the Canberra mint was self-sufficient in coin production. With the closure of the Melbourne mint in 1968, only two mints remained in Australia - Canberra and Perth.

A burst of consumer spending in 1972-73 created a shortfall of about 40 million coins by early 1974. Industrial problems complicated the situation, and despite huge production runs totaling some 420 million coins in the year, the problem had not been overcome. Bronze and cupro-nickel strips, to be cut into blanks, were obtained from external sources and the Perth mint was called to help out by producing 229 million 2 cent coins.

In 1981, a long strike at the Canberra mint resulted in a further call for outside help, this time the Royal Canadian Mint and the new British mint in Wales helped out. At the time, the Canberra mint had little comment to make about the involvement of the overseas interest. However, the news soon got out - the September 1982 issue of the Australian Coin Review offered the proof.

An Australian 1981 20 cent piece was uncovered which had been struck on a scalloped blank. The blank was of the same weight, composition and dimensions as that used for the Hong Kong $2 coin. As this coin was struck at the Royal Mint in Wales, it could be rightfully assumed that Australian coins had in fact been struck there as well. Later annual reports of the Canberra Mint confirmed that the U.K. mint struck nearly 271.5 million coins in 1981, including the entire Royal Wedding 50 cent piece issue, and large quantities of each of the other 5 denominations.

The Canadian mint was reported as having struck 50 million of each of the 5 cent and 20 cent pieces while the Perth mint struck 65.3 million 2 cent coins.

For convenience of transportation and counting, most early decimal issues were packaged in Royal Australian Mint roll wrappers by special machines. The rolls bear a 'Royal Australian Mint' inscription along the side which should not be confused with 'Reserve Bank' rolls which were simply re-wrapped circulating coins with little numismatic value. Some exceptions to this exist. Coins minted overseas did not arrive in distinctive wrappers and sometimes appear in uncirculated condition in Reserve Bank wrappers. There are, for example, no R.A.M. wrapped Royal Wedding issue 50 cent pieces as the entire production was struck in the U.K.

A $1 coin was introduced in 1984 and a $2 coin in 1988 to replace the extremely short lived currency notes of the same denominations. In each case the changeover was rapid and the notes, while still legal tender, very quickly disappeared. The new coins are aluminium-bronze - 92% copper, 6% aluminium and 2% nickel providing a long wearing, lustrous golden finish. The new reverse designs were:

Kangaroo - 1 dollar

A group of kangaroos on the move reminiscent of the kangaroo shown on pre-decimal pennies and halfpennies. In later years the reverse design of the dollar coin has been changed each year to commemorate prominent people and events.

Aborigine and the Southern Cross - 2 dollar

A bust of an Aborigine, taken from an engraving by Ainslie Roberts and set against a background of the Southern Cross and Australian Flora. The flora is Xanthorrhoea, commonly known as the grass tree, found throughout Australia.

In later years, mint rolls have been phased out in favour of bulk transportation in bags. Using precision weighing equipment, the contents can be rapidly and accurately accounted for while in transit. The down side is that, apart from specially produced coins distributed in specimen mint sets, uncirculated coins invariably exhibit minor blemished (known as bag marks) through contact with other coins while in transit from the mint.

In 1990, the Australian Government announced the withdrawal of 1 cent and 2 cent coins because of the gradual decline in the worth of the small denominations - it had become more expensive to produce and distribute each coin than the coin was worth. While the coins are no longer minted, they remain legal tender. In commercial cash transactions, the final total is now rounded to the nearest 5 cents. Mint records show that by early 1999, only 34.4% of all 1c and 2c coins minted had been returned for smelting.

Since its official opening on 22 February, 1965, the Royal Australian Mint has produced over 11 billion circulating coins and is currently capable of producing approximately 2 million coins per day on a single staff shift.

Modern Rarities

The demand for circulating coins has dropped steadily since the early 1980's due mainly to the wider availability and acceptance of credit cards. As a result, the Royal Australian Mint has not only stopped making bronze coins, but has reduced production of others. An unexpected side effect of the withdrawal of 1 cent and 2 cent coins, as from February 1992, was that a large volume of other coins surfaced and made their way back to the banks, particularly 5 cent and 10 cent coins. This phenomenon has been called the 'money box effect', caused by many people being prompted to empty their money boxes on bank counters and handing in all their 'loose change' gathered over sometimes extended periods of time.

That the Australian Government and the Royal Australian Mint were not prepared for the changed demands is evident in the production of 1983 and 1984 twenty cent coins. Over 55 million of the former, and almost 28 million of the latter were held in storage for a number of years. A small number of rolls reached the light of day before word got out that almost the entire mintage of 20 cent coins for the two years had been melted and exported as base metal cupro-nickel bars.

The only practical way to obtain these coins is through the collector series of proof and mint set issues.

In 1985, the 5 cent coin was not issued for circulation creating a run on mint and proof sets of that year - the only source of the coin. The days of building a complete collection from shiny new coins obtained from the local bank branch were gone. It would not be until 1993 (long after 1c and 2c coins had left the stage) that all circulating coins would be issued in the same year - even then, the 20 cent mintage was only 1.5 million coins and the 50 cent not many more.

By 1986, demand for new circulation coins within Australia had dropped to zero. Earlier year's production runs, combined with the huge amount of coinage already in circulation proved more than capable of meeting economic demand. As a result, only 1986 Peace Dollars were minted in quantity. The six lower denomination coins (1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 cent) were released only in mint and proof sets. Unlike the previous year, collectors were aware of the situation and took steps to secure their requirements early. As a result, the collector sets of 1986 have not appreciated in value to the same extent as the 1985 issue.

Since then, all circulation denominations have missed production runs in various years. The reserve capacity of the Royal Australian Mint in recent years has meant that there is no need to stockpile coins and production runs can be scheduled as demand emerges. The following table lists the coins not released for circulation and available only in mint and proof sets:

  • 1985 - 5 cent
  • 1986 - 1 cent, 2 cent, 5 cent, 10 cent, 20 cent, 50 cent
  • 1987 - 2 cent, 10 cent, 20 cent, 50 cent, Dollar
  • 1988 - 20 cent
  • 1989 - 20 cent, 50 cent, Dollar
  • 1990 - 2 cent, 20 cent, 50 cent, Dollar
  • 1991 - 1 cent, 20 cent, Dollar, 2 Dollar
  • 1992 - 20 cent, 50 cent
  • 1995 - 10 cent

In 1991, the Royal Australian Mint introduced a new mintage concept - mint your own coin - where a coin operated press striking $1 coins was made available to the public. Despite the 100% mark-up in price, the practice proved to be very popular with visitors and tourists, and has become a fixture at the mint and at agricultural shows throughout Australia where a small mintmark denoting the city ( Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide or Brisbane) now appears on the reverse of dollar coins struck in this way.

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