The Sydney Mint

Sydney Mint Gold
The 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. The reverse, which featured the words 'Sydney Mint' and 'Australia', was a design adapted from the sixpenny and shilling English coins circulating at the time. The obverse, by James Wyon, showed a thirty-six-year-old Queen Victoria who was featured uncrowned with ribbon in her tied-up hair. This obverse design appears only on coins minted in 1855 and 1856 and these are now very scarce, especially in better condition.
In 1857, with less than a total mintage of 2 million coins, a new obverse of Queen Victoria was featured. Leonard Wyon attempted to give the new portrait a more Australian flavour with the new hair-do featuring a spray of banksia. The first Sydney Mint coins were only intended to circulate in New South Wales. This was later amended by the British Treasury to include the other 'Colonies of Australasia' but not the United Kingdom.
The other colonies were less than enthusiastic. Doubts arose about the intrinsic value of the sovereign. Some claimed it was worth only 19s 10d. Some Victorian merchants discounted it to 19s. However, an assay from the Royal Mint in London quelled the rumours, in fact creating a rush for the coins. In January, 1856, the mint disclosed that the fineness of the Australian coin exceeded that of its British counterpart.

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.

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