The discovery of gold in the 1850s is one of the most extraordinary chapters in Australian history, transforming the economy. And transforming our society for it marked the beginnings of a modern multi-cultural Australia instigated by mass migration, particularly from China.
Several coins were spawned by the Gold Rush, including our first gold coin, the 1852 Adelaide Pound.
It was struck in Adelaide at the South Australian Government Assay Office without the sanction of the British Government or the approval of Queen Victoria.
To validate their actions in circumventing Royal protocols, the South Australian Legislators found a loophole in the Government’s regulations and passed the Bullion Act, that allowed them to create their own mint and strike gold ingots. And eventually strike gold coins.
The Bullion Act No 1 of 1852 has a record unique in Australian history. A special session of Parliament was convened to consider it. Parliament met at noon on the 28 January 1852.
The Bill was read and promptly passed three readings and was then forwarded to the Lieutenant Governor and immediately received his assent. It was one of the quickest pieces of legislation on record, with the whole proceedings taking less than two hours.
Thirteen days after the passing of the Act, on 10 February 1852, the Government Assay office was opened. Its activities were supported by a state government initiative to provide armed escorts to bring back the gold from the Victorian diggings.
The Assay Office was effectively Australia's first mint, be it unofficial. Its sole purpose was to assay gold nuggets brought from the Victorian goldfields and to re-shape them into ingots. No minting expertise was required in the casting of the ingots.
Nine months later, following agitation from Adelaide’s business community, legislation was passed that authorised the Government Assay Office to strike gold coins. Within a week of opening, 600 gold Adelaide Pounds had been delivered to the South Australian Banking Company, 100 of which were sent to London.
Suddenly precision was required. The design was intricate, created by colonial die sinker and engraver, Joshua Payne. So, it was always going to be a tough ask for a factory to start churning out currency to a defined weight and design.
The Bullion Act had a lifetime of only twelve months.
By the time the legislative amendments were passed to enact the production of gold coins, the Act had less than three months to run. As a consequence, only a small number of Adelaide Pounds were struck and very few actually circulated. The official and recorded mintage of the nation’s first gold coin, the 1852 Adelaide Pound, was 24,648.
When it was discovered that the intrinsic value of the gold contained in each piece exceeded its nominal value, the vast majority were promptly exported to London and melted down.
The 1852 Adelaide Pound was as unofficial as you could get but it saved the colony of South Australia from bankruptcy. A simple case where the end justified the means.