That currency reflects the mood of a nation – and the agenda of a Government - is never more evident than with the Square Penny and Halfpenny series and its mooted introduction in 1919.
The proposed change was pure politics. With some saying it was the rumblings of a republican movement way ahead of its time, the Labor Government wanting to break away from the traditional British designs of Australia’s then copper penny and halfpenny.
A wave of nationalism was sweeping the country post World War I and the Government saw advantage in tapping into the mood of the nation and introducing a uniquely Australian style into our currency by depicting a laughing kookaburra on our coinage.
Tests commenced at the Melbourne Mint in 1919 and continued until 1921 with the test pieces ultimately passed to dignitaries and Government officials to assess their reaction.
The extreme scarcity of choice quality Square Pennies is connected to the fact that the coins were test pieces and were not struck to the exacting standards of proof coining.
Given to dignitaries to assess their reaction, there was no packaging and we know that not every dignitary was a collector and would have handled them with care. Some of the coins must have been tucked into a fob pocket for they have circulated. Others could have rattled around a top desk drawer.
Or passed around to colleagues … introducing multi possibilities of mishandling.
Public reaction to the introduction of the square coinage was poor. There was widespread public resistance to change, while the elderly rejected the small size of the coins. However, the final decision not to proceed seems to have been based mainly on another consideration – the large number of vending machines then in operation requiring a circular coin.
Perhaps the most contentious issue of the proposed currency change was the depiction of the monarch minus his crown: the Royalists demanding that George V should always be depicted on the currency of the realm wearing his crown.
The impetus for change was further eroded when William Watt, the most influential advocate of the nickel kookaburras, suddenly resigned his position as Treasurer before the necessary regulations were in place.
The kookaburra coins never went into production and Australia lost a great opportunity to go its own way. But with only the 200 prototypes to show as evidence of the Government’s grand scheme, Australian coinage gained another wonderful coin rarity.