The South Australian banks were drained of currency with the mass exit of labourers moving to the Victorian and NSW gold fields in 1851. To supplement their coinage the South Australian Government established its very own ‘mint’, at the Government Assay Office, and struck Australia’s first (unofficial) gold coin, the 1852 Adelaide Pound.
Gold! Gold! Gold! The cry started in Victoria in the 1850s and soon swept all round Australia. But though there was gold aplenty, the early years of the gold rush were anything but a boom time for the economy.
The exodus of workers from the city to the gold fields created enormous social and economic pressures, bringing business almost to a standstill. This was made much worse by the fact that the limited number of coins in circulation also left the cities, draining the banks of currency. So when the many successful prospectors returned home with pockets full of gold, there was no hard cash to exchange it for – and that meant no spending to stimulate commerce.
South Australia found a short-term solution in the form of the Bullion Act.
Passed through the South Australian Legislative Council and signed by Lieutenant-Governor Sir H.E. Young in 1852, the Bullion Act allowed the receiving, assaying and stamping of gold into ingots.
These ingots were never intended to form a currency, but could be used by the banks to increase their note circulation, based on the amount of assayed gold deposited. The first Assay Office opened on 10 February 1852 and by August 27th 1852 over a million pounds worth of gold had been received for assaying.
In November 1852 the Bullion Act was amended to allow the production of legal tender gold coins, which we know today as the 1852 Adelaide Pound.
The Bullion Act was intended as a short-term solution with its operation limited to twelve months only and no attempt was made to extend it or continue the coinage after the period originally fixed. As a result only a relatively small number of coins were struck – just 24,768 – and many of these ended up in the melting pot when it was discovered that they could be shipped off to London and melted down for a profit.
Today, only around 250 of the 1852 Adelaide Pounds are held in private collections, including fewer than 50 of the famous ‘cracked die’ variety – examples showing a flaw that developed in the die during the first striking.
Technically the coins should never have existed at all. Governor Young had clearly exceeded his powers in authorising the opening of what was, in all but name, a mint in Adelaide without permission from the Home Government.