Unlike South Australia, which overcame a currency shortage by striking the Adelaide Pound, without British Government approval, Victoria and NSW followed protocol and petitioned for a branch of the Royal Mint to be established in their colonies.
Sydney had applied for a branch of the Royal Mint as far back as December 1851.
On the 9th August 1853 Queen Victoria approved an Order in Council prepared by the British Government to establish Australia’s very first mint at or near Sydney, in New South Wales.
Although it was initially envisaged that the Sydney Mint would produce imperial design sovereigns, it was decided that, as the coins would be legal tender only in the colonies, a design specifically attributed to the Sydney Mint should be produced.
Designs of Australia’s first gold coinage were prepared in 1853 at the Royal Mint London. The Royal Mint also manufactured the dies. But this was simply a planning and testing phase for it would be another two years before Australia would strike its first gold coin.
As part of this testing process, the Royal Mint struck proof quality pieces depicting the 1853 designs as an historical record of their work: a total of three pairs each comprising an 1853 Proof Sovereign and an 1853 Proof Half Sovereign. Today, one pair is held in the British Museum and another in the Royal Mint Museum, Wales. Only one pair is held in private hands owned by Queensland collector Tom Hadley. (See later paragraphs regarding proof coins.)
Two years later the designs had been approved. Dies produced at the Royal Mint London, and dated 1855, were despatched to the Sydney Mint which had been established on the site of the old Rum Hospital in Macquarie Street.
The mint began receiving gold on May 14, 1855, and issued its first sovereigns soon after on June 23.
Records indicate that 502,000 sovereigns were struck in the Sydney Mint’s first year of operation and only 21,000 half sovereigns.
Though the reverse side featured a uniquely Australian design, with the words Australia and Sydney Mint featured boldly, the obverse side was similar to English coins with the plain, ribboned head of Queen Victoria. The reverse design has fascinated historians and collectors alike for decades. The coins were inscribed with the national name, Australia, even though the country was operating as separate colonies. Australia did not operate under a single government until Federation in 1901.
The Australian flavour of the nation’s gold coinage was strengthened in 1857 when the design was altered to incorporate a sprig of banksia in the Queen’s hair.
This touch of colonial pride seems to have gone unnoticed in London for a number of years until, in 1871, approval for the Sydney Mint design was abruptly revoked and Australian Sovereigns once again took on the traditional British flavour.
Not only was the banksia removed from Queen Victoria’s hair, but two new reverse designs were also introduced – the traditional British St George and the Dragon, and a shield design, which ran in parallel.
It was also at this time, in 1872, that the Royal Mint established its second Australian branch office in Melbourne.
To celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887, a new obverse portrait design was introduced, and at the same time, the reverse shield design was discontinued on the sovereign only.
The jubilee design continued until 1893, when the Queen’s portrait was modified to reflect her age, known as the veiled head design. It was at this point in time that the reverse shield design on the half sovereign was also discontinued .
The Royal Mint established its third Australian branch office in Perth in 1899.
Australian sovereigns were minted from 1855 until 1931. An amazing 47 of those years were in the reign of Queen Victoria. After her death in 1901, the coins featured King Edward VII from 1902 to 1910, and then King George V from 1911 to 1931, when Australia’s last sovereign was struck.
The half sovereign, which was also first minted in 1855, was discontinued much earlier, in 1918. Half sovereigns were minted in far smaller numbers than sovereigns, and there were many years when the pieces were not struck at all.
For collectors, many of the dates within the sovereign and half sovereign series are challenging to acquire, particularly if consideration is given to quality. It has to be remembered that these coins were struck for circulation to be used in every day commerce.
Even more challenging for collectors is the acquisition of the series of Australian gold proof coins, kick started in 1853 with the proof sovereign and half sovereign struck at the Royal Mint London.
The striking of proof coins by the Royal Mint was a tradition that had gone on for centuries. And it was a tradition that was later on taken up by the Sydney Mint in 1871, the Melbourne Mint in 1883 and the Perth Mint in 1899.
The intention with proof coinage was to create limited mintage presentation pieces struck to the highest quality standards.
The term ‘proof’ is a style of coining that today’s collector market is very familiar with. The Royal Australian Mint in Canberra has been striking proof coins for collectors since its establishment in 1966.
But there are two very glaring differences between today’s market and that which was in existence more than a century ago. The mintages and the regularity of the issues. The mintages more than a century ago were minuscule. And their striking was sporadic.
The rarity of our colonial gold proof coins in today’s market is the very reason why they have been, and still are, the choice of investors.