Gold brought from the Victorian goldfields was originally stored in the various bank vaults in Melbourne. Yet as the gold flourished, and the quantities increased there was little available room. The first treasury was constructed under the orders of Governor LaTrobe on William Street Melbourne. From 1851 gold was deposited at this building, which still stands today.
Victoria, impressed by the South Australian experience, felt the need for an assay office or a mint so that some of its gold might be converted into currency.
Governor La Trobe wrote to the submitted a request to the colonial office:
"That there has been discovered in the colony of Victoria one of the Richest Gold Fields in the world, which has yielded from its occupation in September last the large quantity of upwards of forty-eight tons of the precious metal. That it is a very general opinion that this Gold Field is inexhaustible..."
However, the Colonial Office refused the petitions of both NSW and Victorian governments for the establishment of mints in their cities.
Attempts were made in 1853 to establish a private mint in Melbourne, based on an American model that had worked successfully in California. Due to the strength of the commercial and banking structures established in America, California was able to respond well to the challenges of the gold discovery. California had some 14 private mints and a State Assay Office that went into gold coin production.
The Melbourne mint would buy cheap gold and strike it into tokens of fixed weight. Gold would have a round figure value of 4 pounds an ounce. These tokens would be put into circulation at 1, 2, 4 and 8 pounds.
The mint was to be called the Kangaroo Office. It incorporated a new clipper ship from England that brought a complete pre-fabricated building to be set up as combined mint and shop on its first voyage.
It took less than a year for Reginald Scaife, the Melbourne manager of the mint, to admit to failure. Running the mint was expensive and time-consuming. Coupled with this, banks had begun buying into gold, and there was British concern the Australian fields would follow California in terms of financial chaos.
Scaife took up work making military buttons in the mint machine, which worked on a simple hand-operated screw press. He later began processing copper tokens valued at a penny. The popularity of the copper penny increased when authorities allowed them free circulation in Melbourne as they had in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Scaife later turned his interests to the creation and sale of commemorative medals made from tin from the Ovens River.
To ensure the British had a firm hold over Australian money interests, England decided to establish a branch of the Royal Mint to strike sovereigns in Sydney. This idea was keenly supported by the Australian diggers and was heavily pushed by the media. In August 1851, the Sydney Morning Herald published an editorial which praised the plan lavishly. This moved the issue to be put up for debate in the Legislative Council.
For London, it was an ideal time to start an overseas office. A major restructure of staff and operations was underway which kept the conservative elements busy. The British Parliament was also debating the idea of giving the colony greater autonomy through the Australian Colonies Government Act. The financial chaos in California made the government concerned about Australia’s future, which made the decision an easier one to make. And despite submissions by Melbourne and Adelaide, Sydney won out.
The Sydney branch of the Royal Mint began striking sovereigns and half sovereigns in 1853. The coins were made to the exact weight levels as the Royal Mint, though they had their own design to protect the international reputation of the imperial sovereign. All dies were created in London, a system that remained until the last sovereign was struck in 1932.
Only specially trained members of the Royal Engineers were appointed to work at the mint. The first Deputy Master was Captain Ward. Francis Bowyer Miller, who developed the chlorine process for separating silver from gold was one of the assayers brought over from London. Mint workers had to obey strict guidelines, such as never getting into debt, in case they were tempted to steal some of the gold.
Tensions grew between the colonies when Britain tried to make the new Sydney mint sovereign’s legal tender throughout Australia and New Zealand. NSW and Tasmania immediately passed legislation, as did Western Australia in 1856. However Victoria and South Australia were still pursuing requests to have their own independent mints.
But the difficulty of gold coin circulation which had no legal status made the Governor of Victoria make the Sydney coin legal tender in 1857, without Legislative approval. By 1868, South Australia had followed suit and the coins were as widely accepted as the London ones were.
In 1872 Victoria was finally successful in starting up a Melbourne Branch of the Royal Mint. This was followed several years later by the third and final branch in Perth in 1899. Perth was experiencing good times. When the railway was finished, Western Australia attracted 70,000 people. However as late as 1897, the ratio of men to women was ten to one.
Perth sold most of her gold to India, where the sovereign had become legal tender the year the branch opened. The Perth mint continues to operate today, working with the gold of Western Australia making souvenir ingots and coins for the collector market.
By Miriam Raphael
Doug Fetherling, The Gold Crusades: a social history of gold rushes, 1849-1929, University of Toronto Press, 1997.
John Sharples, Gold and Civilisation, Art Exhibition’s Australia, 2001.
Gold Treasury Museum’s online education resources database Built on Gold.