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Australia's Early Sovereigns - coins from the Sir William Dixson collection

Sovereign Sydney 1855

Sovereign, 1855, Sydney Mint, Sir William Dixson Collection, FL6069417

Many of the countries colonised by Britain had an existing monetary system when they were occupied. This was not the case in Australia where a lack of coinage led to a great deal of confusion in the early years of the colony. Adding to the problem was the fact that England was experiencing a global shortage of currency due a lack of new coins being issued from the mint. In the absence of coinage, most of Sydney's dealings were made by bartering rum, corn and other produce.  

In 1810 a large shipment of Spanish dollars was brought to the colony from Bengal but there were problems keeping enough currency in circulation in the colony. In 1813, Governor Macquarie issued directed the issue of the 'holey dollar' and 'dump', in an effort to stop the number of these dollars leaving Australia. This saw a small circle of silver struck out of the centre of the dollar and these were then issued as separate coins. Seven years hard labour was the penalty imposed upon anyone who tried to melt down, impair, diminish, scale, or lighten any of the pieces.  

The discovery of gold in 1851  hastened the foundation of the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint, in Macquarie Street.  The large amounts of gold being mined forced the government into creating a standard for gold to ensure coins from the London and Sydney mints were the only legal tender in the Colony. The act which regulated currency in New South Wales came into force on 18 July 1855 and stipulated that the gold coins were to be called sovereigns and half-sovereigns. They were also to be the same weight, fineness and value as other sovereigns produced across the empire.  

Even so, the coins struck at the Sydney Mint were for some years different from those made in London, even though the coin dies (the metallic pieces that are used to strike a coin) were sent from England.

The earliest sovereigns bore the imprint of a laurel wreath, royal crown and the words 'Sydney Mint One Sovereign' on one side and on the verso, next to the head of Victoria, were the letters 'D G Brittanniar Regina F D 1855'. Sydney Mint pressings after 1857 abbreviated "Regina" to "Reg". 

The 1855 example illustrated is part of the extensive collection built up by Sir William Dixson and now held by the State Library of NSW.

- Geoff Barker, Senior Curator, Research and Discovery.