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Over the course of his lifetime the wealthy Sydney businessman Sir William Dixson (1870–1952) amassed one of the world’s most extensive Australiana collections. The collection included paintings, rare books, maps, manuscripts and one of the finest numismatic collections in Australia. (Numismatics is the study or collection of coins, banknotes and medals.)
There are over 7800 coins, notes and tokens in the collection and together they are a highly significant and valuable collection for any researcher interested in Australia’s colonial past.
One of the most significant coins collected by Dixson is the Holey Dollar. In the early years of the colony a lack of currency meant that most of Sydney’s financial dealings were made by bartering rum, corn and other produce. In 1812 Governor Macquarie imported 40,000 Spanish dollars to provide local currency. The centre was cut out of the coin to double the number of available coins. The outer ring became known as the ‘holey dollar’, and the centre was called the ‘dump’. The Dixson collection includes 60 holey dollars and only 300 are known to exist globally.
The first officially minted Australian coins were issued in the wake of the influx of wealth caused by the discovery of gold. The Dixson collection includes many of these early coins and other examples of first issue coins minted in Australia, commemorative coins, original dies and even examples of forgeries. One of the rarer examples is a restrike of the 1852 Adelaide ‘Square Pound’, it is one of only 12 made from the original dies.
The collection also contains many examples of rare, locally produced tokens used by Australian businesses for their daily transactions including the first Australian-made tokens issued by Peek and Campbell, who had them made locally by JC Thornthwaite in 1852. It also holds examples of 1823 tokens imported by the Hobart firm, Macintosh and Degraves, for its Cascade Sawmill business. Almost as rare are the examples of the 1849 tokens by Annand, Smith & Co, family grocers in Melbourne. One reason Australian tokens are so collectable is because they were made illegal in 1868 and were withdrawn from circulation.
The absence of local currency in the colony’s early years also led to the extensive use of redeemable promissory notes in lieu of money. These were produced by local businesses but were also issued by the government administrators. Many were produced on flimsy bits of paper which could fall apart before the owner was able to exchange them for coins or goods — hence few have survived. Those in the Dixson collection now provide valuable insights into the financial and social fabric of early Sydney and the later settlements.
The Australian bank cheques, and promissory notes in Dixson’s collection cover a broad time period and significant events in Australia’s past. Examples include early currency notes payable in Spanish dollars, a Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society Bill of Exchange from 1826, paper money issued during the Australian occupation of German New Guinea in 1914; and money printed during the Japanese occupation of Malaya in World War Two.
Given the central role which money played in the early cultural history of Australia it provides researchers with a unique and palpable window into Australian life in the wake of European settlement.
On his death in 1952 Dixson bequeathed his numismatic collection to the Library along with the rest of his extensive collection.
A detailed listing of the Dixson numismatic collection is available in our online catalogue and many of the coins, tokens and notes have been digitised.