Ker-ching

As Australia’s currency soars to unprecedented heights, we thought we’d remind readers that currency used to be much more of a do-it-yourself arrangement.

When the first fleet arrived in 1788, currency was the least of their worries — supplies came from the Commissariat Stores, where all the food and other goods were held, property of the government, until they were doled out to convicts or soldiers alike. The Commissariat was the sole customer for the food grown in the new colony.

Once merchant ships started arriving with scarce goods, any sterling currency in the colony was used to buy things, and so ended up leaving the colony in the coffers and pockets of ships’ captains and crews.

Commissariat store receipts and bills of exchange were used as currency for many years, along with rum (which gave its name to the Rum Rebellion against Governor Bligh in 1808), until the arrival of Lachlan Macquarie as governor in 1810. He arranged for a shipment of 40,000 Spanish dollars, silver coins, from Bengal, and had them punched, producing two coins for local use, one with a hole in the middle, and one small round ‘dump’. These were not legal tender anywhere else, so were less likely to be taken out of the colony. The ‘holey dollar’ remained part of the colony’s currency until 1829.

Holey dollar, 1813 from the collections of the State Library of NSW, a128577 / R 277a

It is estimated that only 350 holey dollars remain, of the nearly  40,000 originally produced. They can now fetch more than $100,000 each. Many are in collecting institutions, such as the State Library of New South Wales, Powerhouse Museum and Museum of Victoria, so they don’t often come up for sale. If you happen upon one, ring a fancy auction house, pronto!

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About Emma Grahame

Emma Grahame has been Editorial Coordinator of the Dictionary of Sydney since May 2007.
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