These web pages deal with Australian pre-decimal coinage which was issued from 1910 to 1964 by mints in London, Birmingham, Bombay, Melbourne, Sydney, Calcutta, Denver, San Francisco and Perth. The coins of this era exhibit a wide range of die variations and are of more than usual interest to the serious collector.
I would like to dedicate these pages to John Dean whose little book "The 1965 Australian Coin Varieties Catalogue" introduced me to the notion that coins of a given denomination and year are not necessarily all alike.
History of Commonwealth coinage
Before federation, the British colonies on the Australian continent used a variety of coinage, promissory notes and tokens as currency. Some gold coinage, sovereigns and half-sovereigns, had been produced in the Royal Mint branches in Sydney and Melbourne but from earliest times there had been a lack of small-denomination coins. In 1898 the British government granted permission for the colonial governments of New South Wales and Victoria to strike silver and bronze coins in the branch mints of Sydney and Melbourne but it was not until well after federation that the decision to proceed was announced. The local mints in Sydney and Melbourne had been employed in the striking of gold sovereigns and half-sovereigns but were not prepared to cope with the new currency and for the first few years Australian coins were ordered from the Royal Mint in London.
With the outbreak of World War I the Royal Mint found itself unable to meet the demand for Australian coinage in addition to its other commitments and in 1914 and 1915 some of the production was sub-contracted to the mint of Heaton & Sons in Birmingham. By 1916 the Melbourne branch mint was equipped for the striking of silver coins and so it assumed that task but bronze coins were struck in Calcutta branch mint as well as at the Heaton mint. In 1919 the first pennies were struck in Melbourne and the first halfpennies were struck in Sydney.
For more on the history of Australian currency, you might find something in web pages of the Tasmanian Numismatic Society. the Australian Numismatic Society. the Royal Australian Mint and the Perth Mint. Failing that, there are historical notes in many Australian coin catalogues as well as my own notes on the coinage of the Australian colonial settlements .
The monetary system of Australia prior to the introduction of decimal currency
Before 1966 Australia used a monetary system directly inherited from Britain. The principal currency unit was the pound (Ј) which was divided into twenty shillings each comprising 12 pence. Monetary amounts less than a shilling were expressed with the suffix 'd' so that threepence would be written 3d and fivepence halfpenny would be written 5Ѕd. For larger amounts, the denominations were separated by virgules or slashes. "Fifteen and six" (meaning fifteen shillings and six pence) was written as 15/6 but amounts comprising even shillings had a dash in place of the zero so "one shilling" was written as 1/-rather than 1/0. The principle was extended to larger amounts. For example, "Six pounds four and twopence halfpenny" was written as Ј6/4/2Ѕ, "one pound ten [shillings]" as Ј1/10/- and "Ten pounds" as Ј10/-/- or simply Ј10. Finally, "two pounds and tenpence" would be written as Ј2/-/10 and rarely, if ever, as Ј2/0/10.
Penny is singular regardless of usage. When talking about individual coins, the plural is pennies but for monetary value, pence is the plural so two pennies have a combined value of twopence. Penny amounts were always spoken and spelled as a single word, "elevenpence" rather than "eleven pence". "Twopence" was always pronounced "tuppence" and "threepence" as "throopence" ("oo" is as in "book"). Finally, "halfpenny" was never pronounced as written but always as "haypnee" (and sometimes it was actually written as "ha'penny").
General characteristics of Australian pre-decimal coins
Compared with many other countries, Australian pre-decimal coins are somewhat unusual in that the reverse is the more definitive side of the coin. For example, all Australian Commonwealth coins have the date on the reverse whereas in the U.S.A. the date is on the obverse. Australian coins are invariably packaged and displayed with the reverse more prominent than the obverse. (The decimal coins in use since 1966 have the date on the obverse, diminishing the importance of the reverse side.)
It is extremely common for the obverse of Australian coins to show more wear than the reverse, particularly on the silver coins. For this reason, you will often see coins with grades such as F/VF and EF/aU whereas grades such as EF/VF are most unusual.
The George V coins had high-relief designs and on uncirculated coins some parts of the design were higher than the rim. This had two effects. Firstly, the higher points wore quickly and the wear profile provides a wealth of grading markers. Secondly, there was a tendency for the early coins to show "weak strikes" on certain features. This is particularly noticeable on the pennies where the N in ONE is directly behind the highest point of George V's effigy and on the early shillings and sixpences where the headband of George's crown is often ill-defined. For the same reason, the Federation Star above the shield on the reverse of the silver coins is often somewhat flat. The effect is that some coins can appear worn, even though they are uncirculated.
The grading of Australian coins follows standards somewhat different from those of the U.S.A. which has adopted a numeric grading system. So far attempts to introduce a parallel system in Australia have not been met with enthusiasm. For some views on the matter check out the following links:
One of the principal objectives of the minting process is to produce coins which are identical for any given denomination and year. If coins were of random design then there'd be no way to distinguish a forgery from a genuine coin and public confidence would be undermined to the point where coins would be useless as a medium of exchange. The cost of the raw materials is typically less than the face value of modern coins and so anyone with access to those materials and the machinery to process them would be able to issue tokens purporting to be coins. With uniform designs, the forger's task is more difficult in that the official design must be replicated exactly; this is something that mints do but which is not so easy for a forger to achieve.
Despite the objective of complete uniformity, variations do occur. From a numismatic standpoint this is quite fortunate because a completely uniform currency is rather boring.
Varieties can originate from just about any stage of the minting process but can be divided into two groups, errors and die varieties.
Errors are the result of defects in planchets (blanks) or of misadventure during the coining process. Most errors are filtered out by post-strike inspection but occasionally an error coin gets missed and passes into circulation. Error coins tend to be unique and many collectors value them for their rarity. Some examples of errors are available for viewing.
Die varieties, as the name suggests, arise from differences in the dies used to strike coins of a particular denomination and year. A common variation is the addition of a mint mark to a basic design to designate a particular mint as the source of a coin. Mint marks are small, do not really affect the overall design and so do not diminish the mint's goal of uniformity. Other variations can be much more subtle.
Some die varieties may be classified as errors and may arise during die or punch preparation or during minting. The latter group includes die filling (where metal from a planchet remains in an incuse portion of the die, lessening or obliterating all or part of a relief feature in subsequent strikes), die breaks (where a relief portion of a die breaks off, altering the shape of a feature in subsequent strikes) and die cracks (where a die starts to disintegrate under the stress of repeated strikes and creates an irregular, raised feature on subsequent strikes).
One example of an error occurring during die preparation is that of doubling. Die and punch preparation for Commonwealth coinage typically requires multiple impressions in the hobbing press and if the die or punch shifts slightly between strikes then you can get the effect shown here on the obverse of this 1943 halfpenny .
There are many other faults which can occur. A die can be damaged during coining. For example, if a blank fails to feed into the coining press, the obverse and reverse dies can come into direct contact with each other. This is known as a die clash and affects coins struck thereafter until the damaged die is retired. A hard inclusion in a blank can damage the surface of a die, causing a "blob" or "egg" on subsequent strikes.
Although the minting faults described above are technically errors, the fact that the faults are faithfully reproduced on many coins elevates them to the status of varieties, albeit minor ones.
Major die varieties arise from fundamental differences in the dies used to strike coins. Sometimes there are different master dies used for the coins of a given year, and sometimes there are variations in the working dies produced from any one master die. Whatever the origin, die varieties are propogated onto thousands or millions of coins. Unlike errors, die varieties represent systematic variations and are the subject of considerable interest.
Much research on the master die varieties of Australian pre-decimal bronze coinage has been undertaken by Paul Holland whose summary article enumerating the obverse and reverse die pairings in Australian pennies can be found in the library of the Australian Numismatic Society.
Variations in working dies most frequently arise when some minor feature such as a mint mark is added by hand rather than go through the trouble of producing a (derivative) master die. You might also like to check out my own observations on the mintmark variations of the 1942 Perth penny along with Paul Holland's explanation thereof.
I do not collect error coins but that is not to say that I dismiss errors as in any way unworthy of collection. The collection and study of error coins is simply a somewhat different endeavour from that which I have undertaken. For the variety enthusiast there is much to be learned from a study of error coins. The two fields overlap to a considerable degree and a study of errors yields much insight into the minting process.
Die variations and their importance
The following lists die varieties in order of decreasing importance. The ranking represents my own opinion so feel free to disagree.