Adelaide Mint, South Australian History

The Adelaide Mint.

Yes, believe it or not, South Australia was the first British Colony to issue its own coins before becoming independent. There is little doubt that the government exceeded its powers but South Australia now has the honour of having the first Australian Mint.

To stop the outflow of cash with the thousands of diggers leaving South Australia and the lucky ones selling their gold in Victoria or New South Wales, the government had to do something to get the diggers to take their gold home. On 9 January 1852, a memorial was presented to the government signed by 130 merchants and traders from Adelaide and 116 from Port Adelaide. They wanted something done urgently. They, and many other people, were convinced that all South Australia needed was a Bullion Act. To achieve this ‘daring piece of legislation’ several of Adelaide’s bank managers held a meeting on 13 January 1852 to discuss these problems and the shortage of money in Adelaide.

George Tinline, manager of the Bank of South Australia, speculator, supporter of, and investor in the mining industry, explained that South Australia found itself in an anomalous and unprecedented position. With staple products in highly satisfactory and prosperous conditions, he said, commerce had suddenly been paralysed by a panic which no human foresight could have provided for or anticipated. Our available labour, he said, is flowing out in a continuous stream. All kinds of property have depreciated in value and are unsaleable except at a fearful sacrifice.

Tinline had arrived in South Australia in 1839 and after having served the bank well for some years, he left for England in 1853, after a public dinner and gifts of £2,500. He resigned from the bank in 1859. He now had much more time to be involved with some of his other interests, such as mining, the pastoral industry and politics. He became a member of the Legislative Council in 1860 but retired to England three years later.

The Legislative Council met on 28 January 1852 to consider the Bullion Bill ‘to provide for the Assaying of Uncoined Gold and to make Bank Notes under certain conditions a Legal Tender’. During that same day the Bill passed all the different stages and was signed by the Governor to become Act No.1 of 1852. Within 13 days of its passing the Assay Office was open for business.

On its first day it received 2,910 ounces and the next day 951 ounces. Between 10 February 1852 and 15 February 1853 it received a total of 407,133 ounces worth £1,445,323. This figure includes 328,509 ounces from the escorts and one parcel sent by sea.

However the plaque on the old Treasury Building in Victoria Square, Adelaide states that 328,509 ounces were brought to the Adelaide Assay Office. Even if this smaller figure is correct, and allowing for 150 years of inflation, that would still be equivalent to $90,000,000.

In April 1852 Babbage wrote a detailed article on how the gold would be received, how forms needed to be filled out, the treatment of the gold and its final delivery to the banks. Benjamin Herschel Babbage had arrived in South Australia, with his wife Laura and children on the Hydaspes, on 27 November 1851.

Born in London on 6 August 1815, he had already designed and built railways in England and Italy and been an Engineering Inspector of the Board of Health in England. Although able and competent in many fields, he did not have the kind of background in Geology or geological surveys that would have been an advantage to South Australia.

Shortly after his arrival he made a report on the water supply of Adelaide and was appointed both Chief Engineer of the Adelaide-Port Adelaide Railway and Assayer and Head of the Assay Office. From 1853 onwards, Babbage lived at St Marys where he became a Church Warden and lay preacher. On one of his trips to the Flinders Ranges, he named St Mary’s Peak.

In 1866 he represented South Australia at the Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne. Being the son of ‘the eminent calculator’ he exhibited a drawing of a portion of his father’s calculating machine. Babbage also displayed a book of his own sketches he had made during his exploring trip in 1848 when he discovered Lakes Gregory and Eyre.

He was elected member for the District of Encounter Bay on 9 March 1857 but resigned in December of that year. He became the first Chairman of the District Council of Mitcham and in 1872 he drew up the plans and surveyed some of the route for the Overland Telegraph. He was appointed Supervisor of Contracts for the southern section of the Line under Charles Todd.

After the passing of the Bullion Act gold brought to Adelaide would now be bought, and paid for according to the Act, at £3.11. 0 an ounce, well above the price paid in Melbourne or London. This, it was said, would bring the gold from other colonies to South Australia ‘without the deterioration of public morals and the general breaking up of the framework of society’.

Although the gold escorts proved to be a resounding success, not everyone was happy with the Bullion Act. Whereas both the Bank of South Australia and the Bank of Australasia had supported the Act it was opposed by the Union Bank. To stop some of the confusion and complaints it was pointed out that the Act was permissive, not compulsory. The Act empowered the Governor to establish a smelting, assay and bullion establishment for the purpose of making ingots.

The Act also empowered the banks to receive these ingots and to tender them in payment of notes, cheques, bills, claims and demands. The ingots had their weight; fineness and value at £3.11.0 stamped on them but never came into general circulation. One reason for this could have been that all operations on both sides were voluntary and there was no penalty for non-performance.

Apart from bringing much needed gold safely to South Australia, the gold escorts from Mount Alexander to Adelaide showed that not all diggers had forsaken or forgotten their families. Many diggers at Mount Alexander had been willing to send their gold via the escort. A week before Tolmer left for a second trip 116 parcels of gold containing a total of 11,297 ounces valued at £40,107 were deposited at the Gold Assay Office. This included some parcels from diggers who had actually returned themselves.

At the beginning of February 1853 the government announced that as, over the last four weeks, less than 4,000 ounces of gold had been taken to the Assay Office, it would be closed after 17 February. That decision would not have upset many people. Apparently it had been nothing but trouble. As far back as March 1852 it had been reported that long delays had been the order of the day. One of its employees was John Alsop

Many depositors had been waiting more than a month for payment. The Assay Office, which was intended to solve the commercial paralysis, caused by the exodus of thousands of South Australians for the Victorian goldfields, had by its uncertainty, delays and other problems, only added to it.

About six months after the Assay Office was originally established in February 1852, J.B. Neales, and 113 others petitioned the government for the issue of gold ingots. When the government enacted this, the Bullion Act was replaced on 23 November 1852 to make way for Act No. 14, which included gold coins of different denominations to be legal tender as well. Three days later the first coins in Australia were issued, minted at the Assay Office in Adelaide.

It was the first time a British Colony had issued its own coins before becoming independent. There is little doubt that the government exceeded its powers but South Australia now has the honour of having the first Australian Mint. The Act allowed for the minting of £1, £2 and £5 coins. No public issue was made of the £2 and £5 coins, only a few were struck for presentation purposes.

Between 26 November 1852 and 13 February 1853, when the last coins were minted, the Mint had produced 24,648 coins of £1, the appearance of which was good despite that they were turned out in a machine originally designed for punching boilerplates but adapted by Babbage. Joshua Payne, who was employed as die sinker and stamper, made the dies.

When sent to England for testing the coins were valued at £1.1.11. Needless to say that large numbers of them were exported for profit. They were also displayed with some pride at the Melbourne Exhibition in 1866. In 1907 one Adelaide bank still had a box of about 300 coins. In 1925 F.W.A. Bohm of Adelaide and A.E. Lucy of Unley were still the proud owners of one of the original gold coins.

Apart from minting coins the Assay Office also had to smelt gold dust into bullion, stamp it officially and take it to the banks who would issue notes against it. The original estimate had been for £90,000 worth of gold dust to be processed but in fact £440,000 was accepted. Most of this had been in small lots of 20-30 ounces within the first five months. This meant that the original work force of three had to be increased to 26, including Dr Edward Davy as chemical assistant.

Some people believed that if the office had been managed by private enterprise it would have been better run. While operated by the government it was only open on Tuesdays and Fridays between 10 am and 2 pm. Gold parcels of less than twenty ounces were not accepted, leaving the small prospector and miner to sell his gold as best as he could somewhere else.

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