The coin history of Australia begins with the arrival of English penal colonies. Up to that point, Indigenous trading was facilitated by barter and exchange. Rather than exchanging metal tokens for goods and services, the Aborigines exchanged shells from the north, ocher rocks, stones for tool-making, and useful everyday items of equivalent value.
When England started planting penal colonies the first coins arrived in the pockets of prisoners and guards. There were many English coins of course, but also a great number of Spanish reales, Dutch guilders, and Indian rupees (Investigating).
It wasn’t until 1813 that British Parliament sent coinage to the penal colonies to monetize trade. Interestingly, they chose to send 40,000 Spanish dollars that William Henshall, a counterfeiter, doubled by punching out the centers and stamping both pieces with the words: New South Whales. The colonists referred to the two types of coins as holey dollars and dumps. In 1825 these were replaced by official British coinage.
At the turn of the century, in 1910, the Australian Federal Parliament was granted permission for use of Commonwealth coins. These first modern Australian coins are a favorite of collectors. Many denominations from this era feature the Australian arms on the reverse.
Just over 50 years later, in 1963, Australia switched to the decimal system and awarded Stuart Devlin six months to make the new coin designs. In the 1980s Australia made another switch, from paper one and two dollars to one and two-dollar coins. Again, they sought Devlin’s design input. He came up with the troop of Kangaroos you can see in the photo below for the one-dollar design and an Aboriginal portrait design for the two-dollar coins.
There are numerous other coins to choose from when exploring Australian numismatic history, but two of the most sought-after coins are the square Kookaburra half-penny and the square Kookaburra penny. These commonwealth coins were minted in 1919 and 1920 but never circulated. There are 13 varieties, and each one is as hard to come by as the next! The square kookaburra coins were unsuccessful because imported nickel was more costly than local metals, and the square coins jammed in the coin vending machines (Crellin). So despite the coins’ lightweight design, and smaller size, the large round half-pennies, and pennies remained in use. In homage to the Avant guard square coins, the mint produced a non-circulating, fine silver, 1/2 ounce Kookaburra bullion coin in 2002.
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Crellin, Andrew. “The Background to the Kookaburra Patterns.” Blog post. Sterling and Currency.
Investigating Australian Coins. “Australian Coins – A Fascinating History.” PDF. Royal Australian Mint.
Richard. “Pre-1910 Coins.” Blog category. Pre-1946 Silver.