Queen Victoria Gold Sovereign Sydney Mint 1857-1870 – The first sovereign minted on the other side of the globe
As the influence of Britain spread throughout the world in the 19th century, so did the reputation of the sovereign. It was during the reign of Queen Victoria that the sovereign fully merited its status as the chief coin of the world. It was also at this time that the popular phrase, “the sun never sets on the Empire’ was applied to Britain. With its network of colonies and dependencies spread all across the world, some part or other of the British Empire was always bathed in sunlight.
The same sentiment could just as well be applied to the sovereign. An official list from the 1860s names no less than 36 colonies and dependencies in which sovereigns were legal tender, and it can be safely assumed that at any point in time, someone somewhere in the world was negotiating business with gold sovereigns.
The gold rushes in Australia were particularly important. The much increased supply of gold meant that the Royal Mint needed to establish branches overseas to convert the gold discoveries into usable coinage. In all, six branches were added to London over a period of seventy years. Each of the branch mints were under the direct supervision of the Royal Mint, and the coins they produced had to conform, to the very high standards of weight, fineness and design laid down for the British sovereign.
As the reputation of the sovereign was taken so seriously, its production was not left to chance and these branches of the Royal Mint were British facilities on foreign soil in much the same way embassies are today. Staff and machinery were sent from Britain to ensure the quality was maintained.
Both Sydney and Melbourne petitioned Queen Victoria for the establishment of a branch of the Royal Mint: the former in December 1851 and the latter in July 1852. The application by Sydney was successful and that mint opened on the 14th May 1855.
The mint was housed in the Old Rum Hospital building on Macquarie Street. That building already had fame as Governor Macquarie had secured the services of builders by awarding them exclusive import rights on rum – the colony at the time was short of hard currency. Now, it would be the site of Australia’s first gold coin manufacturing.
Being the first branch of the Royal Mint outside London, there were some concerns as to whether the gold sovereigns could be produced in Sydney to the same exacting standards as in London. The mint and the Colonial Office took the view that by having Sydney strike their first lot of sovereigns with a highly distinctive design, they would be easily removed from circulation at a later time should they prove to be lacking in any way.
Dies for striking the coins were made in London and shipped out to the mint in Sydney on the three month sea journey. The designer in London was James Wyon, cousin to the designer William Wyon who had created the Young Portrait which was being used on British coins. James worked as William’s assistant until becoming Resident Engraver at the Royal Mint following William’s death in 1851.
The portrait James prepared for the Sydney sovereigns was his own work, an adaptation of his cousin’s design. It was struck on the sovereign and half sovereign minted in Sydney in 1855 and 1856 and did not appear on any other coins.
Fewer than two million coins had been produced in 1855 and 1856 when an entirely new portrait of Queen Victoria was designed for the 1857 issue. The designer of this portrait was James Wyon, son of William, and the new design had a distinctly local element, with a sprig of banksia in the monarch’s hair arrangement, making it probably the most distinctive design on any Australian sovereigns in their history. The design was first struck in 1857 and was minted each year until 1870 with the exception of 1869.
At first the coins minted in Sydney did appear a paler gold colour than their London minted counterparts. Concern grew and people came to doubt the quality of the gold. An assay in 1856 found, however, that the coins minted in Sydney had 0.02% more gold in them than the coins of London, and that their lighter colour was due to the presence of silver in the naturally occurring alloy rather than the copper in London coins. The Australian minted coins were therefore – in theory – of higher intrinsic value than their London counterparts.
As early as 1862 it was decided that the Sydney minted coins should no longer have a distinct design and this was enacted by an Imperial Proclamation in 1867 but it was not until four years later in 1871 that the design on Sydney sovereigns conformed to that on those minted in London. An era had ended.
By that stage the sovereigns of Sydney represented approximately one in every twelve sovereigns circulating in the empire – a tribute to the size of the gold finds in Australia and the early success of the Sydney minting venture.
The Sydney Mint type sovereign is the only occasion in history that sovereigns were marked with such a distinctive design, and in fact bear the word AUSTRALIA.