Australian Traders’ Tokens 1849–1874

In the late 1840s there was a small change crisis in the Colony of New South Wales. It was perhaps most severely felt in Melbourne, the largest town in the Port Phillip District, and at that time still part of the Colony. In 1848 the Melbourne grocery firm Annand, Smith & Company arranged for a private mint in Birmingham, England to make some copper pieces the same size as a penny coin. On one side they placed their name and business and on the other a figure of Britannia like the one on a real penny. When these arrived in 1849 they gave them out in change as pennies from their shop. There was outrage in the morning papers the next day demanding that the police and law courts take immediate action. However the tokens were not forgeries, they were not copies of real coins and clearly stated what company had issued them. Recently too, in 1811, private tokens had been issued in Britain, so no action was taken.

More than 15 000 Annand Smith tokens had been made and soon shops in the towns of Collingwood and Geelong sought supplies of them for small change. Other firms sent off orders to England for their own token pennies. By 1851, when Victoria had become a separate colony and gold was discovered, there were a number of firms in Melbourne and Sydney issuing tokens.

Gold Rush

The discovery of gold caused a population explosion. As the same coins were used in Britain and the Australian colonies, people travelling from England could arrive in Melbourne and use the coins in their pockets. These included some copper pennies, halfpennies and farthings – but not many. Imagine setting out for a three-month sea voyage to gold fields at the other end of the world. Would you fill your pockets with heavy copper coins? Nor did they.

Annand Smith & Company Traders Token

Annand Smith & Company Traders' Token
Source: Museum Victoria

Australian colonial governments were not keen to take responsibility for providing coins. Coins were made in England and the British government could make a penny for less than a penny. The Victorian government could only buy one for a penny, then pay the cost of shipping and, once the coins were worn out, they would be responsible for replacing them. Colonial governments argued that the British would make the profit so they should bear the costs.

Made in Australia

The retail trade already had a solution and the issue of tokens blossomed. Local production in Melbourne became possible with the importation of a coining press in 1854 but there remained problems with availability of copper. In New South Wales some tokens had been made from 1852, the copper blanks being laboriously hand sawn by an apprentice from copper rods. Dropping the dies from a great height impressed the design. In Melbourne a supply of halfpenny blanks came with the press so good quality tokens of that denomination could be made, but pennies were still brought from England until the 1860s.

NSW Trade Token made with a “drop hammer”

New South Wales Traders' Token made with a “drop hammer”
Source: Museum Victoria.

In 1862 Thomas Stokes purchased a mill capable of making copper plates of the desired thickness. This saw tokens issued in such huge numbers that the government felt it had to act.

The end of token circulation

By then many of the early companies that had issued tokens had gone – without removing their tokens from circulation. Recent archaeological excavations in Melbourne have also shown that tokens from regional Victoria (particularly Geelong), from other Australian colonies and even Napoleonic era pieces from England were in circulation. In addition, the British changed their copper coins for lighter bronze pieces in 1860 and these were now legal in Australia; tokens mimicked the old fashioned coppers. The Victorian Government therefore ordered the circulation of tokens be stopped. Although some companies refunded and removed their tokens, all could not.

One result of this was a flood of Victorian tokens to New South Wales. Help was then sought from Britain. The Sydney mint gathered a sample of the tokens in circulation and sent them to London for analysis (they are still in the Royal Mint’s collection). They were found to be of good quality copper and the British government accepted a request to purchase them at full face value. The tokens were withdrawn from circulation, shipped to London, melted, alloyed into bronze and struck into new pennies, halfpennies and farthings – at a profit.

Flavelle Bros. & Co. One Penny

Flavelle Bros. & Co. One Penny
Source: Museum Victoria.

Some 330 000 tokens were withdrawn from New South Wales; the Victorian number would have been similar. There were 124 Australian firms that issued tokens and they were issued in every colony. Tokens, many made in Melbourne, were also used in New Zealand until 1881. Collectors seek examples of each firm’s penny or halfpenny and even tiny variations in designs that indicate that different dies were used. Almost no records of token production have survived, so researchers must rely on the tokens themselves to unravel questions about their production, and on archaeology for an understanding of their circulation. The best collection of Australian tokens in the world is in the Museum Victoria Numismatics Collection.

Please note: Museum Victoria DOES NOT provide valuations and cannot tell you how much your object is worth. Please read our valuations infosheet for further advice. We will not publish or respond to comments asking us to value an object.

Comments (10)

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bill barson 9 June, 2009 11:25
I know its a long shot but Ive been looking on the web for over an hour now and I was led to your site by the slim chance Erskine Beveridge ,textile manufacturer is the connection I am seeking with regard to the following mystery.In my late father in laws effects we have found a small printing plate with the following text at an oblique angle - the "Erskine" GUARANTEE OF QUALITY. Next to that are two medals/coins (?).One shows a Lion and a Unicorn facing each other with front feet on an oval shield (divided into 4 parts)with a crown on top of that and 'FIDESET'above that and 'JUSTITA'at the very bottom.That medal/coin is partially over another which has a 'fleurs de leys' in the centre 1888 at the bottom and MELBOU (I pressume Melbourne) at the top.Yours thankfully bill barson
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Discovery Centre 25 June, 2009 16:31

Hi Bill,

Unfortunately the Museum does not staff a numismatics expert and therefore cannot offer a great deal of assistance with your mystery, however you might want to contact the Numismatic Association of Victoria or an independent numismatics company such as Noble Numismatics in the hope that they can shed some light...

Good luck!

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Lance Farrell 1 December, 2010 15:20
What is it? I have a one and a half pence coin (token) with Queen Victoria on one side with the words vic.art and the number 1.1/2D on the other A piece has broken away from the rim (diecrack)
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Discovery Centre 3 December, 2010 12:18
Hi Lance, without more detailed information and images it's hard for us to identify objects. You may want to contact a numismatics expert to help you. For useful links see our Question of the Week on coin valuations.
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bill barson 15 January, 2011 04:16
Hi there and thanks for your reply.Sorry for the delay in replying but I dont think the numismatic assoc. will be of any use as I stated before the article in question has all text in reverse and is a printing plate (sterio ?)so presume it was some kind of loggo for a companies advertising litrature or note paper. I do hope you folks are over the worst with the floods, its like watching a dissaster movie on the news !
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PETER 31 March, 2011 19:34
i have a coin which was past down from my mother , it is slightly smaller than a shilling and was used as the story goes as currency when supplies of money were short witnin australia it is a flat copper coin with no makings on one side and the letters A*C on the other side, would appreciate you insight
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Discovery Centre 3 April, 2011 16:50
Hi Peter - for the same reasons outlined above, we suggest you contact a Numismatics Society or similar to find out more - see the links in our response to Bill above
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Alexandria 12 January, 2013 18:23
Hi I have a coin passed down from my grandfather and am awfully curious to find out more information about it (not selling or looking for a value) It is rather unique on the front it has a roman looking lady stading with a toga robe with farm land and small sheep in the background at the bottom of the coin it has written "Stokes and Martin Melbourne" and on the back pslam 24.1 "the earth is the lords and the fullness thereof" in the second ring in it says "New South Wales Intercolonial Exhibition" and in the center is the head of an aboriginal man. I should probably also mention it has a hole in the top of the coin for it to be strung on a piece of string, a trading coin for the locals perhaps? I am curious to know its historic value and more about stokes and martin coins and the reason they struck these coins
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Patricia Balfour 8 April, 2014 19:11
I believe that i found an Australian Traders Token coin 60 years ago under the newspaper under the lino in my family home when we ripped up the lino when renovating. I gave it to my school teacher in grade 3 who was going to a coin exhibition in Melbourne. She never returned the coin. I clearly remember what it looked like. It was about the same size & colour as a penny. It had the word Australia and a date in the 1800's - i dont remember what it had on one side but it had a huge tree on one side. I have thought about this coin many times over my life and have often wondered how it originated. I have just found this website and previously had never heard of a traders coin.
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sally hardwick 1 August, 2014 21:51
Hello, I have been trying to find out who made the Rothschild corta cigar token with no luck. I have only found one other on the site Numista @ it says it rates a 97 on their rarity scale. 1 being common & 100 being very rare. Have you any information on this token. It is brass. Any help appreciated thankyou. Regards Sally
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