The National Library of Australia is full of surprises. Among them are a small but significant collection of rare colonial currency, including convict-era promissory notes – which took the role of a circulating currency when coins were unavailable – and the first Commonwealth banknotes created following Federation.
The National Library’s currency collection
While the National Library does not actively acquire bank notes and other forms of currency, its small yet fascinating collection of currency has developed in association with other artefacts, most notably collections of personal papers.
In the Sir John Ferguson Collection, the Library holds 19th- and 20th-century promissory notes and IOUs, mostly issued by storekeepers, hoteliers and commission agents in country areas. These promissory notes, also called ‘shin plasters’ or ‘calabash notes’, provide a fascinating insight into the early days of Australian currency.
The Library also holds rare one pound notes from the Bank of Victoria with the serial numbers 1 and 2 out of 103,000 overprinted with the signatures of the Accountant and Secretary to the Treasury. These notes were issued between 1910 and 1914, when the Australian government assumed responsibility for banknotes. The overprints were a temporary measure while design for the new Commonwealth banknotes was underway. A 1910 letter to Prime Minister Andrew Fisher from Minister CE Frazer on Department of the Treasury notepaper highlights their importance.
However, the most significant item identified to date is the first Commonwealth one pound note, numbered P000001 – arguably the most important banknote in Australia’s post-Federation history. The 1913 series of banknotes, issued when Andrew Fisher was Prime Minister of Australia, were the first to incorporate the new Commonwealth Coat of Arms, and reflect a more nationalistic vision of Australia. This note is currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the Library.
How you can help
This year, the Library’s annual appeal is seeking your support to research, preserve and digitise rare notes from its collection. Many of these rare items requre preservation treatment before they can be digitised and shared with all Australians, and all require specialist appraisal so that the Library can better understand and share their significance.
The funds raised will bring new knowledge about these historically significant items to light, and enable these treasures to be made available online to inspire, delight and educate all Australians for generations to come.
Help the National Library share the story of Australia’s pounds, pennies and shillings before its annual appeal closes on 31 July.
Click here to help share the story of Australia’s currency.
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