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The 1916 Specimen Penny Struck by the Calcutta Mint for Australia

Australian Copper Coins at Calcutta Mint

The production of Australian copper coins at the Calcutta Mint between 1916 and 1918 came about for several reasons - prime among them was an apparent British thirst for beer, the invention of the “electric” tram, as well as the deadliness of the German U-Boat.

Specimen examples of this coin are incredibly rare - our research indicates that just 3 unique examples have been sighted at auction in Australia. They serve as a link to an important era in Australia’s numismatic history - the gradual decentralisation of the production of our Commonwealth coinage. Without question, they are among the very first coins struck from master dies that have played an important role in Australian numismatics.

 

Full Capacity - Supporting the Allied War Effort

Quite independent of the First World War, the Royal Mint had already reached full capacity by 1914 simply catering for the UK’s own coinage needs. An official history of the Royal Mint attributes the unexpectedly strong rise in demand for copper pennies in Britain between 1901 and 1913 to two very specific types of transaction - the purchase of beer and payment for tram fares[1].

Additional work aimed at supporting the Allied effort increased the Royal Mint’s workload further.[2] Records covering the activities of the Royal Mint during World War I show that it assisted in the production of munitions, and also provided special engineering skills needed to produce items like artillery dial sights and gauges.[3]

Although the Heaton Mint in Birmingham had been quite capably striking Australian copper and silver coins under the authority of the Royal Mint throughout 1914 and 1915, it was still of course necessary to ship these coins to Australia.

 

Australia 1916-I Specimen Penny Reverse

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

In February 1915, the German navy adopted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare - it declared that the seas surrounding the British Isles were a war zone, one in which all merchant ships, including those from neutral countries, were subject to attack.[4] The threat posed by Germany’s infamous submarines to Allied maritime trade was so great that the transport of any cargo out of England was seriously reconsidered.

The question for the Royal Mint then was - where could Australia’s copper coins be struck? Australia housed three branches of the Royal Mint, any one of them would have been an obvious choice. The unfortunate truth however was that none of the Australian branch mints had the machinery, nor the die-making expertise required.[5]

The only other Royal Mint branch in existence outside Australia in 1916 was in Ottowa (Canada), a city some 20,000 kilometres away by ship. Clearly, a closer alternative was required. The maritime route between Australia and India is leagues away from the unrestricted warfare zone declared by Germany covering parts of the Atlantic, the North Sea and the Mediterranean[6].

 

A Mint Fully Comparable With the Royal Mint

While the Calcutta Mint was technically not a branch of the Royal Mint,[7] at the time it’s machinery was revamped in the early 1820’s, it was “… of a size and complexity fully comparable with the Royal Mint in London, and the St Petersburg Mint in Russia.[8] Furthermore, the Royal Mint in London regularly supplied the Calcutta Mint with master dies and punches, while the silver coins of the Calcutta Mint were subject to the Royal Mint’s “Trial of the Pyx”[9] - the strict quality test to which all of the precious metal coins struck by the Royal Mint were subjected each year.

With each of these facts in mind, we can see that by delegating the production of Australia’s copper coins to the Calcutta Mint, the Royal Mint would be assured that the task would be performed to expected standards, and that the resulting output could be transported to Australia with minimal risk from German U-boats.

The Royal Mint supplied Calcutta with the master tools required to manufacture suitable dies - the new penny obverse master die was prepared on March 15th; 1916, while the new penny obverse master die was prepared on March 29th; 1916.[10] Records have not yet been published that indicate when the first of the coins struck from these dies arrived in Australia.

Once the first production run had been competently produced and safely delivered, the Calcutta Mint continued to strike copper coins for Australia throughout 1917 and 1918. The Melbourne Mint was declared ready to strike pence in 1919, by that time, the Calcutta Mint had struck 8.4 million Australian copper coins.

 

A Flatter Table, With Deeper Work

In a paper published in The Journal of the Numismatic Association of Australia (Volume 20, 2009), the numismatist Paul Holland discussed the numismatic importance of the penny dies prepared by the Calcutta Mint: “…the Indian obverse die has played an important role in Australian numismatics, especially since the remaining tools and dies from Calcutta were later sent to Melbourne in 1920 … the Indian obverse die eventually [emerged] as a key identifying feature for the 1930 penny.[11]Australia 1916-I Specimen Penny Obverse

Just why new Indian penny dies were prepared in 1916 was not clear for a good period of time. After all, the master dies prepared by the Royal Mint at London had been in use since 1911, without particular complaint.

Significant die changes are generally brought about in order to correct weaknesses in strike on either side of a coin, and although the Royal Mint made several changes to British penny dies featuring the portrait of King George V, those dies featured completely different designs to the Australian pennies, and were executed between 1923 and 1925[12].

Holland’s research had unearthed records that explained: “… obverse and reverse master dies associated with the mint in Calcutta were introduced to allow striking pennies using a flatter table.[13] The relevant note in the Royal Mint records that discussed the Calcutta Mint reverse die states: “A new matrix was made from punch (beads ground away) and a flatter table was made dated 1916 and work deepened - marked “1D.AUST - (I) FLATTER FORM 29–3–16”. Letter I for India placed above dots, position as H for Heatons, I from K.E. Penny Maundy.[14]

Holland’s research also determined that the obverse die now colloquially described by Australian coin collectors as the “Indian” obverse was “deliberately produced in order to match the flatter table of the Calcutta reverse”[15]. The relevant note in the Royal Mint records states: “A second matrix was made details size etc. exactly as the first - but table less round to suit the new reverse matrix - marked “AUST. PENNY. A.2 15–3–16”.[16]

Physical examination of a 1916 specimen penny struck by the Calcutta Mint shows clearly shows the benefit of these changes. The lettering across the reverse sits square and rises strongly from the fields, while the portrait on the obverse also juts starkly away from the fields.

While the relief on a Calcutta-struck penny may or may not be higher than those struck previously, the “less round” tables that Royal Mint staff referred to certainly do mean the design elements appear to stand out quite strongly.

 

Just Three Unique Examples Sighted At Auction

Our research indicates that just 3 unique examples of this historic coin have appeared at auction in Australia over the 2 decades between 1993 and 2013.

There can be no doubt that the values these coins have commanded at auction in previous years reflect their historical importance:

Lot #1327, Noble Numismatics Auction 90 (March 2009). Passed in at an estimate of: $60,000. At the time, this figure was equal to the value of a Type 12 pattern kookaburra penny.

Lot #1543, Noble Numismatics Auction 88a (July 2008). Passed in at an estimate of: $25,000. Ex Noble 70/1278 and Noble 87a/482. At the time, this figure was equal to the value of a 1935 proof florin.

Lot #482, Noble Numismatics Auction 87a (April 2008). Estimate: $25,000, Hammer: $40,000, Nett: $46,600. Ex Noble 70/1278.At the time, this figure was equal to the value of a 1948 Perth proof penny.

Lot #1278, Noble Numismatics Auction 70 (July 2002). Passed in at an estimate of: $10,000.

Lot #3170, Noble Numismatics Auction 61a (August 1999). Passed in at an estimate of: $7,000. At the time, this was higher than the value of a 1921 proof penny.

Australia 1916-I Specimen Penny Crown 

A Confusing Series - Access to Correct Information

Four of the last five 1916 specimen pennies struck by the Calcutta Mint have been passed in when offered at auction. This rather low clearance rate may indicate a lack of buyer confidence in the rarity and value of the coins being offered - a true shame when the rarity and historical importance of the 1916 specimen penny is considered.

The most likely explanation for uncertainty over the true background and rarity of an archival-quality coin struck by the Calcutta Mint is best expressed by Major Frank Pridmore, one of the most respected authors on the coinage of British India. He stated that the British Indian coinage of the late 20th century “…is a confusing series of the British Indian period. Proof or special specimen strikings of the several denominations are abundant, and it is difficult to distinguish official proofs from contemporary, or near contemporary, strikings of special collectors’ pieces and the mass of restrike rubbish that has appeared in recent years.[17] If one of the world’s foremost experts in the series describes it as “confusing”, we should be hardly surprised with some buyer uncertainty at auction.

This apparent confusion and can be cleared up with access to the correct information however.Australia 1916-I Specimen Penny Reverse Legend

 

Three Different Classes of Proof

Pridmore’s summation of these coins, published in his seminal work, “Coins of the British Commonwealth of Nations: Part 4, India : Volume 2” states that there are three distinct classes of proof coins struck by the Indian mints in the 20th century:

I. Those struck for government use;

2. Those struck for collectors and private individuals prior to 1947; and

3. Those struck after (Indian) independence in 1947.

Pridmore does not outline the technical characteristics of the coins struck for government purposes, and states that “Apart from the specimens which were struck from mixed dies, or in a metal other than of the currency issue, this [second] class is difficult to determine from those struck for official purposes. Many are contemporary with or struck soon after the originals, and when struck in their correct metal the fineness and composition was correct. The principal period of these ‘original’ proof specimens was from 1890 to 1905.[18]

Interestingly Pridmore states that “The earliest of [the third] restrike series appear to have been carried out for Australian collectors, who sought specimens of the Bombay-minted Australian bronze pence and halfpence.[19] (Emphasis mine). Regarding the series of British Indian coins that have been re-struck, Pridmore states: “Usually this third group can be easily identified. The minting quality is not as good as the original; the texture of the metal differs; mismatched dies and strikings from pitted and repolished dies are also a sure sign. Another feature is the lacquered finish, particularly of base metal coins.[20]

Pridmore’s description accurately captures the unique look that the 1942 and 1943 Australian copper coin restrikes have - lacquered surfaces, with clear evidence of having been struck from dies brushed to remove rust. It should be observed that these coins are starkly different in appearance to both the specimen and proof Australian copper coinage dated 1916.

Another respected numismatic author that has discussed the British Indian proof coin series is Jerome Remick. In the second edition of his book “The Guidebook & Catalogue of British Commonwealth Coins”, Remick stated “Sometime in 1963 or 1964 the Bombay mint struck a very limited number of restrikes in proof condition of the Australian penny and half penny with the “I” mint mark 1916, 1942, and 1943. These coins were struck from old dies which had rusted somewhat and so were polished. The coins show evidence of this in that they show fine scratches and small pits. The coins are very well made and are in much demand.[21]” Remick specifically states that “Uncirculated coins, to the best of my knowledge, have not been restruck.[22]

Both of these descriptions seem to clearly indicate that there is no possibility that the 1916 specimen penny from the Calcutta mint was re-struck at a later date. Private correspondence I have entered into with two other published experts in the field of British Indian numismatics have stated that, despite Remick’s published comments, in their opinion, only the Australian copper coins with the “I” mint mark dated 1942 and 1943 were restruck. One describes the technical difference between a contemporary proof and one restruck as follows: “The originals have a flat rim, often with a slight rise at the very edge, as at the edge of many ordinary machine struck coins of the late 19th and early 20th century. The restrikes have a rim that faces slightly downward towards the edge.”

When the technical characteristics of the 1916-I specimen penny are considered, all known facts indicate that they cannot have been restruck at the Bombay Mint between 1947 and 1970, and that they are official, archival-standard strikes, produced prior to the general production run at the Calcutta Mint in 1916.

Proofs of the 1916-I penny and halfpenny are also known - these have been sighted at auction both in Australia and overseas in the past 2 decades, albeit very rarely indeed. This then poses the question - why would Calcutta Mint staff strike two different types of archival-standard penny and halfpenny?

The extreme rarity of the proofs (one, and perhaps at most two pairs of the penny and halfpenny have been sighted in private hands) indicates that such coins fall into what Pridmore describes as being “those struck for government use”. The only archival-standard examples of the 1917 and 1918 Australian copper coins struck by the Calcutta Mint that have traded on the Australian numismatic market to date are specimens - proofs of these coins have not yet been sighted.

That specimen examples were struck in each of the three years that the Calcutta Mint produced copper coinage for Australia indicates that they served an official purpose, most likely for distribution to related public collections and their associated dignitaries. They serve as a link to an important era in Australia’s numismatic history - the gradual decentralisation of the production of our Commonwealth coinage. Without question, they are among the very first coins struck from dies that have played an important role in Australian numismatics.

 

Endnotes:


  1. Challis; C.E., “A New History of the Royal Mint”, Cambridge University Press, London, 1992, p 546.  ↩

  2. http://www.mylearning.org/joseph-w-giardellis-wwi-pocket-watch-case/p–4547/  ↩

  3. Killingray; David, “Repercussions of World War I in the Gold Coast” in the The Journal of African History, Vol. 19, Numer 1, p 35–59.  ↩

  4. Hindenburg; Paul Von, “Out of My Life”, Cassell, London, 1920, p 253.  ↩

  5. Sharples; John, “Penny Reverse Master Dies of George V” in the The Journal of the Numismatic Association of Australia, Volume 6, 1992, p 22.  ↩

  6. Reynolds; Francis J, “The Story of the Great War (Volume 5)”, John A Collier & Son, New York, 1919, p 1374.  ↩

  7. Challis; C.E., “A New History of the Royal Mint”, Cambridge University Press, London, 1992, p 544.  ↩

  8. Doty; Richard, “The Soho Mint and the Industrialisation of Money”, Spink, London, 1998, p 190.  ↩

  9. Pridmore; Frank, “Notes on Colonial Coins: Mr. A. P. Spencer, Artist/Engraver, His Majesty’s Mint, Calcutta and the re-designed Coinages of King George VI British India 1938–1947” in the Journal of the British Numismatic Society, Volume 37, 1968.  ↩

  10. Holland; Paul, “Master dies and tools from the Royal Mint for Australian pennies and halfpennies of George V” in the The Journal of the Numismatic Association of Australia, Volume 20, 2009, p 49.  ↩

  11. Holland; Paul, “Master dies and tools from the Royal Mint for Australian pennies and halfpennies of George V” in The Journal of the Numismatic Association of Australia, Volume 20, 2009, p 50.  ↩

  12. Lobel; Richard, “Standard Catalogue of English & UK Coins 1066 to Date”, Coincraft, London, 1998, p 585.  ↩

  13. Holland; Paul, “Master dies and tools from the Royal Mint for Australian pennies and halfpennies of George V” in the The Journal of the Numismatic Association of Australia, Volume 20, 2009, p 50.  ↩

  14. Holland; Paul, “Master dies and tools from the Royal Mint for Australian pennies and halfpennies of George V” in the The Journal of the Numismatic Association of Australia, Volume 20, 2009, p 50.  ↩

  15. Holland; Paul, “Master dies and tools from the Royal Mint for Australian pennies and halfpennies of George V” in the The Journal of the Numismatic Association of Australia, Volume 20, 2009, p 50.  ↩

  16. Holland; Paul, “Master dies and tools from the Royal Mint for Australian pennies and halfpennies of George V” in the The Journal of the Numismatic Association of Australia, Volume 20, 2009, p 50.  ↩

  17. Fred Pridmore (1980). The Coins of the British Commonwealth of Nations (to the end of the reign of George VI, 1952). Part 4: India, Volume 2. Spink and Son Ltd, London. Page 90  ↩

  18. Fred Pridmore (1980). The Coins of the British Commonwealth of Nations (to the end of the reign of George VI, 1952). Part 4: India, Volume 2. Spink and Son Ltd, London. Page 90  ↩

  19. Fred Pridmore (1980). The Coins of the British Commonwealth of Nations (to the end of the reign of George VI, 1952). Part 4: India, Volume 2. Spink and Son Ltd, London. Page 91  ↩

  20. Fred Pridmore (1980). The Coins of the British Commonwealth of Nations (to the end of the reign of George VI, 1952). Part 4: India, Volume 2. Spink and Son Ltd, London. Page 91  ↩

  21. Remick; Jerome, "Coinage of the Commonwealth of Nations”, Spink, London, 2nd edition, p 30.  ↩

  22. Remick; Jerome, "Coinage of the Commonwealth of Nations”, Spink, London, 2nd edition, p 263.  ↩

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