Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

Victorian business tokens

In the late 1840s, when the rapidly growing city of Melbourne was still a part of the colony of New South Wales, the economy and trade of the region was affected by a small change crisis.

British coinage was in use and there was an inadequate supply coming from England to meet the demands of the growing population and economy.

Entrepreneurial businesses began issuing trade tokens. These convenient copper (and sometimes brass) tokens, usually the size of a penny, advertised the businesses which produced them and often, like the real penny, sported the figure of Britannia or symbols of Australia on the reverse. These were not forgeries, but a proud advertisement of the business and a practical means of addressing the coinage crisis.

The first tokens were imported from Birmingham in 1849 by Annand, Smith & Co., Family Grocers. By 1854 a coining press and supply of blank pennies had been imported to Melbourne, which enabled other businesses to create tokens. Between 1849 and 1863, 62 Victorian businesses had issued tokens.

Business tokens were a practical solution; they were accepted by businesses and clients alike and were circulated as 'money' — though the newspapers of the day certainly reported the growing anxieties of many who did not want to be short-changed should the tokens be refused or declared valueless by the government. Tokens were declared illegal in Victoria and taken out of circulation by the late 1860s.

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