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The Proclamation Cartwheel Coppers

Obverse and reverse of the 1797 'Cartwheel' Penny, one of the most critical Proclamation coins.

Throughout the long, record-breaking reign of King George III (1760-1820), Britain suffered a shortage of lower denomination coins. Domiciled in London, the Royal Mint was unwilling to mint new copper coins, largely due to its old, inadequate machinery. As a result of the lack of small change, counterfeiting became a major problem during the 18th Century. Indeed, there were more forged halfpenny coins circulating at this time than genuine ones! Local traders became frustrated with this situation, and some eventually took matters into their own hands by having their own Halfpenny and Penny tokens struck.

Many of those tokens were struck by one of the kingpins of late 18th century British manufacturing, Matthew Boulton. Working in league with one of the key players in the development of the steam engine, James Watt, Boulton ran the Soho Mint near Birmingham. Appalled by the standard of official British coinage, and the counterfeiting prevalent at the time, as well as sensing a commercial opportunity, Boulton successfully applied to the British Government for the contract to produce official coinage.

Having won favour with the powers that be, Boulton set about striking penny and twopenny copper coins. These coins were the thickest and heaviest ever minted in Britain, with, for example, the twopenny coin he produced weighing over 55 grams. The coins became known as ‘Cartwheels’, due to both the size, and also the distinctive broad rims of the pennies and twopences that Boulton produced.

The coins were struck by steam-driven presses – a major innovation. Not only could these presses produce between 70 and 84 coins per minute, but the quality of the coins was much greater than those previously produced by the Royal Mint. The increase in quality and consistency of the coins – united with distinctive design features – meant that Boulton struck a significant blow against those who were manufacturing counterfeit copper coins. The impact of Boulton’s copper coinage was huge in Britain, but the impact on Britain’s new colonial possession, New South Wales, was even more dramatic.

The colony of New South Wales – one day destined to be the nation called Australia – was beset with financial difficulties after European Settlement in 1788. One of the key problems at that time was a lack of hard currency. Trade in the colony was facilitated through a random mix of international coins, barter, worthless promissory notes and rum. Such an inconsistent system is obviously anathema to a stable economy, but Britain was not in a position to supply currency due to its own difficulties at the time. The key moment in the resurrection of the colonial economy was the arrival of Boulton’s 1797 Cartwheel Penny. 18,000 Cartwheel pennies, in fact!

The first coin officially exported to the colony of New South Wales, and therefore rightly considered Australia’s first official coin, the arrival of the 1797 Cartwheel Penny brought the mind of then governor, Philip Gidley King, to bear on the issue of circulating currency. His answer was to become known as the Currency Proclamation of 1800.

Hammered to the wall of the government stores in Sydney and Parramatta, the proclamation affixed values to all of the wild mix of international coins then circulating in New South Wales, including the Cartwheel Penny. One of the fundamental building blocks of the study of numismatics in this country, the Currency Proclamation of 1800 is now recognised as Australia’s first official currency system.

As the trigger of Australia’s first currency system, there can be little doubt that the 1797 Cartwheel Penny is one of the most critical elements of Australian history, and commands a place in every Australian coin collection.

Contact Downies Coins Melbourne Numismatist Steve Kirby to enquire about purchasing this historic coin or for any further information on (03) 9686 8422 or email skirby@downies.com

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