The Small Head Obverse of King George V on Australia's Soveriegns

To the Australian sovereign collector, the adoption of the Small Head portrait of King George V doesn’t appear to have been urgently required - it does not correspond with any major anniversary of George V’s reign.

I have not been able to locate any significant discussion of this obverse type anywhere to date, and have compiled the following information from the resources available to me. Be advised that it is a work in progress, and will be amended and added to as more information comes to hand.

Although many sovereigns with the Large Head portrait of King George V do not have fine details of the reverse design fully struck up, that is more to do with dies wearing through mass production than any significant inherent design fault.

This is another indication that the change of portrait resulted from broader considerations.

No Evidence of Production Challenges in the Royal Mint Annual Reports

If production staff at the Australian branches of the Royal Mint were experiencing significant challenges when striking sovereigns, we would expect to see those problems mentioned in the Annual Reports between 1911 and 1928.

A review of those Annual Reports does not yield any such commentary however. The only significant challenge in the production of sovereigns during this period is mentioned in the Annual Report of the Sydney branch in 1925, where Deputy Master John Campbell stated that “Every trouble incidental to an obsolete and worn-out plant seemed to be encountered.”

In 1925, the Sydney Mint received 10 times the amount of gold that it had in 1924, which meant that production of sovereigns needed to increase similarly to keep pace with the increased supply of raw metal. Campbell’s primary complaint at that time was that “the sudden demand for sovereigns came at a time when the establishment was much below its normal strength, and it was necessary to recruit from outside sources. The machinery (especially the rolling mills) also caused trouble, and it was some time before the coining staff got fully into their stride. In the course of training the new staff (mostly boys), the machinery suffered.”

No responsibility for those problems was attributed to MacKellan’s obverse design however: “The percentage of sovereign from bars broken down was a mere 58%, a poor result attributed to the fact that the staff manning rollers and cutters were new.”

The Annual Reports for the Australian branch mints do periodically mention the average number of coins that a pair of sovereign dies would strike before being retired - unusually low numbers indicate issues with production, while higher numbers reflect efficient production.

The following table lists the average number of coins that a pair of sovereign dies struck each year, where such figures were mentioned in the Annual Reports by the Deputy Master:

Average Number of Sovereigns Struck Per Pair of Dies:



Av Per Die Pair


























As can be seen from this relatively random sample of data, the average die life for sovereigns struck with the Large Head portrait of King George V appear to be statistically no lower than those struck with the Young Head of Queen Victoria, nor are they lower than those struck with the Small Head of King George V that replaced it.

If anything, on the basis of this admittedly small and random sample, they appear higher.

In the absence of an alternative explanation then, the available evidence seems to indicate that that the Small Head portrait was introduced to Australia’s sovereigns only for the sake of uniformity, and only after the “Modified Effigy” had been comprehensively applied to the token coinage of Great Britain.

MacKennal’s Portrait Resulted in Ghosting - Particularly on British Pennies

The Royal Mint in London had been experiencing many significant problems in effectively striking copper and silver coins with Bertram MacKennal’s portrait of King George V from the date it was introduced in 1911.

Numismatic texts show those problems were not fully resolved until 16 years after the King’s accession had passed. Although it was widely regarded as handsome, MacKennal’s portrait of the King was quite deep relative to the reverse designs it was paired with.

This was particularly evident on those denominations that had large areas of open fields, or did not have a high rim that shielded the design from wear.

As the penny had both open fields and a low reverse rim, problems such as a weak reverse strike and “ghosted” reverses were most evident on them. “Ghosting” is the numismatic term used to describe a recessed section of a coin that matches the outline of the design on the opposing side. The “ghosted” design appears beneath the struck design - the outline is only weakly evident, hence the term “ghosting”.

The Royal Mint’s approach to resolving the issues with weak reverse strikes was staggered in four stages across each of the range of copper and silver denominations.

The following table recounts those stages, as delineated by Spink’s “Coins of England”:


Start Date

End Date

1st Portrait



2nd Portrait



3rd Portrait



4th Portrait (Modified Effigy)



Although the Royal Mint was concentrating significant resources on upgrading the designs for the copper and silver coinage, MacKennal’s original portrait of King George V remained untouched until 1928.

We can find some logic behind that prioritisation in the greatly reduced role that gold coins played in daily commerce during the First World War. Once war had been declared, one of the British government’s first priorities was to withdraw circulating gold from the economy so that it could be used to fund the national war effort.

To ensure that people still had cash in their tills and pockets, the government introduced ten shilling and one pound Treasury notes, colloquially known as “Bradbury’s”.[1]

Paper currency continued to circulate without issue after WWI ended, the Bank of England resumed issuing ten shilling and one pound notes from 1928.

The 4th Portrait / Modified Effigy / Small Head Obverse

The portrait known by Australian sovereign collectors as the Small Head of King George V has several different titles in Great Britain - it is described by Spink as the 4th Portrait, and is regularly described elsewhere as the “Modified Effigy” (ME).

It was not until this modified effigy of King George V had been introduced in 1927 that the Royal Mint was satisfied the issues of weakly-struck reverse designs and ghosting had been comprehensively addressed.

Points of Difference Between the Large Head and Small Head

When we compare the obverse of a 1928 sovereign with the obverse of a 1929 sovereign, we can observe the following minor but significant differences:

• The beads around the obverse rim are square;

• The square rim beads are larger than the denticles used previously - they leave less room for the legend and the portrait. The legend and the portrait are tighter around the centre of the coin on the Small Head;

• The portrait is smaller; has been completely re-engraved; and has a lower relief;

• The King’s ear, face and truncation are all markedly different;

• The designer’s initials have had the stops removed, and have been relocated closer to the centre of the truncation;

• Less fine detail is evident in the hairline.

A lower relief on the obverse of the Small Head sovereign allowed for a lower relief on the reverse also. The reverse of the Small Head sovereigns struck for circulation are clearly more rounded and less sharp than those struck between 1911 and 1928.

More research is required to determine if those changes resulted in increased efficiency in production.

The 1929 Melbourne Proof Sovereign

The striking of the 1929 Melbourne proof sovereign would have been a major occasion for the staff at the Melbourne Mint - a gold coin had not been struck by the Melbourne Mint to an archival standard since 1911, some 18 years earlier.

The Small Head or Modified Effigy of King George V was also the first design change to any Australian coin since the 1927 Parliament House florin was struck two years earlier.

Melbourne Mint staff had developed some modest experience in striking silver coins to proof quality, now was their chance to strike gold to the same stunning standard.

For those collectors interested in knowing exactly how rare certain coins are, unfortunately no records were kept recording the dates on which proof or specimen sovereigns were struck by the Melbourne Mint, much less how many were struck of each date.

In the absence of written Mint records to this effect, the incredibly low number of 1929-M proofs seen at auction over the past 5 decades is clear evidence that very few proofs were struck with that date. Auction records indicate that 2 and certainly no more than 3, of these historic coins are in private hands.

In his history of the Melbourne Mint, former employee and devoted numismatist Bill Mullett stated that “Specimen coins were produced by the Mint during the era of gold coinage. The dies used were those for the coinage for circulation. The numbers of specimens and proofs was extremely small.[2]

Regarding the number of proof sovereigns thought to have been struck each year, Mullett states that “…the number of “proof” coins of a year was possibly no more than four and often less. It was stated on the sale of one such coin “having personally obtained it from the Melbourne Mint (believed only 3 or 4 were struck off for special collectors).[3]

Indications are that the Melbourne Mint proofs dated between 1888 and 1893 are slightly more readily available than those struck before or after that era. Mullett states that “It was recorded that in 1893 the Mint struck specimen half sovereigns for the years 1888 to 1893. There would appear to have been as many as 10 of each year, of which 3 or 4 could have been for special collectors, and the rest for official collections. The official figures give no production of half sovereigns in the years 1888 to 1892. It would be fair to say that these particular coins … were not sold but exchanged for coins from circulation. Under this arrangement the Mint’s stock of gold was unaltered, so no issue would be recorded.[4]

Indications are that of the very few gold specimens and proofs struck by the Melbourne Mint, one or more from each year were swapped or traded with collectors or other institutions for coins that were added to the Mint’s own archival collection.

Mullett goes on to state: “The Melbourne Mint had eventually built up a most important coin collection which included quite a number of rare coins. Its sources were from specimens it had received from other Mints, from specimens of its own production and from purchases from coin dealers. Its funds seemed to have been derived from the sale of old newspapers and old casks. In some cases where there were a number of specimens, it was also possible to use the spares for the purchase of other coins. The enthusiastic period of collecting began about the 1890’s.[5]

No official Melbourne Mint records yet have been identified that specifically refer to the 1929-M proof sovereign. One comment by the Deputy Master in his Annual Report for 1929 states that “This year saw the introduction of a new obverse design for the sovereign ‘which produces a drastic artistic effect’. The opportunity was taken to make the beading on the obverse of the same pattern as the square beading of the Pistrucci design on the reverse.[6]

In an introduction to a retrospective of MacKennal’s work in 2007, a curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales stated that “MacKennal’s status as an Australian cultural hero is undeniable.[7]

Incredible rarity, history and “drastic artistic effect” by an Australian cultural hero - the appeal that the 1929 Melbourne sovereign has is undeniable.

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  1. Mullett; Bill, “Melbourne Mint - The Establishment”, Self-Published, Canberra, 1996, p 19.  ↩

  1. Mullett; Bill, “Melbourne Mint - The Establishment”, Self-Published, Canberra, 1996, p 21.  ↩

  1. Mullett; Bill, “Melbourne Mint - The Establishment”, Self-Published, Canberra, 1996, p 21.  ↩

  1. Mullett; Bill, “Melbourne Mint - The Establishment”, Self-Published, Canberra, 1996, p 32.  ↩

  1. Royal Mint Annual Report; London; 1929 

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