The “Rainbow Pound” is a truly historic Australian note - it’s history is intimately tied to our nation’s involvement in World War I.
This important note received its name due to the pattern of colours that are seen in the designs either side.
As has been the case in times of crisis since the dawn of time, the Australian public chose to hoard gold, silver and copper coins during World War I, and spent only the paper currency they received.
This was a significant reason why there was a strong for paper notes from 1914.
Newspapers dating to WWI feature numerous articles discussing the shortage of copper and silver coins, as well as paper currency, right across Australia.
Noted numismatic author Alan Nicholson also states that the Commonwealth Government increased the number of notes on issue to help fund state works. With both of these facts in mind, we can see how the genesis of the Rainbow Pound is fundamentally linked to Australia’s involvement in World War I.
These notes were designed and printed on incredibly short notice by the Government Stamp Printer, using relatively basic technology.
They were unfortunately heavily counterfeited right across the country straight away, which led the Commonwealth Treasury to actively withdraw them just months after they were introduced. Forgeries were apparently seen in each state. The very short print run began on October 3rd, 1914, and ended just eight months later on March 11th, 1915. It is believed that only 4,000,000 notes were printed, and that just 2,500,000 were actually issued.
The officer in charge of the Australian Note Printer advised the Commonwealth Treasury that “…the new notes were required immediately, and, as the engraving if a legitimate steel plate note would occupy months, recourse was had to the manufacture of other plates which could be made available in a few days. You are well aware that this emergency issue will be recalled as soon as possible, and that it is not claimed as possessing high qualities of security.”
On April 17th, 1915, the Commonwealth Treasurer sent a circular to the banks asking them to withdraw the Rainbow Pounds as quietly as possible.
The discovery of a Rainbow Pound in the estate of a Perth family in 2013 was a revelation for several reasons - not only is it among the finest known of this type, it has a unique social history directly linking it to Australia’s participation in World War I.
The evocative hand-written notation on the back of the Rainbow Pound states that a soldier received it “From the Commonwealth Military Authorities on Friday the 9th April 1915 at Blackboy as pay as a private in No. 13 Depot Co. For service in parts beyond the Seas.”
Family history has it that the soldier promptly posted the note to his mother in Fremantle, and that she retained as a keepsake of her son’s service in the armed forces. The note was placed into a custom-made frame, and was not removed until mid-way through 2013. It is a marvel that the note remained within the family for two years shy of a century, in the very same picture frame and still in impeccable condition.
It remains a remarkable link to the currency in use in Australia during the darkest days of World War I.